What's a Candlemas, and why should I bother with it or care to know about it? Here's what and why.
The Law Of Moses Observed.
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. Also, the Law of Moses requires a first-born male, not first born to the father necessarily, but the one who opened his mother's womb, to be presented in the Temple to be redeemed.
Huh? Redeemed from what? Hey, this is Jesus and he's the redeemer so really, redeemed from what? And purified from what? And anyway, isn't this religion about Jesus, not Mary? OK, here's the deal.
First, what's a mikveh? The word, also given as mikvah, means collection. Collection of what? Water, that's what, but 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).
Next, before we get to redeemed from what, what is to be redeemed anyway? One hears the word a lot but what does it literally mean? To buy back, that's what, to pay something to get something else. Just like redeeming a coupon. You turn in the coupon to get what it promises. Under the Law of Moses, the first born, or bekhor in Hebrew, is required to be dedicated to the service of the Lord. Originally this was to be the priesthood, but after the Golden Calf episode, that was given to the sons of Aaron, the cohens (yes, the name Cohen and variations thereof derives from that), but nonetheless the requirement for redemption remained. This is called the pidyon haben, and is a sum of five silver coins to be paid to the Cohen, though the Law provides other options for poor families, which Luke records is the option Joseph and Mary took.
Of course Jesus did not need to be redeemed. For himself. But he wasn't sent here for himself. He didn't need to be baptized either, or circumcised. He was here for us, and to be put under the Law so he could fulfill the Law for us, all needed to be fulfilled, just like he told John the Baptist. And that's the enormous significance here. Without these key events in fulfilling the Law, he wouldn't have fulfilled the Law, which in part required an action by his mother, and that's why we celebrate them -- it's part of what makes Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah.
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 as required by the Law, 2 February. Easter, however, does not have a fixed date, thus Holy Week, and the preparation for it, Lent, and the transition to it, Gesimatide, are reckoned backward from Easter's date in any given year. That is why in some years, like 2013 or 2015, Candlemas may happen after the transition to Lent, Gesimatide, is underway. Or like in 2012 when it happened only three days before Gesimatide began with Septuagesima on 5 February.
In the Eastern Church, as we saw in an earlier post that Epiphany, on 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. And, 25 December in the Gregorian calendar of the West, now in civil use in most of the world, falls on 7 January in the Julian calendar still in liturgical use in the East, so, the 40th day after it falls on Gregorian 15 February in the East, and is called The Meeting of the Lord.
Either way, either part of the church, either calendar, forty days after Jesus' birth celebration.
The Gospel Fulfillment Of The Law.
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 on this day the candles for use in the church during the year, which in turn has given the day yet another name, Candelemas, or mass of the candles. Some observances include a procession with candles to the church.
Simeon's 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, in its current edition known as Divine Service Setting III in Lutheran Service Book, the nunc dimittis is also sung after Communion. A practice which continues 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 the purpose about Mary and light to the people.
The Prophecy of Simeon.
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 being saved from sin. Jesus would run into this again, to put it mildly, and Satan would even tempt him about it during another forty days the church is about to celebrate in imitation of his forty days in the desert, Lent. Simeon 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, the life of Man, and the life of each man. Bishop Sheen once remarked that the crucifix is the autobiography of every Christian.
Ain't It Just A Christianised Groundhog Day Or Other Pagan Stuff?
As with Christmas, Candlemas is sometimes taken as simply a Christian version of pre-existing observances. Well there are 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 Brigit, 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. See something familiar in that?
Howere, 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 simultaneous pagan observances, 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, from which comes our month name 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.
Hey, this lasted well into Christian Rome and beyond, and some think Pope Gelasius in the 490s -- after the sack of Rome by the Visigoth under Alaric in 410 and by the Vandals under Geiseric (aka Genseric or Gaiseric) in 455 and the deposing of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, by the Arian Germanic-Italian King Odoacer on 4 September 476 -- used Candlemas to replace and remove Lupercalia.
The feast is among the oldest in Christian observance. Sermons for it survive from as early as the 300s. It took on wider celebration starting with a plague. Yeah, a plague. In 541 an outbreak of the bubonic plague devastated the Byzantine Empire (the old Eastern Roman Empire, the only one left by then). It came from rodents with the fleas carrying the disease aboard merchant ships from Egypt, from which Constantinople bought lots of grain and other goods, and the spread of those goods spread the bubonic plague too and wiped out about half the population to which it spread all over the Empire. This was during the reign of Justinian, who got it too, but he recovered under such treatment as they had at the time, which was, eat a good diet, get plenty of rest, and go somewhere where it hadn't spread to avoid the bad air they thought carried it. In 541 Justinian ordered fasting and prayer at this time that the plague be lifted. It did, though plagues lift anyway, and the mortality rate for untreated bubonic plague is about 50% anyway, so hey. But Justinian ordered the observances to continue in thanksgiving. This outbreak is the first one clearly documented in history, and is now named after him, the Plague of Justinian.
BTW, the world-wide custom of saying "Bless you" or "Health" or "Gesundheit" (which is "health" in German) or some such thing when someone sneezes comes from the plague, since for most of human history sneezing might be an indication you won't be around in a few days. These days, antibiotics, streptomycin in particular, are effective against bubonic plague and I'd recommend that. While we're at it, what is "bubonic" anyway? Comes from the Greek word for groin -- the swelling from infected lymph nodes turns up in the groin, among other places, but that one really gets your attention so the whole thing got named after it.
The first-born thing has been the source of other pious bullroar too. In imitation of it, first born sons were often "encouraged" to be priests, resulting in all kinds of not-so-suited "priests" and monks. On the brighter side, the assumed survival of childbirth by women is a fairly recent phenomenon, thanks to modern medicine, was for centuries celebrated as the "churching of women", and still is in some places. There is no purification per se, but the Biblical thing was the model for it, a blessing and celebration of the women's health and ability to return to usual activities.
So What's A Candlemas? This.
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 -- Groundhog Day, which also has the advantage that you're way less likely to have the cops called on your Groundhog Day party than if you try to have a Lupercalia.
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.
Collect for Candlemas, to collect our thoughts for the day. (From The Lutheran Hymnal)
Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech Thy majesty that, as Thine only-begotten Son was this day presented in the Temple in the substance of our flesh, so we may be presented unto Thee with pure and clean hearts; by the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.
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