What is Candlemas Day?

Q: What is Candlemas Day? I came across the term reading in my English literature class, and my teacher was not even sure. (Fairfax)

A: Candlemas Day is another name for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Forty days after His birth, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for the rites of purification and dedication as prescribed by the Torah. According to the Book of Leviticus (12:1-4), when a woman bore a male child, she was considered "unclean" for seven days. On the eighth day, the boy was circumcised. The mother continued to stay at home for 33 days for her blood to be purified. After the 40 days, the mother and the father came to the temple for the rite of purification, which included the offering of a sacrifice - a lamb for a holocaust (burnt offering) and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering, or for a poor couple who could not afford a lamb, two pigeons or two turtledoves. Note Joseph and Mary made the offering of the poor (Lk 2:24).

Also, Joseph and Mary were obliged by the Torah to "redeem" their first born son: "The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 'Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me'" (Ex 13:1). The price for such a redemption was five shekels, which the parents paid to the priest. This "redemption" was a kind of payment for the Passover sacrifice, by which the Jews had been freed from slavery.

However, St. Luke in the Gospel does not mention this redemption, but rather the presentation of Our Lord: "When the day came to purify them according to the law of Moses, the couple brought Him up to Jerusalem, so that He could be presented to the Lord, for it is written in the law of the Lord, 'Every first-born male shall be consecrated to the Lord'" (Lk 2:22-23). So the focus is on Jesus' consecration to God. The verb "to present" (paristanai) also means to "offer," which evokes Jesus being presented as the priest who will offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice to free us from the slavery of sin, seal the new and eternal covenant with His blood, and open the gates to the true promised land of heaven.

Simeon, a just and pious man, who awaited the Messiah and looked for the consolation of Israel, was inspired to come to the temple. He held baby Jesus in his arms and blessed God, saying, "Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed, displayed for all the peoples to see: A revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel" (Lk 2:29-32). Simeon, thereby, announced that the Messiah has come not just for the Jew but the gentile; not just the righteous, but the sinner.

He then blessed the Holy Family, and said in turn to Mary: "This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed- and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword - so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare" (Lk 2:34-35).

So the Presentation is a proclamation of Christ - Messiah and Priest, Lord and Savior. He is the light who came into this world to dispel sin and darkness. For this reason, traditionally at least since the seventh century, candles have been blessed at Mass this day that will be used throughout the year, hence coining the term "Candlemas."

As we consider the feast of the Presentation, we remember that our parents presented us at church for our baptism. We were dedicated to God, and given the name, "Christian." We, too, received a lit candle from the paschal candle, at which the priest said, "You have been enlightened by Christ. Walk always as a child of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your heart. When the Lord comes, may you go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom" (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). Therefore, as a light, each of us must bear witness to Our Lord. We must be the beacon that guides others to Christ. Also, we must realize that we, too, will be "a sign that will be opposed," especially on issues of the sanctity of human life, marriage and the family.

Two other interesting tidbits highlight this day: First, in many Eastern European countries, the feast of the Presentation officially closes the celebration of Christmas. For this reason, Blessed John Paul II began the custom of keeping the Nativity scene in St. Peter's square until Feb. 2.

Second, Candlemas Day also was important in the lives of farmers. An old English song went as follows:

"If Candlemas be fair and bright, / Come, Winter, have another flight. / If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, / Go, Winter, and come not again."

So if the bright sun "overshadows" the brightness of Candlemas Day, there will be more winter. However, if the light of Candlemas Day radiates through the gloom and darkness of the day, the end of winter is near. In America, Protestants decided we should replace Catholic Candlemas Day with Groundhog Day.

Questions may be sent to Fr. Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, at straightanswers@ourladyofhope.net or Our Lady of Hope Church, 46639 Algonkian Pkwy., Potomac Falls, VA 20165.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014