Thursday, February 2, 2012


"..According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation."

                     ~T.S. Eliot, "A Song for Simeon"

The Feast of Candlemas: A feast that speaks of light and dark, hope and heartbreak, "maternal sorrow" and "ultimate vision". A strange day on which the coming of Christ, the heritage of the Jews, and the foreign pagan sacrifices all somehow have a place.

And yet through all these varied contexts runs a common thread of beginning. In pre-Christian cultures, this day marked the beginning of the harvest. The ancient Celts celebrated the festival of Imbolg to mark the lactation of ewes, with cheese and milk as the celebratory fare. Imbolg also celebrated the coming of light out of the dark winter months.

It was on this day that the Blessed Virgin Mary entered into the Temple for the rite of purification, marking a new beginning in her sacred role as Mother of the Savior. As noted by Father Hugh Thwaites, S.J., "A first born son had to be offered to God and then ransomed back. So Our Blessed Lady would have offered her Son to the Father, and then St Joseph would have paid the priest five shekels. Then she would have received Him back in her arms and they would have been free to go home."

On a grander scale, the Feast of the Presentation marks a new beginning for humanity. In the Eastern churches, this feast is called "The Meeting of Our Lord," which refers to the long-awaited meeting of Simeon and the Christ child. What a beautiful image of our own position: awaiting the light in the darkness, the Second Coming of Christ the King. As noted in an article by an Orthodox archbishop,  "When the righteous Simeon took the child into His arms and declared that this indeed was Salvation Incarnate, the 'Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel,' a new era began; the era of God’s presence among His children."

This feast once marked the beginning of a new liturgical season---and the official end of the Christmas season. Recently several people (non-Catholics and Catholics alike) have embarrassingly mentioned to me that they've only taken down their Christmas decorations in the last week, so I reassured them that they are in fact traditionalists at heart. As noted in a 17th century poem about Candlemas by Robert Herrick: 

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.

Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

Of course, there are also several more secular "superstitions" associated with this day, which is often another mark of a great Catholic feast. Phil the groundhog sighted his shadow today, predicting six more weeks of winter. Here in Phoenix, we accept that prediction with open arms (it's in the upper 60s today and that's as cold as it's been this week). And like any great feast, there are numerous traditional recipes to make for Candlemas. We enjoyed some hot tamales tonight, which is a traditional Mexican food choice. In France and other European countries, today is the day to make crepes, which symbolize renewal and hope. 

To conclude, here's a description of a celebration of Candlemas that dates from about 800 A.D. (Read more at New Liturgical Movement):

"Then the clergy and the various scholae of cantors were admitted into the presence of the Pontiff that they might each receive a candle from his hands. This distribution being ended, the cantors intoned the antiphon of the Introit: Exsurge, Domine, which is still preserved in our present Missal, and the Pope made his solemn entrance into the church of St Adrian. After the Introit followed the Kyrie eleison, as in all Masses. Next came the Collect -- now preserved only in the Gregorian Sacramentary -- after which the procession commenced.

... even in the ninth century the people divided themselves into seven companies, each one of which was preceded by its own cross... 

The Pope walked barefoot and was preceded by two acolytes with lighted candles in their hands. These walked on each side of the subdeacon who swung a thurible from which arose clouds of incense. Two staurophori, each bearing a cross, walked before the Pope, who was followed by the scholae of cantors in ordered ranks, chanting psalms."

"Therefore, that we too, standing in the temple and holding and embracing the Son of God, might be worthy of forgiveness and progressing to better things, for this let us pray to Almighty God; let us also pray to the Infant Jesus Himself whom we long to hold in our arms and talk to."
-Hans Urs von Balthasar

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