Today, February 2, is the observance of the Presentation of the infant Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple, an episode depicted only in the Gospel of St. Luke. (See Today's readings.) This story is included in the Christmas Infancy Narratives despite the fact that totay we are well into Ordinary Time. In many locations and religious communities the Christmas observance extended up to this Fenruary 2 feast. I came across a rather good discussion of this Feast at a website called CatholicCulture.org, a very readable essay that goes further than I can here. This feast began in the Greek Eastern Church where it was called “the Encounter.” Around 600 A.D. the feast was taking root in Rome and later in Western Europe, and in France the feast became associated with the blessing of Candles, from which we get our popular title, Candlemas Day. If you look into your daily Missal or the Altar Missal, you will see an impressive ceremony for a procession and blessing of candles.
In 1969 Pope Paul directed that the name of the feast be changed to the Presentation of the Lord (from the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady.) Technically, by virtue of divine intervention, Mary was not in need of purification from the uncleanness of childbirth attributed to the event in the Jewish observance of the day. (If you have seen the fine film, “The Red Tent,” you have a sense of the customs of the time.
Paul VI evidently wanted to bring attention to the person and destiny of Jesus in this Gospel narrative. Luke and Matthew are the only two evangelists to include Infancy Narratives; Mark (the first evangelist) and John (the last) do not discuss Jesus’ earthly origins. Matthew and Luke have significant theological reasons for creating their respective Christmas prose. Matthew wishes to establish Jesus as the New Moses, and has the child flee from Herod (Pharaoh) and hide in Egypt (as Moses did in the basket among the reeds.)
Luke’s Infancy writing is a little more complex. He wishes to immediately establish Jesus as the new Spirit-filled Prophet and gives us the memorable faith statement, “conceived of the Holy Spirit.” He wishes to portray respect for Jewish Law and practice by having Mary and Joseph obey all the dictates of Law: circumcising their child, seeking maternal purification, making the traditional offerings to the Temple.
But both Matthew and Luke have another point to make. Their infancy stories are, in fact, predictions of the Passion and Death of Christ. Rage, sinister cunning, and death will pursue Jesus to Calvary. Matthew’s account of the Holy Innocents (the little boys killed by Herod) makes it clear that blood and tears will follow this new child throughout his life. Luke on the other hand, is more psychological in his telling of the tale. He quotes Simeon as telling Mary (the perfect disciple) that she herself will be pierced by a sword. Luke does not elaborate, leaving up in the air a good deal of tension over how Mary’s son will impact her—the preeminent disciple--in difficult ways.
The introduction of Candles by the French into today’s feast does makes eminent sense in another Biblical theme: the later Old Testament contains references to an Israel delivered by God, which would become “a light among the nations.” (The baptismal candles given to parents and godparents today are done with the prayer that the family will give forth the light of Christ.
It is sad that we don’t celebrate this feast on Sunday (except in those years when February 2 does fall on a Sunday.) The blessing of candles presents a catechetical opportunity: a lit candle in the home when the family gathers for prayer. Let me go one step further: although candles used in the celebration of the Eucharist must be white and of beeswax, this rule does not bind in your home. Have you considered a scented candle—the color of the appropriate liturgical season—installed next to the place where you pray, mediate, read, study religion? I used to use Yankee Candles, but when the cost became prohibitively high, I switched to my Publix grocer and Walgreen’s pharmacy for third of the cost. When I’m in my easy chair, candle lit, coffee at the reach, a quilt if necessary, and a sacred text or religious study in hand, I feel like I am in God’s study.