Today Mother Church celebrates the Presentation of the Lord, when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple in accord with Mosaic law. Also in accord with the law, Mary was “purified,” in as much as she could be–which was not at all since she has always been sinless. Hence, Mother Church no longer refers to today as the “Purification of Mary” as she once did.
Today is also Candlemas, when a procession with the blessing of candles traditionally takes place. This has been happening for a very long time. One nun, Sr. Egeria from the 4th century, writes about this celebration:
The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.
How rich the Catholic liturgy is. This looks much the same today!
Evidently, according to a poem by Robert Herrick, “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”, this was the day on which Christmas decorations were taken down:
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall.
Make sense, since this was the last day of the Christmas season in those days.
When Jesus, Mary, and Joseph arrived at the temple, they found there Simeon the Righteous. Listen to this from Luke 2:26: “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”
The revelation was true. I love Simeon’s words when he holds the infant Christ in his hands:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.
The Church prays a form of this every single night in Compline. We have been promised the same thing: that we will not see death until we see Christ. Now we have seen him, it is our turn to take the Light of faith to others. Hence, Candlemas.
Christ, be our Light!