The Season's Finale
THE MEANING OF CANDLEMAS
Candlemas is the closing feast of the Christmas cycle, forming a beautiful transition to Easter. In this feast we see Christ still as a little Child in the arms of His mother, but we also see Mary already bringing her son to the temple to offer Him as a sacrifice to God. It is primarily a feast of our Lord and in the second place a feast of Mary.
THE MEETING OF MANKIND WITH GOD
In order to understand fully the liturgy of this feast, we must see it in relation to the other great celebrations of the Christmas cycle; Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas are the high-points of the winter cycle. In these feasts we can see a beautiful progression in mankind's reception of God's revelation and in mankind's union with God. At Christmas the "light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it." Only a few receive the light: the mother, the shepherds who stand beside the crib. At Epiphany the light shines forth over Jerusalem, the Church: "Arise, be enlightened O Jerusalem, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee," and the pagan world flows out of the darkness to enter Jerusalem the city of light. On Candlemas day the light is in our hands, we bear it both in the procession which is a special part of today's celebration, and in the Mass. The Church as a bride goes forth to meet the Lord her bridegroom, and full of longing she receives into her arms the Divine Mercy become man.
It is this very climax that makes the feast so beautiful. On Christmas the Church is completely in the background, the newborn divine King rules the liturgy. On Epiphany the Church appears "as a bride adorned with the garment of salvation, bedecked with her jewels" and the liturgy celebrates a wedding feast. Now we take still another step forward: the bride adorns her bridal chamber and goes forth to meet the bridegroom. Therefore we sing the wedding song: "O Daughter of Sion, adorn thy bridal chamber and welcome Christ the King; embrace Mary, for she who is the very gate of heaven, bringeth to thee the glorious King of the new light. Remaining ever Virgin, in her arms she bears her Son begotten before the day-star, whom Simeon receiving into his arms, declares unto all peoples to be the Lord of life and of death and the Saviour of the world."
It is precisely in the meeting of mankind with God that the main point of this feast lies. Indeed the Greeks call it Hypapante, the Meeting. Mankind officially meets the Lord in His temple, the Church. The invitatory of Matins, as a rule expresses the thought of a feast in the briefest form; on Candlemas we sing this invitatory: "Behold the Lord, the ruler, cometh in to His holy temple. Rejoice and be glad O Sion. Go forth to meet thy God." In the Mass we stand with outstretched hands to meet the bridegroom. we pray Psalm forty-seven: "We have received Thy mercy, O Lord, in the midst of Thy temple." So the thought of the meeting, the sacred union of humanity with her bridegroom Christ, rules the feast; the mediator of this meeting is the venerable figure of Simeon upon whom the liturgy dwells with loving attention.
A FEAST OF LIGHT: CANDLEMAS
A second important motif of the feast is the light, that great symbol of Christ and the divine life of Christ in us. The Church takes the words of the old man Simeon, "A light to enlighten the Gentiles," as an occasion to celebrate a true feast of light. She blesses candles to be used in her liturgy, and in the homes of the faithful. We should take these candles home to be burned during family prayer, during storms in times of trial, and especially when the sick receive Communion or the last sacraments are administered.
On this feast, the Church also reminds us of the baptismal candle which is a sign of every child of God and a symbol of the apostolic task of the laity. Every year on Candlemas we receive anew, as it were, a baptismal candle with which we can go forth with burning lamps to meet the Bridegroom when He comes to the wedding feast.
How beautiful is the symbolism of light! We each receive a blessed candle from the hand of the Church. Once again, as she has done over and over again with unstinted liberality through the course of the year, the Church gives us Christ and the Christ life. After we have each received our candle, we go in procession bearing the burning light which signifies Christian life and our task as Christ bearers.
The Palm Sunday procession is a counterpart of this Candlemas procession. On Candlemas we are light bearers, on Palm Sunday we are "martyrs," witnesses. The procession ends by leading us back into the Church, into the house of God which is the image of heaven; so shall we follow Christ through this life into heaven.
It is an especially beautiful and meaningful custom that at the Eucharistic Sacrifice on Candlemas the faithful hold their burning candles during the singing of the Gospel and during the canon, from the Sanctus until the Communion.
This has a profound meaning: in the Gospel and in the canon, Christ is present among us. That is why at every solemn High Mass lights and incense are brought in at these two times. On Candlemas the Church says to us: actually in every Mass you should bear lights in your hands, but the acolytes perform this action in your place. Now you yourselves are given the privilege of performing this function of the universal priesthood. So the Mass of this feast is a true Mass of light, almost the only one of the year.
On this feast the prophecy is fulfilled in which Malachy proclaimed the signal honor which the temple at Jerusalem would receive: that the Redeemer of the world would one day appear within its portals and be openly revealed to the people. For the first time Jesus enters His Father's house, the temple where He was to manifest Himself so often as the Messiah and the Son of God. The Introit, Gradual and Epistle are full of this thought, and the temple in Jerusalem to which they refer is a type of the true temple, the Church.
We commemorate and relive on Candlemas day the presentation of Christ, when He was offered in the temple to God the Father. According to the law every first born male child was dedicated to God in a particular way and must be presented in the temple to be redeemed. But for our Lord this presentation had a deeper meaning: God did not release His Son without a price; the presentation of Christ through the hand of Mary can be called the offertory of His whole life.
If we compare the redemptive life of Jesus with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the presentation in the temple corresponds to the offertory; the death on the Cross is the transubstantiation and elevation. At His presentation we can say that the divine sacrificial Lamb lays upon the paten. When the appointed time has come He will be offered to the Father; thirty-three years later upon the cross He will complete the sacrifice. Christ's presentation in the temple was indeed the offertory of the entire redemptive work, including the self sacrifice of all the faithful.
Candlemas is also a feast of our Lady who brings to God the sacrifice of her purification. By ordinance of the levitical law, every mother was obliged to be purified after the child birth for the word of the psalmist holds true of every child: "In sins was I begotten and in sins did my mother conceive me."
Certainly Mary was not bound by this law for she was the all pure one and her child was the spotless Lamb of God. Still, in humility and in a spirit of complete sacrifice with ready obedience she brought the offering of the poor, a pair of turtle doves. In imitation of our Lady and in memory of her purification, we Christians have a beautiful custom. As soon as a mother is able to leave her home after the birth of her child, her first visit is to the house of God; there she gives thanks for the safe delivery and offers her beloved child to the Lord, while the priest blesses mother and child. This is the liturgical blessing of the mother after childbirth. But this ceremony does not consist in a purification of the mother as under the Old Law; for us Christians no purification is necessary after the birth of a child. However we do commemorate Mary's act of humility in our present blessing: The mother stands at the door of the Church until she is conducted to the altar by the priest.
THE CANTICLE OF SIMEON
Our hearts are touched by the venerable Simeon with his ardent longing for redemption, the beautiful figure who had waited a whole lifetime for the Redeemer. With childlike faith, he prayed to the Son of God in the little child of the poor work-man; with glowing love, his heart grew young, for he held the infant Jesus in his aged arms. Now he demanded nothing more from this earthly life; he had seen his Redeemer and full of thankfulness he sang the night prayer of his life: "Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, in peace according to Thy word."
This beautiful canticle has been adopted by the Church as her night prayer and thanksgiving for the blessings and graces of salvation. We find the song of Simeon at the end of Compline, the official night prayer of the Church. Each evening we remember Simeon, holding the child Jesus in his arms, and with thanksgiving retiring from the service of God. When we pray the canticle of Simeon we are in a similar position; we also h are in the service of God; every day we too receive the Lord spiritually into our arms in faith and in grace and in the Eucharist: every evening we give thanks inwardly for all the mercies of God and we are ready whenever it is God's will to depart from this earth. "Now dismiss Thy servant, O Lord because my spiritual eyes have seen the redeemer Jesus Christ; He is my salvation; He is my light, dispelling the darkness of my mind and heart; He is my glory and my eternal reward!" May we always end the day with these thoughts, full of peace and surrender, which the Church gives us for our evening prayer.
Candlemas is the close of the Christmas cycle. On this feast the Church gives each of her children a candle as a souvenir of the gift of the whole Christmas season we have just celebrated. The candle will remind us all year that God is with us, that He is Emmanuel.
This is the day when we carry our lighted candle during the Gospel and during the canon and into our homes and everyday life. We are reminded that Christ is with us in a threefold way: in the word of God, especially in the Gospel; in the Eucharist; and throughout our lives in grace. Emmanuel, Christ with us: that is our Christmas gift for life.
Christ is with us in the word of God: Let us realize that the word of God is more than instruction, edification, consolation and warning; let us be aware that it has sacramental power. God comes with His grace in the sacraments, but also in the word of God. The word of God is a seed filled with life. Of course this seed does not bear fruit automatically, but only when the heart of man provides a receptive soil. Then the word of God indeed does bring forth Christ in us.
Christ is with us in the Eucharist: We are familiar with this great reality, that when we receive the Eucharist, we receive Christ. Perhaps we are less conscious of the reality that through receiving the Eucharist, we ourselves are gradually transformed and become more Christ like. The body of Christ is our manna through the earthly desert. It is a seed of glorification and a pledge of the resurrection.
Christ is with us through grace, especially the grace of our baptism. The candle which we receive on this feast is another baptismal candle. Since the Church supposes that we light and use up our baptismal candle during the course of the year, each year she gives us a new one. Each time she reminds us of the words of our baptism, "Receive this burning light and guard the grace of your baptism without blame, keep the commandments of God, so that when the Lord shall some to call you to the nuptials, you may meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly courts, there to live for ever and ever." The candle we receive on this feast reminds us of baptismal grace. That grace is Christ in us, the real Emmanuel. May we bear in our hearts the burning light of baptism during the whole coming year.
Christ is with us in the Gospel, in the Eucharist, and in grace. We cannot come closer to Him while we are on earth. We must wait until we reach heaven and there we will possess Him forever in a glorified manner.
© The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN
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