Non Solum: The Presentation of the Lord, aka. Candlemas

Every February 2nd the Church celebrates the Presentation of the Lord. This feast marks Christ’s presentation in the temple. Following Mosaic law, Mary took Christ to the temple to be redeemed 40 days after his birth. There Christ was greeted by Simeon and Anna. From Simeon’s blessing of Christ we get the Nunc dimittis. This canticle is used in some Lutheran churches as a hymn after communion. In the Roman tradition, it made its way into Compline.

Historically the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord has also been known as Candlemas. On this day, candles were blessed. While this tradition is more a European than an American one, I am curious to know how people celebrate the feast.

Do you bless your church’s candles? Do you process with lit candles? How does your community celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord?

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33 comments

  1. February 2 happens to also be the memorial of the “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary” which is the official title of my parish of St. Mary. Therefore, we try to stress the importance of the day in the life of the parish by celebrating the blessing of candles at an evening Mass, except when the feast occurs on Sunday. Then the rite takes place as the entrance rite of the normal Sunday morning Eucharist. We invite all parishioners to bring a candle to the Mass that they will use in their homes for times of prayer. It can be any type of candle, not necessarily a beeswax or “church approved” candle. We also have a candle decorating period during our Parish School of Religion formation session the previous Sunday where each child brings a candle (we supply candles for children whose parents might have forgotten to send one with their child or may not be able to afford one) and with various materials supplied by the PSR program coordinator the children decorate their candles. Parents are encouraged to join in the fun and help their children. As pastor, I make sure to visit the candle decorating time and talk with the children about the symbolic significance of candles in the life of the church (such as Jesus is the light of the world, their baptismal candles, etc.). I also tell the story of Simeon and his canticle. The children are encouraged to bring their candle to the parish feast day Eucharist and take part in the blessing and a simple procession. Anyone who brings a candle is invited to gather in our church’s rather compact vestibule and entry space where the lights have been dimmed or turned off for the blessing. All process to the foot of the sanctuary via the center aisle, venerate the altar with a bow and go to their pews by side aisles during a simple sung refrain such as “The light of Christ has come into the world.” If the weather would cooperate and not be too cold/windy/raining/snowing we would gather in our faith formation center building next door to the church for the rite and process to…

  2. Growing up in the US, I never heard of it. This despite the fact that it still appears in the NO Roman Missal, or at least in the Latin versions I’ve found on line–certainly it wasn’t in our monthly missalettes. For the past few years, however, I’ve been lucky to be able to assist at the evening Candlemas (EF) at Ramsgate (UK).

    Last year Candlemas fell on a Sunday, and our NO parish did the candle-thing at the beginning of mass. Possibly the first time it’s been observed since the liturgical changes. Nothing at all happening this year, though, as it’s on a weekday.

    Candlemas is the real end of the Christmas season, the new liturgical calendar notwithstanding. Kate Rusby’s version of Robert Herrick’s Candlemas Eve is an essential resource here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KOj5omJujw (original lyric here: http://www.bartleby.com/337/368.html). It’s kind of a post-Elizabethan version of Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which we actually used to sing at Mass during the folk Mass craze of the early 70s (along with Dylan and Glen Campbell). I wonder if any parish music directors would consider using it this year?

    1. I didn’t mean to imply that the blessing of candles was optional. I was speaking to the history of the feast. I should have said “have been” instead of “were.”

      At one church I went to they also blessed all of the candles used by the church throughout the year. I thought that was a nice touch.

      1. @Nathan Chase – comment #9:
        Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, South Bend, IN will anticipate the Presentation this coming Sunday with the distribution and blessing of candles (a box of two blessed beeswax candles for every family, consistent with traditional Catholic practice) before the Liturgy in the “gathering space.” And, by the way, Lutheran Worship books also include the Nunc Dimittis at Compline.

        Now if only I could convince them to offer the St. Blase blessing of throats before the dismissal….

      2. @Maxwell Johnson – comment #10:
        That is exciting news! I thought the Nunc Dimittis might also be in some of the Lutheran traditions at Compline, but unfortunately all my hymnals are back at home and not in Leuven so I could not double-check.

  3. We follow the Roman Missal for the day, but do not gather outside but rather inside at the entrance of the church, and candles are given to the laity, the ones we use for the Easter Vigil which are then blessed as per the Missal and we follow the Missal and its chants for this prelude. And then we process to the altar during the Missal’s chanted Introit. We also invite people to bring candles from home to be blessed if they wish.

  4. Thanks, Tony #2 for the Herrick links.
    Candlemas for me brings back memories of Candlemas 1972. On 30 January that year, “Bloody Sunday”, at a civil rights protest in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland, 13 were shot dead by British soldiers; another died later. Others were injured. I was a hospital chaplain (not in Derry). On Candlemas we has Mass in the hospital chapel, remembering those involved in Bloody Sunday. We had a candle for each of the 100 or more in the chapel.
    What I remember most about that was that right in front was the chief surgeon of the hospital, a fine man and a fine doctor, for whom religious faith in any standard model did not feature. The symbol of the candle, of the light, in the aftermath of the darkness of Bloody Sunday, struck home with him; he insisted that he take the candle away with him (which of course we encouraged).
    We never know to whom a symbol will speak more deeply than words.
    Did you ever notice: holding a lighted candle in a disc of cardboard to catch any wax spills, there is a circle of darkness on the card immediately surrounding the candle?
    A light to enlighten the nations.

  5. Thank you Fr. McCarthy for your recollection.

    The Candlemas procession is not feasible for most Catholics who go to daily Mass. It’s a shame that the full ritual, regardless of liturgical form, is usually only available to religious houses. Still, I think that it is more important for people to go to daily Mass than miss Mass altogether because of time constraints. Oh no! Am I suggesting that not all the ritual be followed exactly as written, and in Latin? 😉

    Candlemas is a holiday which, though arguably pre-Christian in many respects, is quite significant in its symbolism. Of course, most of us do not live in an agrarian culture anymore. Still, the light of the Lord at his presentation dispels the darkness of the northern hemisphere, at a bleak time and for some people a time of depression. There is a hope of the sun and son in this ritual.

  6. Anyone in the New York City area who is longing for or interested in seeing the feast celebrated well should head to St. Mary the Virgin.
    More candles than can be counted… and blue incense are some fond and fine memories… together with a full church and wonderful music.

  7. The English Oratory was founded by Blessed John Henry Newman on 1st February 1848, so the Feast of the Purification is always celebrated with great solemnity. On Sunday, the Birmingham Oratory will be celebrating Solemn First Vespers of the Feast and on Monday we will have a High Mass in the Extraordinary Form, preceded by the blessing of candles and a procession.

    It is a feast which has great personal resonance for me. I was ordained on 1st February 2013 and celebrated my first mass the following day. Our choir sung all seven movements of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, plus Byrd’s Senex Puerum at the Offertory and Bach’s Komm Heliger Geist (BWV 651) at the recessional. It was a glorious occasion, which I don’t think I shall ever forget.

  8. Would it be possible to reason together about candles? I think first and foremost of the Paschal candle as a preeminent symbol of Christ our Light. Then I think of the candles presented to the baptized. The candles of the Advent wreath and their blessing has become a custom in recent years. And finally I think of altar candles. But candles in homes as something more significant than searching for in a power outage leave me only to wonder what clerics or traditionalists are up to with regard to the Feast of the Presentation. The idea that we are more or less catholic or faithful by the way we observe this day strikes me as odd. We’ve survived nicely without rogation days, Sundays after Pentecost, and regarding meals of shrimp and fish as penitential acts. Even the use of the term feast day strikes me as curious when practically no one celebrates them with any kind of festivity. Perhaps we should be more practical and less churchy when it comes to these matters. Becoming intentional and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ has little to do with blessing candles.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #13:

      ‘We’ve survived nicely without rogation days, Sundays after Pentecost, and regarding meals of shrimp and fish as penitential acts.’
      Well, here in the UK the bishops have re-instated meatless Fridays, though personally I think the horse is long out of the that barn, and anyway most people (I’m pretty sure) are blissfully unaware of the resurrection of fish on Fridays.
      But I disagree 100% that we’ve ‘survived nicely’ without Sundays after Pentecost, octaves, and other dates of the Christian calendar. Every year Lent sneaks up on me, simply because the ‘Gesimas were eliminated…it’s usually Holy Week before I get around to deciding what to give up (last year it was broccoli). It will come as no surprise to the blog censors that I regard the NO calendar, something that was definitely not directed by Vatican II, as a grave mistake. “Ordinary Time?” We have lost the rhythm of the year.

      Yet saying that, as others have pointed out, Candlemas and its rites did somehow make the cut when the NO was rolled out. And yet I never experienced it till I was nigh on 50.

      “Becoming intentional and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ has little to do with blessing candles.”
      Nor with opening Christmas presents, or hiding Easter eggs. Should those customs, too, be suppressed? That way Puritanism lies.

    2. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #13:
      It’s fussing about with special rites on special days understood only by a handful of special people who are in-the-know. We busy ourselves with these kinds of minor projects at the expense of engaging the lost and unchurched. This is a prime example of lovely little traditions that may stand in the way of what God has called us to do: preach the Gospel, faith and life change, to all people with urgency.

      1. @Scott Pluff – comment #16:
        I really don’t see how an hour spent thinking about how to worthily to celebrate Jesus the light of the world is somehow at odds with engaging the lost and unchurched. One of my problems with the whole “Rebuilt” approach is that it seems to think that if something reaches only a few people (particularly if they are “church people”) then it’s a waste of time. I can’t really believe that God thinks that way.

      2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt (#19): +1

        I’ll also point out that, IMO, the rather minimalist approach that appears to be espoused by Mr Pluff and Fr Feehily (and perhaps also by the “Rebuilt” approach?) doesn’t seem to fit particularly well with Sacrosanctum Concilium 5-19, particularly para. 10.

      3. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #19:
        Agree; and another thing: the very reason that the “special rites” that we “fuss about with on special days” are only “understood only by a handful of special people who are in-the-know” is precisely because they’ve been taken away from the faithful. If people are unaware of these rites, it’s because they’ve been deprived of them by neo-Puritans.

        People have an innate hunger for ritual, for symbolism, for beauty. It’s human nature. It’s in our DNA. I don’t understand why we’ve spent a generation trying to take this away from them.

      4. @Tony Phillips – comment #21:

        I think your comments on this thread have come out of a personal experience in which Candlemas mostly did not figure. I have to say that I have never encountered a parish which did not celebrate this feast and bless candles. The truth probably lies somewhere between those two extremes, yours and mine.

        Far more interesting than this discussion about candles would be one about the perception of the feast. Since the 1969 Ordo Lectionum Missae it has been quite clear that the Church regards this day as a feast of the Lord: “The Presentation of the Lord”. Prior to that, it was a Marian feast: “The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. I suspect that most Catholics still think of it in those terms.

        I remember once trying to explain this to a nun, waxing lyrically that the main thrust of this feast was an early manifestation of Jesus’s divinity, rather than about the Jewish Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth. She responded, in an Irish accent, “But of course he was her son, wasn’t he?” !

      5. @Paul Inwood – comment #27:

        Paul (no. 27), you may be right. Indeed, I’m cheered to hear that in some US parishes the feast is celebrated. I never encountered it growing up in suburban Boston (US)–and that included going to a parochial elementary school, a Catholic high school, and frequenting the Catholic student centre at my (non-Catholic) university. But then, I never heard of Sexagesima or Ember days or Rogation days either.

        I think comment no. 13 has a point (“Even the use of the term feast day strikes me as curious when practically no one celebrates them with any kind of festivity.”)…but the answer is not to abolish feast days but rather to up the level of festivity. We need the cycles of the liturgical calendar–they fill a deep psychological need. When the calendar is reformed (restored), it’ll be crucial to keep this in mind

      6. @Scott Pluff – comment #16:
        Tosh. The special rites and special days have been treasured by laity and clergy alike for centuries. You talk as if some kind of zero-sum game exists wherein energy expended on blessing candles may not be used for mission and outreach. Mainline Protestantism has a similar attitude, and those churches are shrinking.

        I suspect that lying behind this attitude is the assumption that laypeople are just so bone-stupid that they can’t possibly be expected to understand or appreciate the Church’s rites and traditions, and so we had better keep the Mass and everything associated with it as simple and short as possible. It also works as a fine pretext for clergy who would really rather be social workers, and who view the Mass as an unpleasant and onerous obligation to be shucked off as quickly and carelessly as possible.

    3. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #13:

      I agree, Fr. Jack. No Catholic should be considered “more or less” Catholic because he or she does not observe one of the customs of the faith such as the blessing of sacramental candles. Mass is the center and summit of Catholic life. We can’t go without Mass or any of the other six sacraments. Even so, sacramentals have a way of weaving themselves into people’s lives.

      I am not Polish by any real sense even if I have a Polish last name, but I do remember older relatives saving their Candlemas candles as precious sacramentals. Would they cease to be devout Catholics without the Candlemas candles? Certainly not. The little things, like the candles, helped them to preserve their observance. Isn’t that reason enough to continue these practices?

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #23:
        Sacramentals like blessed candles were once important expressions of faith and devotion for the average Catholic. I believe this time has come and gone for the majority of Catholics, making these holdovers from another era. What might the contemporary equivalent of blessed candles be? What can we give people today which will effectively inspire faith and devotion the way sacramentals did for our grandparents?

        Rather than spend an hour driving across town to pick up the Candlemass candles, we might spend that hour looking for an iPhone app for prayer, scripture, or spirituality that would appeal to our parishioners and then make a plan to promote its use.

      2. @Scott Pluff – comment #25:

        Scott: Rather than spend an hour driving across town to pick up the Candlemass candles, we might spend that hour looking for an iPhone app for prayer, scripture, or spirituality that would appeal to our parishioners and then make a plan to promote its use.

        I’m not entirely certain that a rush towards a digital/digitized evangelization is a surefire way to bring people back to church and keep them interested in practicing their faith. I know people who say the office and read devotionals from their electronic devices. That’s great! This should be encouraged and even demonstrated to other people who have electronic devices but don’t know how to integrate them into their prayer. What shouldn’t be presumed is that a person who is technologically savvy necessarily desires an inclusion of electronic devices into his or her prayer life.

        I am a hobbyist computer programmer, and have no shortage of devices. However, I prefer to read my office from a book and say the rosary using rosary beads. When I am at home praying, at Mass, or praying before the Blessed Sacrament, I prefer to place aside devices which remind me of work and other responsibilities. It’s as if placing aside electronic devices and even turning them off are reminders that this time is for sustained and most of all quiet worship.

        Silence and quiet are precious commodities in our day. Sometimes I am stronger when I present myself before the Lord without the accessories of the everyday.

  9. The Presentation on the Temple is not about blessed candles any more than Palm Sunday is about palms. Both feast have suffered from reductionism, the candles are to be carrie in procession. They are blessed because everything was blessed, including the incense.

    The Presentation in the Temple is to Christmas what the Ascencion is the Easter, both forty days feasts of fulfillment. Christ comes as a light into our world, not to remain here but to open the way to the heavenly city.

    Just as on Palm Sunday, the entry into the church is a focal part of the liturgical action, so is the entry into the church on this feast. In Christ we have already entered the heavenly city.

    This feast is an important element in the Christmas cycle because it focuses our attention to future in a culture where Christmas is all too easily seen as looking to the past.

  10. People want to be part of a family, a community, a culture. Families and cultures have traditions. Peoples and cultures perdure through the ages because they pass on their traditions, and those traditions form them in a communal identity. For sure, some of these traditions are more important than others, and the ways we celebrate them can evolve over time, but I think the revival of so many “lost” cultural elements to the Roman Catholic faith speaks to a desire many have for fleshing out the living of a life full of the faith.

  11. Perhaps I spoke too bluntly owing to my frustration with steadily declining participation in the Mass and other sacraments along with other signs of people leaving the church. Candlemass is a beautiful tradition, one that my parish will celebrate at our daily Mass next week.

    Unfortunately, schedules and budgets are zero-sum. An hour spent on one task is an hour that cannot be spent on another. Even as a longtime pastoral liturgist, I recognize that maintaining minor traditions that appeal to a handful of people is a lower priority than seeking the lost who number in the thousands.

    The parishes where I served previously have had little to no organized effort at evangelization. If it came up in some committee meeting, it was mentioned as something we should be doing, but we just don’t have the staff, budget, time or energy. Yet there seemed to be plenty of time for organizing bake sales, raffles, cliquish socials for the old guard, small and shrinking sodalities, and, yes, minor liturgical rituals that attract a small handful of people.

    1. @Scott Pluff (#23): An hour spent on one task is an hour that cannot be spent on another.

      In the liturgical universe, I wonder how true this actually is. After all, “[f]rom the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way” (SC 10).

      So every minute spent in service of the liturgy goes towards not just “maintaining minor traditions that appeal to a handful of people”, but opening up the faithful to the grace of God, forming them in the spirit of the liturgy (cf. SC 17) and in the Christian life, in order that they can say to the world “Come and see!”

      (#25) I believe this time has come and gone for the majority of Catholics, making [sacramentals] holdovers from another era.

      The Council Fathers would seem to disagree:

      “By [sacramentals] men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy. Thus, for well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event in their lives; they are given access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery of the passion, death, the resurrection of Christ, the font from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power.” (SC 60-61)

      Instead of writing sacramentals off, how about we actually teach our brethren about them and, by helping them become “well-disposed”, give them more opportunities to participate in/by sacramentals? Bless more objects, more food, more occasions – and yes, more candles! – as a aid to and part of our evangelisation!

  12. The Candlemas procession is one of two (outdoor) processions before Mass that the liturgy has kept, the other being Palm Sunday. Meanwhile, we have devotional processions which are more popular. I wonder were we to try to emphasise the two strictly liturgical processions in every parish – Christ the light of the world entering the Temple and Christ the Saviour entering Jerusalem before Passover – what would happen?

  13. Just a few weeks ago I attended the SEEK Conference in Nashville (run by FOCUS) with 10,000 college-aged Catholics, and I can tell you I have never seen more scapulars, medals or rosaries in my life. My arm was tired from blessing hundreds of religious articles. Those are some of the main young people who are bringing zeal and energy to their peers at their respective colleges. They use and wear these sacramentals because, #1, they help them personally in their own prayer lives, but also #2, because they serve as conversation starters with their peers. Have you noticed how many young people are pierced and tattooed from head to toe these days? They are searching for identity and ways to signal that identity to their peers. We’ve got a 2000 year head-start on the culture, and are afraid to blow off the dust! Maybe it wasn’t so needed 50 years ago, but it seems to be needed again now. Go into the treasure house and bring out the new and the old.

  14. Case in point: We decided to add 2 traditions to our liturgical life at the parish in which I directed music several years ago. The burning of the palms for Ash Wednesday, and the burial of the Alleluia. They created an atmosphere in which the assembly sat up and took notice. They announced the coming of Lent and by ritual explained why we do what we do. Many (many) people commented it was the first time they really noticed the absence of the Alleluia during Lent. And they thought about it every Sunday of Lent because we ritualized it’s departing. Many (many) people also commented that the ashes had deeper meaning for them because now they felt a connection to them. They were no longer “store bought”. They came from the people to be distributed among those same people. For the first time, many elements of our liturgy we do year after year… became clear. And might I add, without a long winded diatribe about why one should see the importance of these actions. They were important because we lived the experience. This works with candles too, you know. Never underestimate the importance of any liturgy or ritual in the lives (and faith) of the assembly. It’s not about whether or not we do the action. It about how much care we put into the planning and how well we implement the action. It’s all about loving what we do enough to do it exceptionally well, with dignity and beauty.

  15. Ed Foley has a wonderful reflection on the meaning of the Presentation together with Groundhog Day in the current issue of Give Us This Day.

    Since we had 19+” inches of snow yesterday, a small gathering for Eucharist today, but we had candles galore lit and to be blessed.

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