Reflections on Candlemas and the Church Calendar

     I love the Church Calendar—there’s always something to celebrate! You give me any day of the year, and I could dig up some obscure saint whose commemoration would justify a Taco Bell run or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Right now, we’re in Epiphanytide, the season of revelation, manifestation and light. On Feb. 2, I went downtown for a “high mass and chili potluck” to celebrate a(n only somewhat obscure) feast day called Candlemas. Technically the name of the feast is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary—or Candlemas for short. As you can tell from the three different names, it’s a pretty multilayered holy day.

     You get a couple of different people who come together on that day with their own back stories. You’ve got Jesus who is now (on Feb. 2) 40 days old (did the math from Dec. 25), and it’s time for him to get presented in the Temple at Jerusalem according to the Jewish law, since he’s a firstborn son. You also have his virgin mother who’s there to offer a sacrifice and get purified from her ceremonial uncleanness from childbearing. (Christ was the truly purifying sacrifice, and in him we’ve been offered to the Father with “pure and clean hearts,” the prayer says.) Plus you’ve got Joseph. When they showed up to the temple, there was a holy man named Simeon expecting them. “It was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26, KJV). He took the Holy Child in his arms, prophesied over him and said the following words (which have become the Church’s favorite bedtime prayer): “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, KJV).

     The Church latched on to that line, “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” and so on this day the Church blesses her candles for the year (hence the name “Candle-mass”). That’s how that service the other night began: hundreds of candles getting censed with incense and sprinkled with holy water, each parishioner getting one for a candlelit service of Holy Communion. It was absolutely beautiful.

     But the evangelical in me still had a hard time warming up to the idea of “holy candles.” It seemed superstitious to me. But then I heard the prayer appointed for that part of the service: “We beseech you, O Lord, mercifully to hear the prayers of your people: that this observance, whereby we honor you outwardly year by year, may by the light of your grace bring forth fruit inwardly in our souls. Through Christ our Lord.”

     This really struck me: inward grace coming through outward observances. The more I thought about “holy candles,” the more I realized that, hey, who am I to say that Christ can’t communicate grace through candles? He used spit and mud for the blind guy. And He’s used this metaphor before: “I am the light of the world.” I even found a verse in the King James Version that reads, “Thou wilt light my candle: the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness” (Psalm 18:28). Paul tells us that “in [Christ] all things consist,” so candles, incense, holy water—they all find their being in Him, and He is the source of all that they are (Colossians 1:17, ASV). Everything, therefore, has something to show about who He is, and it’s Christ who makes a candle a candle.

     Don’t tell my RA, but I’ve still got mine. Having it censed and sprinkled probably didn’t do as much for the candle as it did for me. It’s been showing forth the light of Christ all along—I’ve only now learned to see it. This Epiphanytide, may we be opened up to this vision of Christ in all things. “In thy light shall we see light” (Psalm 36:9, KJV).

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