Happy Candlemas

In my church tonight, we’re introducing a special liturgy to mark Candlemas, featuring Vespers, the blessing of candles and concluding with Benediction.

So: what exactly is Candlemas?  Glad you asked:

Today is a day of purification, renewal, and hope. On this day, exactly 40 days after Christmas, we commemorate Mary’s obedience to the Mosaic law by submitting herself to the Temple for the ritual purification, as commanded in Leviticus:

Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt say to them: If a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days, according to the days of separation of her flowers. And on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised: But she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification. She shall touch no holy thing: neither shall she enter into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification, be fulfilled. But if she shall bear a maid child, she shall be unclean two weeks, according to the custom of her monthly courses, and she shall remain in the blood of her purification sixty-six days.

And when the days of her purification are expired, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of the testimony, a lamb of a year old for a holocaust, and a young pigeon or a turtle for sin, and shall deliver them to the priest: Who shall offer them before the Lord, and shall pray for her, and so she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that beareth a man child or a maid child.

And if her hand find not sufficiency, and she is not able to offer a lamb, she shall take two turtles, or two young pigeons, one for a holocaust, and another for sin: and the priest shall pray for her, and so she shall be cleansed.

Luke 2:22-24
And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord: As it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord: And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

Also commemorated on this “Feast of Light” (“Lichtmess” in German) or “Feast of the Candles” (“Candelaria” in Spanish, and “La Fête de la Chandeleur” in French) is the prophecy of Holy Simeon — the “just and devout” man of Jerusalem who was inspired by the Holy Ghost to know that he would live to see the “consolation of Jerusalem” — and the encounter with the aged widow, Anna the Prophetess, who lived in the Temple and confessed Christ upon meeting Him.

On this day, there will be a Blessing of the Candles and Procession. The symbolism of the candles is described by Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, in his “Liturgical Year”:

The mystery of today’s ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, always considered as the emblem of virginity, signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by His conception or His birth, the spotless purity of His Blessed Mother. The same holy bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blessed Candle: the wax, the wick, and the flame. The wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divinity.

We’re hoping to make this an annual tradition in my parish.  Meantime, read more about this ancient feast.

And The Anchoress has a great roundup of beautiful thoughts on this “feast of light.”

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  1. It’s great that you’re doing it as a solemn vespers. The allowance of night Masses in the 1950s had many benefits which I would never give back, but the loss of public vespers was a bitter pill (and likely unanticipated by Rome).

    It also allows you to ground the Simeon story in Compline, with all its light/dark imagery. That leads to a larger discussion of the role of the three Lucan canticles in the early Church, the composition of the Gospel as it related to the lived liturgy, and how these liturgical songs are still used by the Church to sanctify the day, light to dark.


  2. Regina Faighes says:

    I am looking forward to attending the solemn vespers at our church tonight. Thank you for sharing this article, Deacon Greg. It will make the services more deeply meaningful for me. God bless you!

  3. Mark LaVergne says:

    Wow, this is really cool. Thanks for sharing, Deacon Greg. Good luck tonight!

  4. I am having a great deal of trouble with accepting that any woman, but especially Mary, would need purification after the birth of a child. I remember that my Italian immigrant mother did not attend the baptisms of any of her children because she was somehow unclean. So I am uncomfortable with this feast day coming back into the Church as an annual tradition.

  5. Ryan Ellis says:

    You need to acquaint yourself with Jewish law. Take it up with Moses and Aaron, not the Church. It’s the Jewish law, not ours.

    We also have a purification of sorts in our Roman Ritual. It’s called a “churching.” Try not to read ultra-feminism into ancient religious practice. Talk about ugly Americanism.

    Finally, when did Candlemas ever “leave the Church?”

  6. Deacon Norb says:


    –This custom was practiced by a number of other American Catholic sub-cultures beside Italian (Irish and Polish come to mind) and it was regularly practiced in at least one Diocese here in the Midwest until maybe 1972 or so.

    –In 1984 or so, a dozen years after it had gone out of style, I was visiting for the week-end in a Vacation-land parish. After Mass, the Pastor asked me to hang around and preside at a Baptism that afternoon which I was glad to do. In meeting with the family, I was surprised when the young infant boy’s grand-mother and GREAT grand-mother (this older lady was an Italian immigrant and spoke only broken English) asked me about the “Churching” ritual and whether we could still do it. The baby-boy’s Mom had already heard from her mother and grand-mother that this was a custom in their family but she was not familiar with it. I looked at the pastor and he looked at me. I said — “Find me the ritual and I will do it.” Well — digging around in the old corners of that church’s vestry, I found the proper book with the proper prayers in English. At the appropriate point, I and the mother — carrying her new son — processed up the aisle to the sanctuary where I read over the ritual. Since it was new to me, my attention was more on my script but when I looked up, the young Mom was crying with joy! Never forgot that image!

  7. Deacon Steve says:

    Here is a link to some information about it and it has a pdf file of the rite as well. Never been asked to do this, but I know that there is a blessing in the Book of Blessing for a mother after childbirth. I have done the blessing for a woman preparing to give birth a couple of times at the parish.

  8. Blessings are different. I went to Mass when in early labor to receive the Eucharist before I went to the hospital to give birth. What disturbs me is the possibility that we could be encouraging the view that women are unclean after childbirth. Why does there need to be a churching purification ritual? I really do not want to see this make a comeback. This is not about being an “ultra-feminist” – men should be disturbed by this too. But if you want to attach that label to me for this then so be it – I am an ultra feminist. Is this really of God? Bringing a child into the world is one of the most incredible gifts that God has given women, why consider a woman unclean after this miracle of life? Do you believe God requires this “purification” or does man (man in the human being sense)?

  9. What do you mean by “ugly Americanism”.

  10. Ryan Ellis says:

    What you’re doing is the religious equivalent of going to Nairobi and asking where the nearest McDonalds is. You can’t take your narrow American worldview and impose it on a 5000 year old law as commemorated by a 2000 year old religion.

  11. Deacon Steve says:

    Churching is not purification, it is a blessing. The purification was a Jewish custom based on their belief that contact with blood made one unclean, and thus unable to enter the Temple until they had been ritually purified. Mary would not have required the purification because of her state of grace, but being a good Jew, she would have gone through the ritual so that exteriorly she would have been seen as clean in the eyes of her community. Had she not undergone the ritual she would have been unwelcome in the community.

  12. Ryan Ellis says:

    Here is what Msgr. Pope has to say about your tempest in a teapot (the larger article is linked above):

    “The reasons for the discontinuance are many. I remember my mother and other women of my mother’s generation saying they had been taught the Jewish history of this rite and thus rejected it for that reason. But the Catholic Church was clear to distinguish its practice from the Jewish roots. Pope Gregory as early as the 6th Century protested any notion that defilment was incurred by childbirth. Further, the prayers of the old “Churching of Women” Rite never mentioned a need for purification and spoke only of blessing and thanksgiving. So those who taught women of my Mother’s generation against this practice were probably engaged more in polemics than true Church history. Another reason for the discontinuance was probably and simply that so many things were dropped during the changes in the wake of the Council.”

  13. It is being celebrated in 2012.

  14. If Churching is a Blessing then I am all for it and would think that would be a nice ritual to have as a regular practice. But Candlemas celebrates the “purification” of a woman after childbirth and if a woman is unclean because of the blood then that would mean women are unclean for a great many days of their childbearing life. I don’t accept that a woman needs purification and I don’t think the attitude should be encouraged by a 2,000 year old Church even if it is a 5,000 year old law. We don’t keep or celebrate Kosher rules do we?

  15. S prazdnikom!
    “In honor of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ. Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light. Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the One who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of His eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true Light in her arms and brought Him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet Him.” St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, (+ 644 A.D.)

    Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, Full of Grace! From you shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, enlightening those who sat in darkness! Rejoice and be glad, O righteous elder; you accepted in your arms the Redeemer of our souls who grants us the resurrection (Troparion).

    By Thy nativity, Thou didst sanctify the Virgin’s womb. And didst bless Simeon’s hands, O Christ our God. Now Thou hast come and saved us through love. Grant peace to all Orthodox Christians, O only Lover of man (Kontakion).

    Farewell to Christmas!

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