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What is Candlemas?

Question: "What is Candlemas?"

Candlemas is a liturgical church service (“Candle Mass”) that celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple and the ceremonial purification of Mary. Candlemas is observed on different dates in different churches, but generally it is either on February 2 (forty days, inclusive, after Christmas Day) or on the Sunday that falls between January 28 and February 3. Churches that celebrate Christ’s birth on January 6 celebrate Candlemas on February 14. Candlemas is so called because it is on this day that candles are blessed with “holy water” and incense; also, a candle-lit procession often precedes the Mass. Modern observances of Candlemas Day mostly take place in Anglican, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches.

Candlemas harks back to an event in Luke 2, in which Joseph and Mary follow the command in Leviticus 12. The Law dictated that, for each son born, the mother would remain unclean for seven days. On the eighth day, the boy was to be circumcised. On the fortieth day (for a male child), the mother would be considered clean, and the boy would be presented to the priest. The mother would also bring a burnt offering of a year-old lamb and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. If she could not afford a lamb, she would bring two pigeons or turtledoves. On the fortieth day after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple with two doves to fulfill their responsibilities under the Law (Luke 2:22–24). While there, they met Simeon, a righteous, Spirit-filled man who had been promised he would see the Messiah before he died. While he held the baby Jesus, he praised God and prophesied that Jesus would cause the “fall and rising of many in Jerusalem” and that Mary would suffer as well (verses 25–35). They also met Anna, an elderly prophetess who recognized Jesus as the Messiah (verses 36–38).

Candlemas is also known as “The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple,” the “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and “The Meeting.” Observance of the feast is historically very old (the earliest known sermon on Candlemas is dated to AD 312 and the earliest rites to AD 381). Candlemas was initially a small celebration, but it was elevated after prayer and fasting broke a plague ravaging Constantinople in 541. The next year the “Feast of the Meeting of the Lord” became one of the twelve major feast days throughout Europe. Down through the years, Candlemas has picked up several superstitions in addition to priests blessing candles. In parts of Europe, people traditionally eat crepes on Candlemas, and, as they prepare their crepes, they hold a coin in their hand. This is believed to ensure wealth and happiness for a year. In Scotland, it was the day rent was due for the quarter, while in America, Candlemas coincides with Groundhog Day. In other areas, it became the day to move cows from hay meadows so fields could be plowed and planted for the year’s harvest. Some Christians observe the practice of leaving Christmas decorations up until Candlemas.

Should Christians celebrate Candlemas? In general, there’s nothing wrong with remembering the day Jesus was brought to the temple and Simeon and Anna were able to worship their Messiah. So, there’s no specific harm in celebrating Candlemas. However, the superstitions associated with Candlemas, like predicting weather (as done on Groundhog Day) or believing it unlucky to embark on a sea voyage, should be rejected. Catholic churches, of course, use Candlemas to place an emphasis on the Virgin Mary and her supposed perpetual virginity, a doctrine not taught in Scripture.

Recommended Resource: How to Worship Jesus Christ: Experiencing His Manifest Presence by Joseph Carroll

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