About the Feast

This feast is my earliest memory of Catholic liturgy. In 1971, my family was living in Glasgow, Scotland. It was my habit to spend Saturdays with my friend Mary-Anne G. On our way to a swimming pool one cold and rainy afternoon in February, Mary-Anne asked if I would mind attending a Catholic Mass with her before going to the pool. I did not mind, so we stopped at the church.

We were met inside the church door by the priest, who was wearing a white robe trimmed with crocheted white lace, and with him were two small boys similarly dressed. The boys held baskets of slender candles and handed one to each person entering the church, which seemed both small and ornate to my Presbyterian eyes.

I remember that the Mass was in some language I guessed was Latin. There was a lot of repeated standing, sitting, and kneeling. My mother had told me that at fancy dinners and strange churches, I should always follow what everyone else was doing, so I stood, sat, and knelt along with everyone else. I remember noticing that there was both peace and a distinct sense of ordinariness—a sense that there was nothing unusual or awkward about this ceremony. For some reason, church on a February Saturday afternoon was just part of normal life to this congregation.

Mass ended, so Mary-Anne and I went swimming. I forgot all about this experience for nearly twenty years, until, while meditating on the Rosary and reading about Jewish law, I connected the historical real event of the "presentation in the Temple" with a specific date—sometime in February. The memory of that cold and rainy Glasgow afternoon flooded back, and I then understood that the seeds of my conversion to Catholicism had been planted very early.

In Jewish law, forty days after the birth of her child, a mother was required to offer a sacrifice of purification before she could resume her normal activities and movement in society. At the same time, the first-born son was to be offered in thanksgiving to God. The Gospel of Luke (2:22-38) describes how Mary and Joseph fulfilled this command of the Law in Jerusalem. They may have remained in Bethlehem or Jerusalem while the Infant was still young, before the flight into Egypt. The Gospel also relates that, while the Holy Family was at the Temple, both Anna and Simeon recognized the Christ Child as the Messiah. This event is the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.

Celebrating the Feast

Because Christ was present at this event, it was instituted as a feast day quite early in the Church's history. The first recorded description of the feast, called the Feast of the Purification, is dated around the year 390. In 701, Pope Sergius I decreed that candles be used in the processions and celebrations of the Feast of the Purification (and three other feasts of Mary: the Annunciation, Assumption, and Nativity of Mary).

Blessing of candles at this feast was instituted about a century later. At the same time, other liturgical blessings of fire, water, and palms were introduced. Candles symbolize Christ: the wax His flesh, the wick His soul. As Christ gave Himself for us, the flame consumes the candle to give us light.

In some countries, families bring large decorated candles, similar to paschal candles, to the church for blessing on this day. After being blessed, these candles are taken home and lit at family feasts, at times of prayer, and at the bedside of the sick.

Candles of at least 51 percent beeswax are specified for use in the Church because beeswax candles are considered the sweetest and purest, the most appropriate type for symbolizing the humanity of Christ..

From this blessing of the candles, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord gained its alternate names Candlemas (English), Chandeleur (French), Candelora (Italian), Candelas (Spanish), Lichtmess (German), and Svijetlo Marijino (Light Feast of Mary:' Yugoslavian).