SARAH BOSS tells the development of this feast of lights, known now as the Presentation
CANDLEMAS IS ONE of the most beauti
ful and mysterious feasts in the Church's calendar. It takes its name from the custom of carrying candles at Mass, although the feast and the candles both date back to a pagan celebration which marked the "quickening" of the year.
Fire has the power to purify as in the refining of metals and so it was often associated with purity of different kinds. Rituals linking fire to the beginning of February have survived in the blessing of St Blaise, on 3 February, which is said to keep the throat "pure" in the sense that it is kept free from harm. Like wise the feast of St Brigid falls on 1 February, and in Ireland in ancient times people lit fires in her honour.
Luke's Gospel tells us that Mary went to the Temple to be purified after childbirth, in accordance with the Law of Moses, and Mary's purification, 40 days after the birth of her son, is one of the things which we celebrate at Candlemas.
To many people in the modern world, the idea of purification after childbirth seems strange, and demeaning to women. Yet it has not always been regarded in this way. Childbirth and blood are at the foundations of our very life, and for this reason some cultures regard them as being filled with a sacred power which makes them in some way "unsafe" in the everyday world.
In this context, the reason a woman is purified after giving birth is not that she is "dirty", in the ordinary sense of the word; rather, she is in a condition similar to that of, say, a eucharistic chalice which still contains some traces of the precious blood, and which cannot be handled as an ordinary vessel until it has been cleansed of its sacred contents. Purification returns a woman to the world of the mundane.
Purification can also be seen as a sacred acknowl edgement of the fact of a woman's motherhood. A GP friend of mine told me that he thinks that some of the medical check-ups which modern women undergo after childbirth are not of much medical value, but are a substitute for older rites such as "churching".Women need public recognition of their maternal status, and society as a whole needs to make such an act of recognition. But for Christians, is it not better that such an action should be made explicitly before God, so that we declare openly that the bodily processes of life-giving are divine in their origin and purpose?
Traditionally the Church kept Candlemas in large measure as a celebration of Mary's personal purity. Purity was often understood as a powerful condition which was marked by the absence of evil, and, for this reason, farming communities who began ploughing at this time of year would carry out rituals of purification to protect their fields and crops from pesti lence and so ensure a good harvest. Mary's purity was thus associated with the purity, and hence the fertility, of the earth.
Nowadays partly because purification rituals are no longer widely practised or understood the Church tends to focus most strongly on the fact of Jesus's presentation in the Temple which accompanied Mary's purification. The old prophet Simeon recognises in the infant Jesus the one who will be the saviour of Israel and of the world, and he proclaims Jesus to be "the light to enlighten the Gentiles".
And so it is that, even in 1997, many of us will stand huddled up in the dark in our winter clothes, holding candles loaded with meanings accumulated over centuries, and we shall know that we are in the presence of something sacred.