Today is Candlemas, a nearly-forgotten feast day in the Catholic calendar, but one worth recovering.
Officially called “Presentation of the Lord”, today’s feast commemorates the events found in Luke 2:22-38. In this oft-overlooked passage from Jesus’ infancy, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem in order to fulfill two mandates of Torah, the Law of Moses: to present Mary’s firstborn son to the Lord (thus the title of the feast), and also to make an offering of two turtledoves for Mary’s purification 40 days after bearing a son. This was a routine act of worship in that time and place.
While at the Temple fulfilling their obligations, a very old man named Simeon approaches them “in the Spirit” and delivers a prophecy about the child Jesus. The Lord had promised Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah; as his advanced age makes apparent, he had been waiting a very long time. When he sees the Christ-child, he takes him into his arms and blesses the Lord, saying:
Now, Master, you may let your servant go [that is, die] in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples, a. light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.
After Simeon finishes his prophecy, out of the masonry comes a prophetess named Anna, who the Bible tells us is 84 years old (almost unheard of in those days), who also gives thanks to God for the child and speaks about him to everyone who is awaiting Israel’s redemption.
We have evidence for a feast in honor of this event going back to the fourth century in Jerusalem. It makes sense that the festival would have started here, since proximity to the Temple Mount would make it easy to remember and celebrate properly. The date for the festival makes good sense, too: in accordance with Torah, the Holy Family enters the temple 40 days after Jesus’ birth, and February 2nd is exactly 40 days after Christmas.
From Jerusalem, the feast eventually spread throughout the West, and by the Middle Ages it had become quite popular. The name “Candlemas” comes from the medieval tradition of bringing your candles to Mass on this day to have them blessed by a priest. It’s still a popular holiday in Latin America, Spain, France, Belgium, and a few other Catholic-majority countries.
It’s possible that Candlemas, much like other Christian holy days, incorporated traditions from pagan antecedents. The ancient Celtic holiday of Imbolc was (and is) also celebrated on February 2nd, which is about the halfway mark between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolc is a celebration of the returning strength of the sun. And it’s true: the days have begun to lengthen noticeably since Christmas and the winter solstice, and while spring hasn’t arrived here in the Pacific Northwest just yet, it’s certainly coming into view. On a bright and soft February day, I might even start to feel a sense of hope.
Here, I think, we might note together some overlapping themes between the time of year and the biblical story underlying Candlemas. Simeon and Anna, both advanced in age, are like the winter, a symbol of death, which is itself dying away to the oncoming spring. Similarly, with the entrance of the Christ-child into the temple, the Sun of Justice begins to shine a little brighter. The promise of spring, of newness of life, is being kept; the Messiah, though still hidden in infancy, has indeed come to Israel.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, January and February are the most difficult months of the year to get through. The festivity of Christmas and New Year’s has long faded from memory, and it feels like we’re facing down two or three more months of cold, wet, and dark. Yet by February 2nd, it’s true, you can feel the sun regaining its vigor. I wonder if Candlemas might be re-adopted here as a way of remembering that the long dark days are nearly done, that just as the sun is sure to return, so God is sure to make good on his promises. His redemption is at hand!
Today we celebrated our first Candlemas as a family. I made crepes in the morning, a Old World tradition. The crepes were gold and round and hot, like the returning sun. We filled our family altar with little candles and put up Our Lady of the Sign. It’s a decent start—like the holiday itself, a reminder that brighter days are coming, and that even a life that is now very small will soon grow into maturity.