Ever Heard of Candlemas?

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Ever Heard of Candlemas?

Within Epiphany there’s a little-known celebration, lost to the Protestant world, known as Candlemas (or Candelaria). Originating in Jerusalem, the fourth century festival started as a tribute to the light of God’s glory that was manifest in Christ Jesus (John 1:14); a light graciously revealed to the Gentiles. Candlemas thus extols the seasonal theme of Epiphany: disclosure of him who is God’s gift to the Eastern world represented by the Magi and, in the song of Simeon, “a light to enlighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). Consequently Candlemas falls after the third week of Epiphany. In AD 544, The Christian emperor Justinian firmly ensconced this annual memorial within the Church calendar on February 2, precisely forty days after the Nativity [1].

Widely observed within Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox communions, Candlemas remained highly esteemed in the Lutheran Church until the 1800s when it fell into disuse and then disappeared from the liturgical calendar, as it is today. In recent years, however, Candlemas has found a resurgence within Lutheran parishes who have come to love its gospel message: Christmas for the Gentiles.

Candlemas thus offers an exemplary, catechetical concentration on the Gospel text and Christological focus on Jesus as “Immanuel” – God with us.

And there’s good reason for Christians of every denomination to recover it; the foremost being the appointed Gospel text for the date: Luke 2:22-40. Here, we find Simeon the priest and Anna the prophetess meeting the infant Jesus in the temple at the time of his “presentation” and Mary’s “purification.” This “meeting” gave the festival its first name in Greek, Hypapante (Ὑπαπαντή, “meeting”), with “The Presentation of the Christ in the Temple” serving as its alternative, less common designation. 

Simeon's prophecy, of course, declared Jesus to be the Lord's “salvation” (“my eyes have seen your salvation” — Jesus!) and “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This Gospel lesson evokes anticipation as the chanted Introit that begins Mass, and once again is heard following the Eucharistic celebration in the singing in much-beloved post-Communion canticle, the Nunc Dimittis (otherwise known as “Simeon’s Song”). All together the liturgy of Candlemas anticipates meeting with Christ (Introit), actually meeting with Christ (sermon and sacrament), and lauds having met with Christ (Nunc Dimittis). Hence its original designation as the “Meeting of the Lord,” with emphasis falling on the Gentile meeting of the Lord. Candlemas thus offers an exemplary, catechetical concentration on the Gospel text and Christological focus on Jesus as “Immanuel” – God with us. It’s little wonder that Gentile Christians throughout the ages considered Candlemas a veritable, “Christmas 2.0,” with gifts placed not under the tree, but upon the altar and within the gospel itself.

But it wasn’t always such a gospel-rich event. Medieval perspectives on Jesus as an austere and unapproachable judge, inevitably posited the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mediatrix to the Mediator. Recalling that the occasion that brought the Holy Family to the Jerusalem temple was a twofold Mosaic obligation: the “redemption” payment for the child (in accordance with Exodus 13:12-15) and the purification of the mother (Leviticus 12), Christians in the early centuries of this feast underscored that the critical figure in the Luke 2:22-40 text is Jesus. And, so, the full and proper name of the feast reflected this truth: The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord. Not only was the encounter with the Gentiles highlighted, but also the strange yet wonderful fact that the Redeemer himself had to be redeemed by the payment of silver thus fulfilling the law for the Jew in the first instance. So important was this aspect that it laid the foundation for the gospel to come to the Gentiles, “to the Jew first, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16, NIV). But as Medieval superstitions prevailed and gospel preaching retreated, Jesus was more closely aligned to the tribal kings of warring Europe than to our merciful Father in heaven. Such kings were unapproachable and inaccessible. The same was thought of Christ. Therefore someone needed to intercede and mediate between men and Christ if Christ was to be a mediator to the Father. That role fell on the tenderhearted mother of our Lord. This Marian focus set her “purification” front and center, while the “Presentation of the Lord” became unmoored from the text and, by extension, from the original point of Candlemas. Soon it was no longer called the “Meeting of the Lord” but the “Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.”

The English term “Candlemas” refers to the thirteen-hundred year old custom of blessing and distributing candles to carry in procession before the day’s Mass. It’s a rather unfortunate name, too, inferior to the biblical Hypapante. This renaming likewise signaled a shift in devotion. Instead of gathering to “meet” Jesus in the temple of the Holy Church and laud him as the “True Light” (John 1:9-10), Mary was extolled as the one who gives the world Jesus. Within this understanding, the white candle came to represent her purity and holiness, rather than a symbol of Jesus’ perfect righteousness, divine glory, and resurrected body, indeed, a symbol of Jesus himself. [2]

Exclusive devotion to Jesus thus served as a catalyst for liturgical reform.

While acknowledging the Virgin Mother’s utterly unique role in the birth and life of Jesus, as well as the significance of her purification and prophecies spoken about her, the Conservative Reformers in Germany sought to correct unbiblical excesses. Early Lutheran liturgies reappropriated the name of this solemnity, “The Meeting of the Lord,” and preached Luke 2:22-40 as divine self-attestation to Jesus’ exclusive mediation. After all, it was he and he alone, that Simeon called God’s salvation – salvation itself, salvation himself. St Joseph and the Virgin Mother, to be sure, were iconic saints – the epitome of faith and obedience, but they stood witness to the Holy Spirit-inspired truth spoken by Simeon and Anna summed up later by Saint Paul: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for us all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Exclusive devotion to Jesus thus served as a catalyst for liturgical reform. The white candle’s lighting and processing represented the Incarnate, once-crucified, now-resurrected Jesus present in the midst of his people, meeting with them as the Light of the World.

Candlemas serves the gospel. However, the current Church calendar hallmarks only the Baptism of our Lord and, later, the Transfiguration as belonging to the Epiphany season (lectionary cycles notwithstanding). Today’s budding recovery of Candlemas should be encouraged with its purposeful repositioning that highlights its true raison d’etre: celebrating Jesus revealed as the Savior of the world, for the Jew first, but also the Gentile. Circle it on your calendar and find time to attend Candlemas and meet with him who is “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).

[1] The timing for Candlemas is also in accordance with the Mosaic Law, which required that a woman should purify herself for forty days after giving birth, and, at the end of her purification, should present herself to the priest at the temple and offer a sacrifice (Leviticus 12:6-7).

[2] L.W. Cowie and John Selwyn Gummer, The Christian Calendar: A Complete Guide to the Seasons of the Christian Year Telling the Story of Christ and the Saints from Advent to Pentecost (Springfield, MA: Merriam, 1974), 40.