Candles in Darkness
Candlemas Candles

Candlemas: Celebrating Light

Candlemas usually receives more attention from churches when it falls on a Sunday. However, Candlemas 2023, on Thursday, February 2, will still include references in worship at Trinity Church Wall Street to the scriptural account which provides the basis for the ancient observance.

The Feast of the Presentation
Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord In Jesus by Rembrandt

Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord In Jesus by Rembrandt

Candlemas dates back almost seventeen centuries and recalls the biblical account of the infant Jesus’ first visit to the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-38). In that scripture, the elderly prophet Simeon holds Jesus in his arms and declares that the infant would “be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.” And a second prophet is also present in the Gospel according to Luke. She is Anna, a widow in her 80s who also recognized the Holy Family as special and, upon seeing Jesus, according to Luke 2:38, “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Simeon Holding Jesus
Phillippe de Champaigne's The Presentation in the Temple

Phillippe de Champaigne's The Presentation in the Temple

By coming to the temple, Mary and Joseph were following Torah (Exodus 13:12-13 and Leviticus 12:4-8). Jewish law required a woman giving birth to a first-born son to go to the temple on the fortieth day after birth to be declared ritually purified. In addition, because a first-born male was considered to belong to God and must be offered back to God, the child’s parents brought an animal for sacrifice to “redeem” their child. Wealthier families were supposed to offer a lamb while poorer families brought a pair of doves or two young pigeons, the option chosen by Mary and Joseph, according to Luke, and illustrated in the painting below with Joseph carrying the birds in a basket.

Candles in Darkness
Candlemas Candles

For these reasons, February 2 is also called the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus and/or the Feast of the Purification of Mary. Trinity Church Wall Street will call its worship “The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple,” using the readings appointed for that feast in the midday Holy Eucharist Thursday at 12:05pm. 

Blessing candles in churches on Candlemas is also a tradition symbolizing Jesus as the light of the world.  Another detail of the feast day, the scriptural account of Simeon’s response to meeting Jesus in the temple has often been set to music, especially the Latin translation “Nunc dimittis.” Simeon’s Canticle (Luke 2:29-32) is found in the Book of Common Prayer as part of Compline, the final prayer of the late evening.

Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple by Bellini
Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple by Bellini

Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple by Bellini

Candlemas also closely coincides with Imbolc, a pre-Christian holiday that falls, in the northern hemisphere, halfway between the start of winter and the beginning of spring. In the same midwinter spirit, people in the United States usually refer to February 2 as Groundhog Day, honoring the small member of the marmot family who, at least once a year, has come to be considered an expert at long-range weather predictions.

In some countries, Candlemas is the day when Christians remove their Christmas decorations until the following year.  So, if your tree is still standing in your home, celebrate Candlemas by taking it down.