WDTPRS: Candlemas

Today is the final “peak” arising from the liturgical cycle of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany.  Today, called in the traditional way and according to the older Roman calendar the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Holy Church would cease to sing the Marian antiphon associated with Christmas,

It is forty days since Christmas.

In the physical world, we in the Northern hemisphere are beginning to notice more and more the growing of the light of day.  The seemingly endless darkness of the short days has finally in a noticeable way been attenuated.  I have noticed in the last couple days that the birds have broken their silence and are beginning to sing in a different way, even though winter here as far from over.  Today’s feast is also about light, in the broader symbolic sense.

This feast has its name from the Blessed Virgin, because the Law in Leviticus required her to go to the temple for purification after giving birth.  The Lord did not need to be baptized by John in the river, for He had nothing to repent.  Mary did not need purification, for she was spotless.  But they desired to fulfill the Law.  This feast also reminds us of the beautiful tradition of the “Churching” of women after childbirth, a special blessing given by the Church, which has alas fallen into desuetude.  “Churching” was done in honor also of this moment in the life Christ’s Mother.

This is, however, really a feast in honor of the Lord: He is being offered to the Father in a foreshadowing of His greater Sacrifice for our salvation.  The theme of offering, of sacrifice draws our eyes away from looking back at Christmas and Epiphany forward to the Passion and Easter.

You remember the story from the Gospel, in Luke 2.  Mary and Joseph come to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the Law.  Firstborn males had to be dedicated to the Lord. The old woman Anna and the old man Simeon had the special grace from the Lord to have their dearest desires fulfilled before they died: to see the Messiah. It is in this moment that Simeon makes the prophecy about the sacrificial sufferings Mary will endure and he speaks his great Nunc dimittis, which Holy Church sings in the darkness at the end of the day for Compline.

In the traditional Roman liturgy today in larger churches there would be a special blessing of candles and a procession before Mass would begin.  The chants sung for the rite contain many references to light.  Also, a lighted candle is to be held during the reading of the Gospel and during the Roman Canon.  The candle brings to mind also our baptism.

In a way, the faithful really ought to have candles at all Masses.  But now, in High Masses, the “touchbearers” fulfill this role for the congregation.  Remember that the next time you see the candles come in: that’s you up there.

Remember: Holy Church gives us candles so that we will use them When I baptize, I suggest to people that they save the candle, with a label indiciting what it is and who was there, the name of the priest, etc.  Perhaps then they could save that candle against the day when, perhaps, it might be used as one of the candles on the altar for their wedding, or with a home Communion set, for when they need Last Rites.  The candle you receive on other days of the year, the Vigil of Easter for example, or for Eucharist processions, could be burned in times of trial or danger, as when storms are coming or there is social upheaval.  These candles remind us that we too out to be filled with light for others, in their darkness and difficulties, to see and be guided by.

Candles are beautiful symbols of our sacrifices.  They are like living things.  They eat and drink the wax from the bees, made collectively in association with sweetness.  They breath air.  They move in their flames as they flicker.  They communicate to our eyes a beautiful light and give contrast to their surroundings by illumination.  They burn out at the end of their span.  So do we.  They are consumed for the Lord in the liturgy.  So should we be.  We do all these things.   And so, using candles in important times is a very wholesome and Catholic practice.  Leaving one of these little candles in a Church, as a symbolic sacrifice of your prayers and petitions is entirely natural.

For Holy Mass on Candlemas we hear some splendid prayers.  Let’s look at a couple.

Here is the third of several prayers recited by the priest for the blessing of the candles.  In older days, the priest would be wearing a purple cope and would switch to white for Mass.  By the time of the 1962 Missale Romanum all the rites are in white.

Domine Iesu Christe, lux vera, quae illuminas omnem hominem venientem in hunc mundum: effunde bene+dictionem tuam super hos cereos, et sancti+fica eos lumine gratiae tuae, et concede propitius; ut, sicut haec luminaria igne visibili accensa nocturnas depellunt tenebras; ita corda nostra invisibili igne, id est, Sancti Spiritus splendore illustrata, omnium vitiorum caecitate careant: ut, purgato mentis oculo, ea cernere possimus, quae tibi sunt placita, et nostrae saluti utilia; quatenus, post huius saeculi caliginosa discrimina, ad lucem indeficientem pervenire mereamur. Per te, Christe Iesu, Salvator mundi, qui in Trinitate perfecta vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum.
R. Amen.

Daily Missal and Liturgical Manual (Baronius Press):

O Lord Jesus Christ, the true Light who enlightenest every man that cometh into this world: pour forth Thy blessing + upon these candles, and sanctify + them with the light of Thy grace, and mercifully grant, that as these lights enkindled with visible fire dispel the darkness of night, so our hearts illumined by invisible fire, that is, by the splendor of the Holy Spirit, may be free from the blindness of all vice, that the eye of our mind being cleansed, we may be able to discern what is pleasing to Thee and profitable to our salvation; so that after the perilous darkness of this life we may deserve to attain to neverfailing light: through Thee, O Christ Jesus, Savior of the world, who in the perfect Trinity, livest and reignest, God, world without end.

There is an adage that sin makes you stupid. Note the connection between vice and blindness and darkness.  The visible fire is not just a symbol of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  It also signifies life properly lived, a fact seen by others.

At the beginning of the procession an wonderful antiphon is sung.  Remember the Gospel.  Mary would have been brought within, carrying the Lord, the Light of the World, and led to a place of sacrifice, the offering of her Firstborn.  In the Churching of woman after child birth, they are met a the entrance to the church and then led forward.

Adorna thalamum tuum, Sion, et suscipe Regem Christum amplectere Mariam, quae est coelestis porta: ipsa enim portat Regem gloriae novi luminis: subsistit Virgo, ad ducens manibus Filium ante luciferum genitum: quem accipiens Simeon in ulnas suas, praedicavit populis, Dominum eum esse vitae et mortis, et Salvatorem mundi.

Adorn thy bridal-chamber, O Sion, and welcome Christ the King: with loving embrace greet Mary who is the very gate of heaven; for she bringeth to thee the glorious King of the new light: remaining ever a Virgin yet she bearest in her arms the Son begotten before the day-star: even the Child, whom Simeon taking into his arms, declared to the peoples to be the Lord of life and death, and the Savior of the world.

At Christmas we receive the Lord.  At Candlemas we offer Him.

In addition to the theme of light functioning throughout the rite there is also another echo of Christmas and Epiphany.  God meets man.  God comes to us, and we go to Him.  Today there is another meeting of God and man, expectant man, symbolized by Anna and Simeon.  The hymn sung in the procession frames our meeting, our Encounter as the liturgy of the Greek East calls this say, in nuptial terms.

In the Mass itself, we have the

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus,
maiestatem tuam suppliciter exoramus:
ut, sicut unigenitus Filius tuus hodierna die
cvm nostrae carnis substantia in templo est praesentatus;
ita nos facias purificatis tibi mentibus praesentari

This is an ancient prayer, going back at least to the 9th c. and is found Liber sacramentorum Romanae ecclesiae ordine excarpsus.

You will see what is happening quickly, if you are a student of Latin, by taking careful note of the ut in the second part, which leads to a subjunctive down the line.  Also, there is a typical sicut…ita constuction, the ita part having the subjunctive result of the ut.  There is a nice turn of phrase at the end, using a trop hyperbaton, whereby that tibi separates the two elements of the ablative absolute purificatis … mentibus.  I also like that use of praesentatuspraesentari, a trope called, if memory serves, polyptoton.

The word maiestas is associated with gloria, a divine characteristic which transforms us who encounter it.  Thinks of the transformation of Moses’ face after he met with the Lord in the tent or on the mount: he had to wear a veil because his face was too bright to look at.  Also, Romans liked addressing people in indirect ways.  We still do this in some formal discourse and letters.  It is courtly, courteous.  Here maiestas can be heard as a form of address: Your Majesty.  So, maiestas has layers on layers of meaning.

Note the philosophical language of substantia.  Some times people will argue that the switch from Greek to Latin, the spoken language in ancient Rome, is justification for using the “vernacular” today.  The problem with that argument is that the Latin used in the Church for prayer, was not the language spoken by the people. It had technical vocabuary (e.g., maiestas, substantia) and turns of phrase nothing like everyday speech (e.g., hyberbaton, polyptoton).

See what happens?  It all seems straight forward.  Then you start to drill.

Candlemas is a beautiful feast full of meaning and symbols.

Holy Church puts candles in your hands today, to remind you of your gifts and your duties.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    Thank you for this beautiful reflection! — and the connection to the Easter Vigil. Today is the end of the Christmas season, the preparation for Easter, and a reminder of the tongues of fire at Pentecost. So the three greatest Solemnities recalled on a cold February day.

  2. StJude says:

    My Easter vigil candle has been collecting dust since 2008.. time to go dust it off, light it and pray.

  3. Shamrock says:

    Thank you Father for reminding us in these dark days of our heritage…and the role of the lighted candle. Most beautiful reminder. For a lovely rendition of the Nunc dimitus go to Simeon’s
    Canticle by Hangad on Utube….very soothing way to end our day as darkness sets in.

  4. Ygnacia says:

    Once in the temple, Jesus was purified by the prayer of Simeon, in the presence of Anna the prophetess. Simeon, upon seeing the Messiah, gave thanks to the Lord, singing a hymn now called the Nunc Dimittis. Here is a link to a beautiful rendition of Nunc Dimittis by Palestrina:


    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.

    Lord, now you let your servant go in peace,
    your word has been fulfilled:
    My own eyes have seen the salvation,
    which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
    a light to reveal you to the nations
    and the glory of your people Israel.

  5. gloriainexcelsis says:

    This morning I participated in the choir, all six of us, for our sung Mass. We sang Mass IX of the Blessed Virgin and sang the propers for the Purification as well, the simple Rossini ones today. We hadn’t had an opportunity to practice together. Our families are spread out over a large rural area. We sang the Gregorian Ave Maria for an Offertory hymn and the Isaak “O Esca Viatorum” for Communion. Prior to Mass there was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction. Then Father blessed the small paraffin and large beeswax candles, passed out the paraffin ones to the congregation at the altar rail, as we kissed first the candle and then his hand. We had sconces to hold during Mass. The candles were lit and re-lit at the proper times. The Procession, antiphons, Canticle of Simeon, etc., followed the blessings and then Holy Mass. We are a small parish of about 35 families. Not everyone can be there on Saturday at 9 a.m., which is a workday for many; but a good representation attended. After Mass people took home a tall beeswax candle, one to a family. It isn’t necessary to be a big church to observe the beautiful liturgies afforded to the faithful for the graces they give.

  6. Athelstan says:

    This morning at Lourdes Chapel in the Crypt of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., was celebrated a special Mass for Candlemas according to the 1962 Missal, celebrated by Msgr. Thomas Olszyk (in white chasuble) of the Military Archdiocese, accompanied by several members of the choir of St. Mary, Mother of God (where the Juventutem March For Life was held last week). Candles were blessed; and a large overflow crowd was in attendance.

    In the dim light and dark recesses of the chapel, the words seemed especially powerful: ut, sicut haec luminaria igne visibili accensa nocturnas depellunt tenebras; ita corda nostra invisibili igne.

    Thanks to Fr. Z for this wonderful meditation on today’s feast.

  7. bernadette says:

    What a pleasant surprise I had this morning at Mass. In the vestibule the priest blessed all the candles that the parish would be using during the year and candles that the people brought to be blessed. Then we processed into the church carrying lit candles. There was a good sized crowd in attendance.
    After Mass we had our first Saturday procession and rosary followed by breakfast. I am loving my parish here in the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

  8. Christopher says:

    Thank you for this Father, and thank you Ygnacia for that beautiful rendition of Nunc Dimittis.

    God Bless.

  9. JKnott says:

    Such a profoundly beautiful reflection on this Feast and the candle. I passed it along to my friends. Thank you Father!

  10. Mary Jane says:

    Was supposed to sing at the Mass tonight…some beautiful motets, among them Palestrina’s 5-part Ave Maria…alas, caught the flu bug. :(

  11. moosix1974 says:

    Today we renewed our vows in the old rite at a TLM said by a very dear friend of the family. We were celebrating 20 years of marriage. All of our six (soon to be seven) children were present along with good friends and family. Our second oldest son surprised us by fully participating as an acolyte. (He had been training and preparing since this summer, but had not served at full capacity yet). I loved that this celebration ended up being on this most beautiful feast. It is the last of the infancy narrative of Jesus, of Christmas. Father gave a beautiful homily. We are truly blessed!

  12. disco says:

    “In older days, the priest would be wearing a purple cope and would switch to white for Mass.”

    We had the purple cope for the blessing and procession this morning.

  13. According to the Eastern Rite history, which often reaches back to stories we lost here in the West, Simeon had somehow offended God. His punishment was a long life and he couldn’t die until he saw the Messiah. Apparently Simeon was really really really REALLY old. Thus at finally beholding the Messiah, he happily sighed with relief “NOW you can dismiss me Lord!”

    I was fortunate to attend a 9:30 AM Mass at the Canons of the New Jerusalem with the full ‘fancy’ Tridentine chanted Mass too. Our candles were blessed with the full detailed blessing for candles from the old Rituale. We knelt to receive beeswax candles, first kissing the blessed candles and then the priest’s hand.

    In reference to prepping for disaster and The Three Days Darkness, one description from the many saints and mystics prophecies on this noted that only the light of a blessed pure beeswax candle will shed light during this terrifying time. Just in case, ya know, I made sure I had beeswax candles blessed!

    Thanks for the description of Candlemas Father, that was great. I had noticed the part in the blessing that gives the blessed candle the power to overcome our self-blinding sin “so our hearts illumined by invisible fire, that is, by the splendor of the Holy Spirit, may be free from the blindness of all vice “.

  14. CatherineTherese says:

    A question for my fellow Z-readers:

    I did not get my act together in time to obtain pure beeswax candles for yesterday’s beautiful Candlemas in the TLM (my first Candlemas experience!).

    Would a priest be put off if I were to request his blessing of candles on a different day? Does the blessing / rite change (it would seem a priest would not go through the entire rite outside of Candlemas itself)? If he simply blesses them quickly, would the blessing still satisfy the prophecies concerning the three days of darkness?

    (Or ought I wait until next year’s Candlemas?)

  15. JaneC says:

    We had a beautiful Mass in the Dominican Rite yesterday morning. We had to make some adaptations, because the rite envisions the procession occurring in a priory rather than a parish, but it turned out very well. In the Dominican Rite, there are four antiphons to be sung during the procession around the church. It is a curious coincidence that the first of these antiphons is exactly the same text as the troparion for the day in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

  16. OrthodoxChick says:

    This is so beautiful! I’ll have to go back and re-read it a few more times to let it sink in more fully. We’re in between parishes this year – one an OF and the other, an EF. This weekend, we had obligations at the OF parish. Some of my family is ready to go EF full-time, but several want to stay OF (ugh). Talk about seeing the light (EF) with darkness all around me. Our OF is not what it could or should be. If it were, perhaps I’d have no need to try to steer my family away from one and toward the other. There were no candles placed in my hands today, but thanks to this beautiful article, I have a heightened awareness of the gifts God has given to me and my duties to form my children properly in their Catholic faith.

    By the way, the OF pastor mentioned yesterday that today (Sunday) is the feast of St. Blaise. He read the blessing aloud to everyone as the final blessing at Mass last night, but there was no opportunity to go up and have your throat blessed with candles. I haven’t been in an OF parish that offered the blessing of the throat since I was a child. I dearly miss it.

  17. Hey CatherineTherese: In the O.F., priests frequently bless candles during the year, but the common blessing today is a different blessing than what the old Ritual book has. In my experience, when asking a priest to bless on the fly, the ‘new’ O.F. blessing is generally a sign of the cross and a ‘bless these candles’ or something extemporaneous, and maybe a sprinkle of holy water.
    In the old Rituale, the E.F. blessing is way more detailed and specific, giving the power of the candle specific characteristics. I don’t know how the blessing of candles differs from an ordinary day and Candlemas in the E.F. I’m guessing its just a reading out of the blessing in the old Ritual book, while Candlemas includes prayers in the Mass, processions and hymns. Maybe somebody here knows?
    It would depend on the priest on whether he blesses candles at all, and whether or not he’s open to blessing your candles using the old Rituale.
    Who knows how the Three Days Darkness will occur, if ever – prophecy is only prophecy. The blessed beeswax candle is just in case.

  18. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Belated thanks fro this Candlemas post – belated, unless one were to think in terms of an Octave…

    F. Holweck in his readable (and complementary) 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia article writes “In the Middle Ages it had an octave in the larger number of dioceses; also today the religious orders whose special object is the veneration of the Mother of God (Carmelites, Servites) and many dioceses (Loreto, the Province of Siena, etc.) celebrate the octave.”

    How is that today, with respect to orders – and dioceses?

    That your (welcome!) Baronius Press translation included “who in the perfect Trinity, livest and reignest, God, world without end” got me wondering about the 1962 text: “qui in Trinitate perfecta vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum.”

    The two earlier Missals I had to hand and checked both have “qui in Trinitate perfecta vivis et regnas Deus per omnia saecula saeculorum.”

    Did something happen in 1962? (Or is a more recent textual slip?)

    (Incidentally, has there ever been liturgical calendrical attention to the ‘Churching of St. Anne’ on 29 Novemeber – if I’ve counted out the 80 days aright, as Holweck reminds us ” for a maid-child the time which excluded the mother from sanctuary was even doubled”?)

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