|Menologion of Basil II c. 1000 CE|
The festival marks the fortieth day following the birth of Jesus. Under Mosaic law, it was a day for temple rites completing the purification of a woman following childbirth. It was also the day to present the firstborn son for redemption in the rite of pidyon haben.
The Candlemas tradition emerges from Luke 2:22-39 where Simeon prays over Jesus with words that would become known as the Song of Simeon or Nunc Dimittis:
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine,
secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium,
et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.
Beginning around the third century following the birth of Jesus, the blessing of candles and their procession about the church on this feast day became a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world. The practice emerged in the western church around 1000 CE.
Here is Arvo Part's setting for this sacred song:
This day has other interesting attributes. It marks the end of the traditional Christmas season in the Catholic calendar. It is also the mid-point of Winter, a cross-quarter day filled with pagan traditions symbolizing fire and the "return of the light."
In our house, the last Christmas decorations have been removed and stored for another cycle. Our fireplace seems naked without its trimmings of red, green, gold, silver and glass. But the fire therein brings light and warmth, both spiritual and physical, as this joyous season comes to a close.