John Gayford considers the beautiful symbolism of this feast
Candlemas is the popular name for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, which had several names, until 1969 called The Purification of Mary. It celebrates forty days after the Western Church acclaims the Nativity of the Lord and brings to an end the Christmas season. In the Eastern Orthodox Church it is sometimes called Hypapante (Greek for meeting) referring to the meeting with Simeon and Anna in the Temple. It has even been called St Simeon’s Day. The Western Church celebrates this feast on 2 February; but in the East on 14 February as they remember the Nativity on 6 January.
The biblical background to this feast is Luke 2.22–38. Mary and Joseph as a devout Jewish couple came to the Temple to fulfil the letter of the Jewish Law, both the Purification of Mary after childbirth (Lev. 12.6–8) and the presentation of a first-born son in the Temple (Exod. 13.2) designating Jesus as holy, whose redemption price is set at five shekels in silver (Num. 18.15–16). The Temple is presented as the centre of Jewish cultic worship where the ritual commandment must be fulfilled. Simeon and Anna appear as upright Jews guided by the Holy Spirit. The words of Simeon are central to the liturgical text for this feast and give us the Nunc Dimittis, Luke’s third canticle.
All that we know about Simeon in scripture comes from Luke 2.25. Later traditions desired more. The Protevangelium of James appeared in the second century. We remember this was not accepted as sacred or biblical text and did not receive the same scrutiny and protection, but made available interesting material. At the end of this book we read King Herod was in a rage at being deceived by the Magi. We know that he gave orders to kill children under the age of two. According to the Protevangelium of James (23.3) Elizabeth had taken her son John to the hill-country and Herod’s men could not find him. So they were sent to John’s father (Zacharias) a Levitical Priest (and it seems by now a high priest). He would not give them the information they wanted, and was killed. We read in 23.4 that after three days the priests decided on his replacement and the lot fell on Simeon, implying he was a Levitical priest before election as high priest.
Anna the Prophetess is described in Luke (2.36–38) as the only person called a prophetess in the New Testament; forming a bridge between Old and New Testament. We know little but with St Luke’s help we can make some deductions. Her advanced age give her authority which comes with age and wisdom. In terms of symbolism she was married seven years which in Biblical terms is the perfect length. The various translations of the above passage leaves scope for speculation on her age. We can speculate that she was from a group of Jewish widows with specific functions in the Temple, but she, unlike Simeon, goes forth and proclaims the good news about the Messiah. Was she an anawim (poor and humble) whom St Luke championed? Anna would certainly qualify to be included and could be called a temple anawim. Luke could well be accused of ‘biblical hyperbole’ by saying she worshipped in the temple night and day with prayer and fasting. Nevertheless she has become a model of faith for widows who spend much time praying and attending the liturgy.
There are claims that Candlemas is the Christianization of the pagan Lupercalia, an ancient Roman Festival observed between 13 and 15 of February to avert evil spirits, purifying the city and promoting health and fertility. This was celebrated with pre-dawn torch-light processions. Perhaps the pagan festival could not be banished so it was decided to carry candles in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary instead, as a sign of Christ bringing a pure light into the world through the incarnation. The holding of the lighted candle evolved to receiving protection from dark forces.
The first description we have of Candlemas comes from the Pilgrimage to sacred places of Egeria (peregrinatio ad loca sancta). Egeria, a nun from Galicia in north-western Spain, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime between 381 and 384 and sent a series of letters home relating to her experiences. Originally this feast was called Quadragesima de Epiphania (Epiphany, the fortieth day after Christmas). Her experience in Jerusalem gives us the first description of Candlemas with processions at dawn and the preaching of homilies on the Gospel theme. Through history there have been many homilies going back to the fourth century but most are lost. It seems as if the Procession of Candles was added about 460. In the sixth century the feast made its way into Syria and then Constantinople, and eventually it seems Rome accepted the feast in the second half of the seventh century.
At the end of the seventh century Pope Sergius I introduced the custom of having processions before Mass which started in the Forum and ended at St Mary Major. These were held on 2 February, 25 March, 15 August and 8 September (all Marian feasts) but on 2 February the Procession was to start before dawn with everybody carrying lighted candles. Yet the ceremony was penitential with the clergy wearing black vestments. In Constantinople the Emperor walked bare foot. It was even suggested that the Pope proceeded bare foot in the procession. The question is why was it penitential? Two reasons have been suggested. Was it because the procession was being used as a supplication to prevent disaster or was it as penance for former pagan ritual?
The liturgy of Candlemas was in Latin and so unfamiliar sections like the blessing of the candles (officially introduced about the tenth century) needed some explanation. The preacher had a chance to expand on the text in an imaginative way. This could start with his translation. Some of the explanations made in the Golden Legend could be expanded with more analogies added. St Anselm (1034–1109) preached on this when Archbishop of Canterbury, and was starting to give the wax, wick and flame of the candle symbolic meaning. Apotropaic (able to avert evil) powers were attributed to the blessed candles and encouraged in some of the later sermons.
Documentation of the blessing of candles can be seen in the tenth century in the Germanic world but not until the twelfth century in Rome. Evidence of Candlemas as celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England comes from Bede’s De temporum ratione which was written in 725. Later, processions were made between two different churches; but returned in the late Middle Ages to the procession becoming confined to the inside of the church.
We can only imagine the spectacle of Candlemas as celebrated at the great Benedictine Abbey of Cluny around the year 1000. Candles were blessed at the Altar of the Virgin after Terce at 9.00 am and a procession was formed to go up to the choir stalls (two floors up). The monks carried candles to imitate Mary carrying Christ as the new light into the world, in anticipation of their future entrance into the Heavenly Jerusalem. They processed with candles and clouds of incense and their chant echoed as they crossed the vast atrium on their way to their choir stalls, then to sing the Solemn Mass of the day.
Apotropaic powers were attributed to the Candles after they were blessed, as one of the prayers of blessing says ‘wherever it shall be lit or set up the devil may flee away in fear and trembling with all his ministers, and never again disquiet your servants’. You can imagine the power this gave to blessed candles in the minds of the people of that time. Candles were taken away and used in various ways: burning them in thunderstorms and in times of sickness, given to babies at their baptism and placed in the hands of the dying. In this way the candles were seen as sacramental objects that could protect against evil forces, thus giving lay people the power of an Exorcist.
Candlemas was enacted by the Candlemas Guilds in the Corpus Christi plays between 1450 and 1500. In this Simeon receives the child Jesus with a simple speech. While he holds the child in his arms, a choir sings the Nunc Dimittis, almost certainly to the Candlemas processional music. Joseph distributes candles to Mary, Simeon, and Anna, and takes one himself. They form a ‘worshipful procession’ thus they go together to the altar, where Mary lays the child, and Joseph offers the temple priest ﬁve pence. At the end of the procession Simeon preaches a little sermon, comparing the candle, wax, wick, and ﬂame, to Christ’s body, soul, and divinity. Anna then urges the maidens to follow her in a dance.
There are attempts even in modern liturgies to make Candlemas a Christian festival of light. While most take down Christmas decorations and put the crib away on twelfth night, others like to give a little longer until Candlemas Day, which is the absolute end of the Christmas season.
The snowdrop (Galanthus meaning ‘milk flower’) is also known as the Candlemas bell presumably because it appears at the beginning of February. It is seen as the symbol of hope. It was also considered unlucky to pick snowdrops and bring them into the house before Candlemas day.
The early church had difficulty deciding if it needed to follow Jewish practises based on Lev. 12.6. Rituals in both Eastern and Western church followed from the tenth century but with very different formats. In the West the ritual consisted of the mother being met at the church door by the priest and a server who would give her a lighted candle and the priest would say ‘come into the temple of God. Adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary and give thanks for giving you fruitfulness in child bearing’. After sprinkling her with Holy Water, a psalm and a prayer were said as she is led to the altar rail. The suggestion was that Mass was then said in which she received the sacrament and so was back in the fold of the Church. There was a tradition that she had to bring a gift with her, often the baptismal robes of the child.
In modern liturgy both Anglican and Roman rites have replaced this ritual with a prayer of thanksgiving for safe and successful child birth to be included in the baptismal liturgy, where also the candle is given to the parents for the child. Again the liturgical change is from a rite of purification to a rite of presentation. In the Eastern Church there are various forms of this liturgy for thanksgiving after the birth of a child but it is said that the child is ‘churched’. Ideally this is when they are 40 days old. The ritual may include the priest receiving the child and carrying him or her around the altar.
Dissension and prohibition of ceremonies related to Candlemas had started by 1548. By 1631 the lighting of candles on 2 February had been outlawed by Royal Proclamation with imprisonment for those who offended, it being seen as a popish superstition. Sermons were preached on condemnation of Candlemas ceremonies. Nevertheless there was no way the private lighting of candles could be prohibited in the gloom of February. Yet Candlemas banquets and university Candlemas balls were allowed. Children took candles to school so that they could see clearly to read on that day. People travelled and saw Candlemas being celebrated in Catholic countries and wrote glowing accounts of what they saw. Candlemas rhymes continued to circulate and so did predictions of weather and harvest according to the conditions of the day. Notably there was no prohibition of collecting rents and dues.
In 1969 the feast changed from a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a feast of Our Lord, still divided as: 1. The blessing of candles, and procession. 2. The Mass specific to the feast.
It would seem that the text of the prayers of blessing was variable but eventually emerged as five collects which were sung for the blessing of the candles until 1969.
Although hymns are usual for the Procession there are still traditional Latin Gregorian options. The most common is the singing of the Nunc Dimittis with the refrain Lumen ad revelationem gentium: et glorium plebis tuae Israel (A Light for revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel) sung between verses. There is more elaborate Gregorian chant that few will have heard sung live liturgically, but with persistence Google will come to your aid. The Promise of his Glory in 1991 has opened other options of liturgical celebration.
Pictorial representations of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, some by famous artists, are preserved in art galleries throughout the world. Mosaics, illuminations, paintings, icons, sculptures and stained glass windows can also be found. A popular devotional work developed, Meditatione Vitae Christi, and embroidered the story of the Presentation of Christ in the temple.
Despite controversy and dissent surrounding this feast, we should allow devotional imagination to prompt our meeting with Christ in the temple on this day.
Father John Gayford is a retired priest.
Suggested further Reading
– CLAYTON, M. The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge 1990
– McGOWAN, A. and BRADSHAW, P.F. The Pilgrimage of Egeria. Liturgical Press Academic Collegeville Minnesota. 2018.
– MacGREGOR, A. Candlemas: A Festival of Roman Origin. In The origin of the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Edited by Maunder. C. Burns & Oates and Continuum London. 2008.