That wonderful old English carol (originally a form of catechesis in a time of persecution) stops at the 12th day, but today is actually the 40th day of Christmas. Like Christmas itself, this is a very ancient feast, rich in multiple meanings. Just consider the various names this day has had over the centuries. In the Eastern Churches, today is called the Encounter, the Feast of Meeting. In the West, we currently call it the Presentation of the Lord, but for several centuries it was the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And its most common title in English remains Candlemas Day, because of the special Blessing of Candles and Procession with which we began this celebration. All these different names hint at how full of meaning this festival is, and how much it has to teach us.
In our electricity-illuminated world, candles are quaint and cute – and, for some, romantic. But before electricity, candles were none of those things. They represented light – above all, light at night, light in the dark. Especially in winter, when the days are dark and the nights are long, light is treasured. And so we have a series of winter light festivals, of which Christmas itself is the most elaborate, with Candlemas coming at the end of the winter-Christmas season.
The secular American equivalent of Candlemas is, of course, “Groundhog Day” – not the movie, but the day itself and the peculiar customs connected with it. So even people who have never heard of Candlemas and long ago left Christmas behind with the rest of the past year still recognize this day and connect with the change of seasons. The weather may still be wintry, but the days are definitely getting longer. Unlike Christmas, which came at the mid-point of the dark season, with winter’s shortest day and longest night, Candlemas comes at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal everywhere in the world. And so this final winter light festival looks forward. And so, even as we recall the joy of the Lord’s first entry into his Temple – and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek, and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire [Malachi 3:1] – at the same time we hear, in Simeon’s words to Mary, the first warning reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword shall pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed [Lk. 2:34-35].
So, even while we take a last look back at Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to Lent and reminds us that the whole point of Christmas is Easter.
Today is also called the Encounter, the Feast of Meeting. Today Christ comes to meet us, and we get to meet him. The Ceremonial of Bishops says that “on this day Christ’s faithful people, with candles in their hands, go out to meet the Lord and to acclaim him with Simeon, who recognized Christ as ‘a light to reveal God to the nations.’ They should therefore be taught to walk as children of the light in their entire way of life, because they have a duty to show the light of Christ to all by acting in the works they do as lighted lamps” .
When Simeon and Anna experienced in Jesus the human face of God, they spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. They hastened to proclaim the good news. That is still very much our task too today – to take the light of these candles out into our still very dark world and so to share with all the light reflected in our own lives from the brightness of the human face of God.
Homily for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas Day), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 2, 2011.