Candlemas or The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Luke 2.22-38 Sunday 31 January 2021
Candlemas is a joyous festival that traditionally marks the end of the Christmas season is celebrated on the 2nd of February, being the 40th day and final day of the Christmas cycle. We are celebrating it on the nearest Sunday. There is a great interweaving of Candlemas stories and festivities and it’s one of the oldest liturgical celebrations. As a festival of lights it is a welcome relief in the darkest and often the hardest time of the year and it points towards spring.
It was celebrated in the 4th century and an intrepid nun named Egeria made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (probably from the Atlantic coast of Spain) in the 380s and attended the ceremony in Jerusalem. Candlemas sermons from famous church fathers survive including St John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa. A hymn sung in the evening at the lighting of the lamps which is associated with Candlemas goes back to the turn of the 3rd-4th century; ‘Phos Hilaron’ or ‘Hail gladdening light’. Listen to it on Spotify.
As we read the story in Luke the connection we can make is with the baptism of infants when parents and Godparents make promises on the children’s behalf and they are received into the church. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to commit their first born to a holy life as the law requires and they are all blessed. But the story is many-layered. Jesus is recognised as the Messiah first by Simeon, a devout man led by the Holy Spirit who believes that he will live to see the Messiah and by Anna, a prophetess. Simeon says he will be:
‘A light to lighten the nations’ and, with Christ’s own words, ‘I am the light of the world’ this makes the link with Candlemas. The candles symbolise the light of Christ and are a visual representation of our prayers.
The story is also important in the life of Mary and, after recognising Jesus as the Messiah and saying that he will face opposition, Simeon has words for Mary:
‘And a sword will pierce your heart also’;
a sign of her sufferings to come. I think that is why Luke links the ceremony of the Presentation in the Temple with the rite of Purification which was held 40 days after a birth. In medieval times it had one of the most elaborate processions. Every parishioner had to join in, carrying a candle and giving a gift of a penny. The candles in the procession were given to the church and were probably placed on the altar of the Virgin. But people also brought their own candles to be blessed and took them home to light during thunderstorms and in times of sickness and to be placed in the hands of the dying (Duffy, E. The Stripping of the Altars. 1992).
The celebration of Candlemas declined in England at the Reformation but it survived in some traditions and is still a major feast in many countries in Europe and South America. In Peru the festival the Virgin of the Candelaria is two weeks long and the third most important in the continent.
By Rev. Pauline Nashashibi