Happy Feast of Our Lady of Thunder Candles!

Our Lady carrying a so-called “Thunder Candle” (Piotr Stachiewicz, Our Lady of the Thunder Candle Cycle, 1893; Source: Wiki Commons, PD-Old-100)

February 2nd is the feast of Our Lady of Thunder Candles (Matki Gromnicznej). That’s correct. Let it sink in.

There are many lesser known feasts like this one, even if they are not recognized universally. This one comes from Poland.

Most Western Christians rightly associate today with the Feast of the Presentation. It marks the end of the 40 days of Christmas. This is the day you should take down your Christmas tree and decorations.

The liturgical calendar is so multi-layered in its minute attention to the details of Christ’s life that it is easy to associate the Presentation with the Feast of the Circumcision. This association is incorrect even though both celebrations involve the Temple. The latter liturgical feast  is celebrated on January 1st. The Feast of the Presentation celebrates the first appearance of Our Savior in the Temple.

But the Feast of the Presentation has at least two additional layers of significance.

First, it is also known as the Feast of the Purification of Mary. This recalls the Jewish origins of the Gospel. It commemorates the day when Mary’s post-birth (ritual) impurity was removed thanks to Temple ceremonies. Her purification most likely preceded the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, because one had to be ritually pure to participate in any such ceremonies.

Second, it is also associated with “Candlemas,” the day when Western Christians would traditionally come to church to have their candles blessed. There is a complicated symbolic association between bees, the Virgin, and candles. Candles are made from beeswax. In turn bees are a traditional symbol of the Virgin for the following reasons:

Our Lady warding off wolves in one legendary story that developed from the Thunder Candle tradition (Piotr Stachiewicz, Our Lady of the Thunder Candle Cycle, 1893; Source: Wiki Commons, PD-Old-100).

The bee is a symbol of Our Lady. Because of its good working habits, the small honeybee is a well-known symbol for work, good order, and diligence. Less commonly known is that the bee is a representation of virginity. The worker bees have no part in the reproduction of its species, except for that of feeding the baby bees. The responsibilities of “bee parenting” are left to the queen bee and the drones. Since virginity is a virtue we find exemplified to its highest capacity in Our Lady, the bee quite naturally becomes one of Her symbols.

The practice of lighting candles on this day was first discovered by Western Christians as a native practice in Jerusalem sometime in the third or fourth century. The practice spread through the Empire, reaching Constantinople in the sixth century. Pope Sergius I, who interestingly enough was Syriac, is responsible for inserting candlelight processions as an authorized practice sometime toward the end of the seventh century.

The Polish focus on the Thunder Candles brings out the holiday’s ancient ties to pagan practices. Catholicism has long been considered to be the great world store of regional pagan practices. February 1st and 2nd were traditionally the days when the first signs of Spring coming were celebrated in traditional pre-Christian religions.

This is why the Polish candles, which seem to be rather larger than those in Western Europe, were traditionally lit during thunderstorms (they are called “gromnica” candles, from “grom,” the Polish word for thunder) to invoke Our Lady’s protection–much as if she were a pagan weather deity. Legends of the Virgin fighting off wolves that were preying on livestock with the Candlemas candles , thereby saving whole villages from starvation, also seem to be tied to this perfectly legitimate and frequent re-appropriation of pagan deities by orthodox Christianity.

Apparently,  as Francis Weiser explains in the Handbook of Christian Feasts & Customs, Candlemas was a clear precursor of Groundhog Day:

All over Europe Candlemas was considered one of the great days of weather forecasting. Popular belief claims that bad weather and cloudy skies on February 2 mean an early and prosperous summer. If the sun shines through the greater part of Candlemas Day, there will be forty more days of snow. This superstition is familiar to all in our famous story of the ground hog looking for his shadow on Candlemas Day.

Finally, today is the World Day for Consecrated Life, instituted by St. John Paul II in 1997. I remember this because it was the day I proposed to my future wife before waiting in line, surrounded by nuns, for a Mass at the Vatican. She accepted and therefore I celebrate this day as the ultimate turning point in my life. Monika mentioned that it was the feast of Matki Gromnicznej (that was probably the first time I heard of the holiday, since I have spent most of my life in the States). Our personal experience with the Dominicans only demonstrates that consecrated life is not in competition with the life of the laity. We have been enormously enriched through our encounters with the numerous Dominicans in our lives.

This depth of layering is one aspect of the richness that makes being Catholic such an endless process of discovery. You scratch one thing, up comes another, right through to the start of recorded history and the beginnings of the cosmos.

Admittedly, some of this complexity has been flattened out by Vatican II. The emphasis upon Christ after the Council somewhat obscures all these other connections to paganism, the Jewish Temple, bees, wolves, thunder, and the rest of the natural world.

This loss reflects some of the net losses of modernity. We gain a lot, but we also lose a lot. This is just how history works.

But if we do take the message of Laudato Si’ seriously, then we’ll have to make some serious changes to our way of life. Cutting back on energy use could potentially lead us to once again understand biblical metaphor of “as numerous as the stars in the night sky,” which has been lost to most of us due to light pollution. These sorts of radical changes could then shape our liturgical practices and church adornment.

For more on related topics see: Pagan Symbols and the Coming Christianity and The Most Sophiological Encyclical of All.