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Concerning Candlemas

This Sunday there is the option in our lectionary to celebrate Candlemas. This  Christian feast is observed on February 2nd but as its only two days away, this Sunday seems a good time as any to think about it. Here is a homily for Candlemas with some additional old poems and folk lore added on.

Hebrews 2 v 14-18

Luke: 2 v 22-40.

We come today to the ancient Christian feast of Candlemas, knowledge of the origins of which for many Christians may be slight.  Incase you are not too sure how it all came about, let me remind you briefly.

Candlemas is a Christian festival that commemorates the ritual purification of Mary 40 days after the birth of Jesus. It also marks the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple.

This goes back to the Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after the birth of a child, and were not permitted to enter the temple to worship.

But 40 days after the birth of a male child, or 80 days after the birth of a female child, a woman had to go to the temple or synagogue for her purification, taking with her a lamb to be sacrificed. After this she join public worship again and public life.

Echoes of this rather archaic view come through in the old prayer book service for the churching of women after childbirth.

According to Mosaic law, Mary and Joseph would also have brought their first-born son to the temple forty days after his birth to offer him to God, like all first-born sons, along with a pair of turtledoves.

The Presentation was originally celebrated in Jerusalem on November 21st but once Christ’s birth was fixed on December 25th (near the winter solstice), the Presentation and Purification rituals would fall forty days later in early February.

Pope Sergius declared it should be celebrated with processions and candles, to commemorate Simeon’s description of the child Jesus as a light to lighten the Gentiles. Candles blessed on this day were used as a protection from evil.

The readings for the service always contained  Luke’s account of the meeting of Jesus and his mother with the aged Simeon and  Anna – thus in the greek-speaking world the feast was called HYPAPANTE ( The encounter or meeting)

When Simeon encountered Jesus, The Messiah, after such a long, long wait in his life, he spoke those famous words which became known as The Nunc Dimittis – one of the canticles in evening prayer. Lord now lettest thou they servant depart in peace, according to thy word” He goes on to refer to Jesus as  “ a light to lighten the gentiles”  and from this reference the traditions of lighting candles and having processions with them grew up around candlemas.  The warm candlelight was intended to be a tangible reminder of that greater light which, for  and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus.

As with the feast of Christ’s birth – Christmas -which replaced the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia –some think that  Candlemas replaced a pagan Roman feast that was celebrated  some 40 days after their Saturnalia.  This ancient Roman feast had included a rather dissolate carnival which had magical features: its supposed effect was to purify the city and repel evil powers.

But in the Christian processions on Candlemas – feast of candles- the dark world of the pagans was met with the bright light of Jesus Christ – a light to lightened the gentiles. Darkness encountering the light of Christ.

Out with the old superstitious beliefs, in with the light of the risen Christ to dispel peoples fears and darkness.

If you search for information about candlemas on the internet, you might be surprised to learn that candlemas, given other various names, is also regarded as a key time in the world of folklore and white magic. A time when the forces of darkness are giving way to the forces of light.  There is something also at candlemas about its position in the seasons of the year.  Candlemas is a cross quarter day, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Many northern european pagans celebrated in various  ways on the quarter days and cross quarter days. It was no wonder that early Christians made a big Christian celebration out of Candlemas which gave new converts something wholesome to do rather than get involved with pagan activities.

Still, we might still find things of interest from the folklore attached to this time of year:

If Candlemas day be sunny and bright

Winter again will show us its might

If Candlemas day be cloudy and grey

Winter will soon pass away.

In the USA candlemas is called groundhog day – groundhogs being the equivalent of our hedgehogs. Why groundhog day?

Well, the groundhog coming out of his hole reminds us that winter is half over. The days are beginning to get longer. Spring is just around the corner. The tale goes that if when the groundhog comes out of his hole, and there is a shadow behind him, then the sun is shining – and winter still will be showing its might for some weeks. If there is no shadow, then  the sun isnt shining and winter will soon pass away. So, look out for hedgehogs today – any shadows around them?

Finally, Candlemas became the day when the supply of church candles was blessed. Worshippers would each be given a candle to take home to light at times of worry or fright, to light in the room of someone who was ill, to give comfort in an ancient world where darkness was far more evasive than in our 24/7 lit world.

This little whistle stop tour of the history of candlemas hopefully shows how tributaries from many historical and cultural sources have  shaped it. Of course, as with many old christian feasts, modern services tend to water down or forget its significance all together.

But if we focus on the theme on Jesus bringing light into the world then it can have a powerful and enduring significance for us.

Just take the image of a small flame burning in a dark room. Imagine the effect that the small flickering light has on the darkness. It’s a beautiful image for how the light of Christ can come into the dark areas of our lives and bring warm comfort.

Prayer which focuses on imaging warm, soft light entering our hearts and minds can bring us closer to a sense of Christ who ever wants to heal, comfort and strengthen us.

Then again, as Christians, we are called to  “shine as lights in the world, to the glory of God the Father”  – to quote the words in the baptism service when candles are given out after baptism. If we are bearers of Christ’s light – then we can’t but help reflect that light outwards to people we meet and situations we are in.

In our prayers too we can ask for Christs light to surround and heal a bitter and angry world. Imagine His light around the countries and communities which are hurting and angry. Imagine a gentle glow around the whole earth, created and loved into existence by God when he said “ Let  there be light” .

So – just a few suggestions for  making Candlemas relevant  in our contemporary Christian lives.  Whilst some of the origins of the feast and original ideas behind it may seem archaic to us now – the theme of Christs light and its healing powers is just as powerful and   necessary as ever.

Take a candle with you today, take it home and spend a few minutes with it lit as you pray for Christs life in your lives, in the lives of those who are hurting and fearful  and in the world.


* Traditionally On Candlemas Eve all Christmas greens must be taken down.

Robert Herrick ( The 17th century English Poet)  has this little poem on the subject:

Down with the Rosemary, and so
Down with the Baies and Mistletoe;
Down with the Holly, Ivie, all
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall;
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch there left behind,
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, Maids, trust to me,
So many Goblins you shall see.

He also alludes to the reservation of part of the candles or torches, as calculated to have the effect of protecting from mischief:

Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn
Which quenched, then lay it up again,
Till Christmas next return

Part must be kept, wherewith to teend
The Christmas log next year;
And where ’tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.

Here is a modern Christian Prayer for Candlemas

Lord of Light,

Enable us to carry with us

Through our daily lives,

The light of your presence.

May we fear no danger

May we reflect your love and light

In our words and deeds.


January 31st is called in the Churches Year ”  Septuagesima” – which means “seventieth”. It is the name given to the third from last sunday before Lent.

Here is a it more info from Wikipedia:

Septuagesima comes from the Latin word for “seventieth,” with Sexagesima and Quinquagesima equalling “sixtieth” and “fiftieth” respectively. They are patterned after the Latin word for the season of Lent, Quadragesima, which means “fortieth” because Lent is forty days long (not counting the Sundays, which are all considered little Easters). Because a week is only seven days long, not ten, and since even then only six of those days might be counted if the pattern of Quadragesima is followed, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, obviously don’t literally correspond to the periods of time they imply. Some have theorized, however, that Septuagesima may have been added to the liturgical calendar to commemorate the Babylonian Captivity, which lasted 70 years (there is evidence that some early Christians began fasting 70 days before Easter, but whether that custom originated from this is not entirely clear). It is interesting, however, that just about 70 days (68 actually) is the minimum number of days between the octave day of the Epiphany on January 13 and Easter, implying that a season just about 70 days long can always fit between the two.

I think I’ll stick to Candlemas tomorrow!

January 30, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

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