Thursday, February 2, 2017

Candlemas 2017: A Festival Of Light Entering The World

Around our house on February 2 the words of Robert Herrick's (1591-1674) poem, Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve, have special meaning. 

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall.

The words remind that we have stretched this joyous Christmas holiday to its limit. As much as we love the season it does come to an end in the church calendar. And so today the last of the Christmas decorations have come down from the walls, doorways and mantel to be stored for next season. We'll build a fire in the den fireplace tonight but it will seem naked without its trimmings of red, green, gold and glass. But there will be light and warmth, both spiritual and physical, as this joyous Christmastide - the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany - comes to an end.

Readers undoubtedly will hear something about groundhogs today. They are less likely to learn that February 2 marks a Christian festival day. It is known in the western Catholic tradition as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin or Candlemas, and more often in the Protestant world simply as The Presentation of Our Lord.

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple            Hans Holbein, German, 1500

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:

In peace, Lord, you let your servant now depart 
according to your word. 
For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
which you have prepared for every people,
a light to lighten the Gentiles 
and the glory of your people Israel.

Here is Gustav Holst's 1915 setting of the song in Latin for eight voices:

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. 

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 did not emerge in the western church for at least another seven hundred years.

This day has other interesting attributes in addition to the end of Christmastide. It is also the mid-point of Winter, a cross-quarter day filled with pagan traditions symbolizing fire and the "return of the light"

I should note that earlier today on a nearby farm in metro Atlanta, General Beauregard Lee came out of his groundhog house and did not see his shadow. We look forward to the embrace of the warmth of an early spring. It seems Beau also forecast an Atlanta Falcons win in the upcoming Super Bowl.

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