Candlemas Day, by Father B Rohner, OSB

detail from 'The Presentation of Christ in the Temple', by Tintoretto, 1550-1555, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, ItalyWe cannot state with certainty when the festival of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin was first established in the Church. We only know that it was observed in the city of Jerusalem during the century that followed immediately after the death of Christ. During a severe epidemic that raged in the city of Constantinople, in the year 541, the Emperor Justinian ordered the “Feast of the Meeting” to be kept every year on the 2nd of February. Among the Greeks it was called “The Meeting,” because on this day the gray-haired Simeon met the divine Child in the Temple.

This feast must have been introduced into the city of Rome by Pope Gelasius about the year 494. The pagan Romans had gradually, by war and conquest, subjugated nearly all the nations of the earth. The time appointed for all these conquered people to pay tribute to their conquerors was in the month of February, which, on that account, very naturally became a season of pleasure and dissipation in the metropolis. As a way of returning thanks to the gods, nightly processions were formed, in which each of the participants carried a burning torch. With a view of keeping the Christians away from these ceremonies and to utilize the civil festivities to the spiritual advantage of his flock, Pope Gelasius ordered that for the future, on the 2nd of February, which even at that time was called the feast of the Purification, a solemn procession with lighted tapers should take place to some church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

From the custom of blessing candles on this day and carrying them in procession, comes our old, familiar name of this festival, that is to say, Candlemas Day, or the day for the Mass with candles. The meaning of these burning candles may best be learned from the words of the prayers used by the priest when blessing them: “O Lord Jesus Christ, true Light, that enlightens every man that comes into this world, pour forth Thy blessing on these candles and sanctify them with the light of Thy grace, and mercifully grant that even as these lights, kindled by a visible flame, dispel the gloom of night, so also our hearts, made bright by an invisible fire, that is, by the splendor of the Holy Ghost, may be freed from the blindness of all vices, that the eyes of our minds being purified, we may be enabled to see such things as are pleasing to Thee and profitable to our salvation that so, after the dark perils of this life, we may attain to reach light unfading.”

Dear Christian, many years ago the priest who baptized you, gave to your sponsors a burning light and pronounced the following significant words which, although addressed to them, were meant for you, “Receive this burning light; keep thy baptism without stain; observe the commandments of God, that when the Lord shall come to the nuptial feast thou may go forth to meet Him together with all the saints and angels of the heavenly court, and may thou have life everlasting and live forever and ever, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”

Remember this warning well, and when, during the services of the holy Church, you see the candles burning brightly on the altar, then remember that you, too, should burn brightly by your good works in the eyes of men, of God and of the angels. If you follow this practice you will not be terrified when at the hour of your death the attending priest will reach you the blessed candle and pronounce the words, “Receive this burning light; it will be to thee a figure of Jesus Christ and of what we ourselves should be when we go to meet Him. Jesus Christ is our Light and we should hasten to meet Him with burning love.”

Prayer of Holy Church

Almighty and eternal God, bowing before Thy majesty we humbly beseech Thee that, as on this day Thy only Son was presented in the temple under the outward form of our nature, Thou wouldst also permit us to be presented to Thee with clean hearts and souls.

Hear, O Lord, our prayer and direct the help of Thy mercy towards us, so that the gifts that we bring to Thee may be made worthy of Thee and acceptable to Thy majesty.

Permit, O Lord, that the divine mysteries which Thou hast graciously established for our restoration, may, through the intercession of the ever Blessed Virgin Mary, contribute to our peace here below and to our eternal salvation hereafter-through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

– text taken from Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Her Feasts, Prayers, Religious Orders, and Sodalities, by Father B Rohner, OSB, adapted by Father Richard Brennan, LLD, published in 1898 by Benziger Brothers; it has the Imprimatur of Archbishop Michael Augustine, Archdiocese of New York, New York, 22 June 1898