Candlemass or The Presentation
(Luke 2 : 22-24)
As I have said before, I believe that there is value in understanding our past, the models and motivations that formed where we are now. There were ways of understanding the human situation, interpreting what was necessary and good which have changed so much that only the older generation know that they were ever ‘normal life’. There are patterns, concepts which are no longer necessary and certainly not good, but as we do not come into this world as a blank slate there is always a residual element it serves us well to acknowledge in order to clear.
This Feast Day is one such; until very recent times, it was known as The Feast of the Purification. The purification of who or what you may ask? Well, it was the purification of Mary. According to the Law she was deemed to be unclean for having given birth. As she had produced a son, she was only unclean for 7 days, the cleansing period for giving birth to a girl child was twice as long! Isn’t this a fascinating idea? We may think it amazing, quaint, obscene or just very, very strange but it is ‘where we have come from’ in terms of the concepts that governed society down the Christian centuries, long after Jesus was said to have ‘fulfilled the law’.
Grand-mothers, especially English grand-mothers, may remember the practice of The Churching of Women, or The Thanksgiving for Childbirth. Both titles are given in the Book of Common Prayer but generally the rite was known as ‘The Churching’. Here is a quote from a book of instructions about keeping the fasts and festivals of the church, published in 1962,
I remember my mother being horrified at a woman who had just given birth, within a week or so, being out shopping. The horror was not because she should have been at home looking after herself but because she was out before she had been churched. This of course entailed the idea of uncleanliness, not to mix with people until the rites had been administered. (A bit how people who choose not to receive vaccination are treated these days). Some ideas have a very long history. What was the danger? It was about the fear of contamination, a woman’s menstrual blood was something impure. One can sense the depth of the primitive fear around the mystique of life and death. At that basic gut level what we don’t rightly understand we are disposed to see as a potential threat and treat with caution, we put boundaries around and apply to our gods for protection, whatever gods they may be.
Keeping the feast under the title of Candlemass comes from the song of Simeon, he was the old priest whose job it was to conduct the rite of purification. On seeing the Christ child, he is said to have declared Him to be the light to lighten the gentiles. Candle-light processions became a popular means of celebrating the festival. At the Mass the first candle was lit then the light was passed from one to another until all were alight, then the faithful processed around the church by the light only of their candles. On this day too, the beeswax candles for use in the church for the coming year were blessed. We don’t use beeswax anymore.
In 542 the Emperor Justinian (he who caused the building of the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople) declared the Feast of Candles, February 2nd, as a special day of thanksgiving for the cessation of the plague. What a great idea! In the Oratory of S. Sophia Candlemass always marked the start of a New Year, when the holiday period was over and before the beginning of Lent. It was a joyful date celebrated with Mass, chocolates and champagne. Another very good idea!
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