February 2 gives us many angles for celebration in the liturgical calendar alone, besides the ground hog and this year the Super Bowl too, but my favorite aspect of the day is Candlemas, which I have celebrated communally just once in my life. When I was in graduate school at Northwestern, sometimes I would attend the 4:30 pm weekday mass and one afternoon in winter — February 2 — the priest gave us all tapers and explained that it was Candlemas, an occasion to process with lit candles and to bless candles for the year. I had never heard of this custom, but each year I recall the uplift provided by that spontaneous ritual, so unexpected and joyful and coming just when the lengthening of days is becoming noticeable.
Forty days past Christmas, the candle aspect actually arises from the day’s real observance, previously the Purification of Mary, now known as the Presentation of the Lord. Luke’s Gospel depicts Mary and Joseph fulfilling the commandments after birth by going to the Temple to make offerings, and while there they encounter the elderly Simeon, whose proclamation of Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” inspired the candle blessing several centuries later. Though it is not included in the reading for mass, the Gospel also mentions their meeting with the prophetess Anna, who at 84 stays in the Temple praying unceasingly; she also exults in Jesus and calls him the redemption of Israel.
Recently I’ve become more acquainted with St. Brigid of Kildare, whose feast is February 1, and discovered that the Celtic imagination links her with this Gospel story. Disregarding chronology, it is said in Ireland that Brigid accompanied Mary to the Temple, walking ahead of her with a lighted candle in each hand. Though it was windy, the candles remained lit. Lighting my own two candles in this morning’s dusk, I was grateful for this image of female companionship in the context of renewal and light.
Three years ago on this feast, I posted here about the meaning of Mary’s purification and learned a little bit about ritual purity in the process. I wrote this earlier post before embarking on any study of Judaism, and now I’m much more aware that we Christians tend to make too big of a deal out of purity requirements. Impurity referred to a ritual status and was not a social stigma as often interpreted. Anyone could become ritually impure — whether the high priest or a peasant — and there were remedies to address that state. Hence, Mary and Joseph bring the two doves for sacrifice. Though purity laws are foreign to us and may sound oppressive, the fact of their making an offering 40 days later does provide a moment to recognize that Mary physically gave birth. Her body went through childbirth, and she engaged in a religious ritual afterward. Besides eliminating that bodily association, the “Presentation of the Lord” as the main liturgical focus for February 2 is inaccurate historically. The Jewish Annotated New Testament indicates that there was no requirement or custom of presenting children in the Temple.
Lots to think about today!