Candlemas (or the Purification or the Presentation)
Christmas is not over yet! Candlemas—which falls on February 2nd—marks the end of the Christmas season. Fr Simon Cuff reminds us why it is an important feast to keep.
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Luke 2.34b-35
“Merry Christmas!” If you haven’t been using the last 39 days to say “Merry Christmas” to friends, family and the world outside every day, you’ve been missing a trick. Whilst the world outside celebrates Christmas from early Autumn until Boxing Day, the Church celebrates the Christmas season from Midnight Mass to Candlemas.
Candlemas—the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin—on February 2nd marks the end of the 40 days of Christmas. Candlemas is the day to take down your decorations and pack away the nativity scene. It’s a day to remember that what we celebrate, or celebrated, at Christmas is something that changes the way in which we live the entire Christian year. It reminds us that the truth of the Incarnation is the foundation of the entire Christian life and all that we do as God’s Church.
The different ways this day can be named reflect different emphases of the Feast. The Presentation of our Lord and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin both direct us to the account of the event which this feast commemorates liturgically:
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’ [Luke 2.22-24]
Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple in fulfilment of the Law of Moses. Jesus as first born is presented to the Lord, and Mary’s ritual cleanliness is restored. In the East, tradition marks this day as a feast of the Lord and focusses on his Presentation. In the West, tradition marks this day as a feast of our Lady and focusses on her Purification.
Thus, this feast reminds us that these early days of our Lord’s incarnate life cannot be separated from that of his Mother. Like any newborn, Jesus’s life is intimately and intricately linked with the life of the one who bought him in to the world. Mary, as Mother of God, is intimately bound up with God’s life as one of us.
In this episode, we are reminded that God, by becoming one of us, renders himself vulnerable for our sakes. He is as dependent on his parents as any newborn child. St Luke’s account of the presentation of the Lord and the purification of the Virgin also remind us of the kind of people on whom God made himself dependent during his incarnate life.
The book of Leviticus allows the offering of “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons” for those unable to afford a lamb (Lev 12.6-8). We are reminded that God is born into poverty—not just the poverty of humanity, but the material poverty of the holy family. St Luke reminds of their poverty, but in doing so, he reminds us too of their piety. Holiness is not the reserve of the rich. Mary and Joseph are depicted as faithfully seeking to do God’s will.
Mary and Joseph are not the only characters in St Luke’s account who are depicted as faithfully seeking God’s will. Simeon and Anna, are also presented as faithful servants of the Lord. After arriving in the Temple, they become the focus of the St Luke’s attention.
The name “Candlemas”, and the tradition from which this feast becomes known by that name, stems from focussing on the testimony of Simeon.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” [Luke 2.25-32]
“Candlemas” reflects Simeon’s testimony that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”. We mark this liturgically by lighting and blessing candles for use in the Church’s year. We remind ourselves that Christ, the light by which we govern our lives, became one of us at Christmas. This birth is the foundation of our salvation—God’s calling us to himself in Christ, God’s uniting us and the whole of humanity to himself in Christ.
In the midst of the darkness of winter in February, and the darkness of our lives, we are reminded of Christ’s light. This is reflected in the prayer given after the candles are lit:
Lord God, the springing source of everlasting light, pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendour, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled, and so be counted worthy to stand before you in that eternal city where you live and reign, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
We often have a vision of a biblical episode in our mind’s eye, that is very far from we actually find on the pages of Scripture. This is especially true of the biblical account of the first Christmas. We have a mental image of three wise men, only to find no such number given on the pages of Scripture. So too with Simeon’s testimony.
When I recall the events of Luke’s Gospel, in my mind’s eye, Simeon is in the Temple waiting for the Messiah. In fact, he is in Jerusalem. He is in the midst of his daily life, when the Spirit guides him to the Temple, so that he might encounter the Messiah.
Anna, meanwhile, whose story is often omitted in celebrations of Candlemas for reasons of brevity , is in the Temple when the holy family arrives. She is the one who never leaves the temple, because she worships there day and night:
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. [Luke 2.36-38]
She encounters the Christ-child, and spreads the message that he is the one to bring about the redemption of Jerusalem.
Simeon encounters God in Christ, called out of the midst of his daily life. Anna encounters God in Christ, vulnerable as widow, devout in constant prayer, overlooked as much in her day as she often is in ours. Their witness reminds us that the feast of Candlemas is an invitation to encounter the God whose birth as one of us we celebrated at Christmas.
Like Simeon, we are invited to encounter him in the midst of the business of our daily lives. We are challenged to ask with Simeon where is God calling us to encounter him afresh? Where is the Spirit leading us?
Like Anna, we are invited to encounter him in the midst of our vulnerability, in the pain of our suffering and loneliness, in a world which leaves us overlooked. Where do we depend solely on God? How do we respond to his call in the midst of the darkness of our lives?
In Christ, we encounter the light to which both Simeon and Anna point. Their example challenges us to do like them. To respond to God in Christ faithfully, to share news of the light of Christ with others, and to be witnesses to that light in the Church and in the world. To celebrate each and every day what we celebrate at Christmas: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” [John 1.3b-5].
That celebration isn’t just for Christmas, but for the whole of the Christian year, and the whole of our Christian lives. So, for one last time this year, on this feast of Candlemas: “Merry Christmas!”.
Editor’s note: And, one suspects, sexism.