February 8, 2008

An explanation of the Presentation of the Lord

By Fr. Julian Peters, O.S.B. (Special to The Criterion)

The feast which we observe on Feb. 2 has many layers of meaning. Today, it is known as the Presentation of the Lord. Former generations knew it as the Purification of Mary. Across the years, it has been and still is referred to as Candlemas.

The roots of this Christian feast are found deep within Jewish history. The Mosaic law prescribed that following the birth of a child, a woman must go through a period of ritual purification before she could enter the Temple.

The law also prescribed specifically that a first-born male child be presented in the Temple, together with an offering, to be consecrated to God. Being an obedient and humble woman, Mary fulfilled the prescriptions of the Law by observing her period of purification then presenting her newborn child, Jesus, in the Temple.

When the child Jesus was presented in the Temple, he was acclaimed by Simeon and Anna as the “light of revelation to the gentiles.” This epiphany or manifestation of Jesus’ identity as Son of Mary and Son of God, Light of the World and Savior of humankind, began to be observed liturgically in the sixth century. The practice of making a procession with candles gave physical expression to what was being observed—Mary and Joseph going up to the Temple bearing the Light of the World.

The liturgy for the feast of the Presentation provides for several forms of the blessing of candles, and local communities may choose how they observe this custom.

In some places, the people gather outside the church for the blessing of candles then process into Mass. Some communities bless candles in the church for use in the sacred liturgy.

In other places, there is an emphasis on the blessing of candles for use in the home. The richness of the feast and the ritual of the Church allows different expressions according to the needs and circumstances of the people of God.

While expressions and interpretations may vary, the underlying truth remains the same.

Lit candles represent Christ the Light, shining in the darkness of this world’s fears. Candles “give their all” in making light, being slowly consumed by their sacred task, just as the Lord Jesus “gave his all” for the salvation of the world.

So we, too, are called to “give our all” according to our state in life for the sake of the kingdom of God—bearing the light of Christ to all whom we meet by word and example.

(Benedictine Father Julian Peters is administrator pro-tem of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral Parish in Indianapolis.) †

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