In the Law of Moses, when a woman gives birth to a boy, she is ritually unclean for seven days, then in the "blood of purification" for another thirty three days, total of forty days, at which time she goes to the mikveh for a ritual bath of purification. What's a mikveh? The word, also given as mikvah, means collection -- what is collected is water, not just any water, but water from a natural source, such as rain, or better yet "living water" from a spring or well, which must be naturally transported, not pumped or carried. Total immersion in the water of a mikveh -- anyone thinking Baptism? -- is considered so important, restoring ritual purity after ritually impure things have happened, such as childbirth, that a Jewish community must provide a mikveh even before it builds a place of worship (synagogue). So, to observe and fulfill the Mosaic Law, Mary was purified in a ritual bath in a mikveh, after which her first-born Son was presented in the Temple to dedicate him to God. In the Western Church, since the birth of Jesus has been set on 25 December for its celebration, the celebration of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple is fixed forty days later, 2 February. However, we saw in an earlier post that Epiphany, 6 January (at least until 1960s Rome got a hold of it), originally contained all the events of the early life of Jesus including his birth, added to which 25 December in the Gregorian calendar of the West and in civil use most of the world now falls on 7 January in the Julian calendar still in liturgical use in the East, so the day falls on Gregorian 15 February in the East, and is called The Meeting of the Lord, but either way forty days after Jesus' birth celebration.
The Gospel account of it is Luke 2:22-40, the Gospel reading for the day. Part of it relates Simeon the Elder, who had been promised that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. When Mary brought Jesus for the meeting, Simeon saw him and recognised him as the Messiah, saying what is now called the Canticle of Simeon, or from its first words in Latin, nunc dimittis, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel. This reference to light gave rise to the custom of blessing the candles on this day for use in the church during the year, which in turn has given the day yet another name, Candelemas.
The nunc dimittis has also become a feature of the Office of Compline, the completing church office of prayer for the day. In the Lutheran Common Service, that most wonderful version of the Western liturgy, it is also sung after Communion -- a practice continued even in our Vatican II wannabe services of late, though of course with the Vatican II-esque option of doing something else instead. 1960s Rome downplays the candles and Mary stuff for the Simeon thing. Simeon did no such thing. He got it about Mary and light to the people.
Simeon said something else too, and it should not be forgotten. The joy of the Messiah cannot be separated from the reason why he came, which isn't all that pretty. Saviours are great, as long as it's not about salvation from sin. Jesus would run into this again, to put it mildly, and Satan would even tempt him about during the other forty days the church is about to celebrate in imitation of his forty days in the desert, Lent. He said:
Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against -- yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also (this to Mary) -- that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
The cross, the crucifixion, the payment for redemption from sin, is present here too, as the central event in the life of Jesus, and the life of Man and each man. Bishop Sheen once remarked that the crucifix is the autobiography of every Christian.
As with Christmas, Candlemas is sometimes taken as simply a Christian version of pre-existing observances. 2 February is the date of Imbolc, a Celtic observance of the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. It was associated with the goddess Brigit, where sacred fires were maintained by 19 consecrated women in Kildare -- sort of an Irish Vesta -- some of whose legends seem to have been passed to the Christian St Brigit, and which figure, through mingling of Irish and African slaves in the New World, may be the source of Maman Brigitte in Voodoo. Imbolc was also a time of weather forecasting, with Spring coming on, when snakes or badgers or other animals were watched to see if they would come out of their Winter hibernation, indicating a short Winter, or not, indicating a longer one. Well, as with superficial similarities with pre-Christian Winter solstice observances, the content of fulfilling the Mosaic Law by the newborn Messiah is rather different than all that, including the references to light. But, as to watching animals for a clue to the length of the remaining cold weather -- hello, Groundhog Day, which is also, guess what, 2 February!
And then there's the Roman Lupercalia, the Wolf Feast, honouring the she-wolf who raised Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, celebrated this time of year too. In it, the Luperci, the priests of the wolf (lupus in Latin) sacrificed, well, originally people, but then two male goats and a dog, whose blood was put on the foreheads of other Luperci, then there was a feast, then the Luperci cut thongs from the animal skins -- called februa, so there's your February! -- and put on the rest, running around town, with women coming forward to be lashed by the thongs to insure both fertility and easy childbirth. This lasted well into Christian Rome, and some think Pope Gelasius in the 490s used Candlemas to replace and remove Lupercalia.
So what do we have here? Later, Christianed-over versions of universal themes, or universal themes that derive from natural knowledge of God, and therefore have something to them, but could never even have guessed the Law and Gospel in the revealed word of God in Scripture. Well, as we saw with Christmas and will see with Easter, both. You got your choice. Yeah, there is 2 February as modern and presumably more civilised and less superstitious observances that Winter will end sooner or later and nice weather come back. And, there's 2 February as something to which these things have only the crudest of inklings in the fallen heart of Man -- The Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of Mary.
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