Saturday, February 2, 2013

Candlemas: Re-Enchanting Culture

Candlemas Day by Marianne Stokes. (Source.)

I have a particular fondness for Candlemas, previously known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and now billed as the Presentation of the Lord. I suppose this can be broken down into three features that are part of one larger reason. First, in the old rite, this is a day for a purple procession, a show of penitence and supplication and a reminder that we plead as well as rejoice. Second, this is a feast whose referents are anachronistic by contemporary standards—the ransoming of a first-born son and the ritual purification of his mother. Finally we gather in mid winter to bless candles, which, in the strictest sense, is an entirely anachronistic act. We bless candles to light altars in electrified buildings and to save for times of need because there is something objectively sacramental about them or, in the words of one of the old prayers for today, “for the service of men and the health of their bodies and souls, whether on land or on sea.”

This was a feast grounded in rite, devotion, and folk culture that today is little more than a minor stop on the tour of events culminating in our redemption. One gets the sense that the liturgical revisers found it a bit embarrassing. The old and new post communions in the Roman Rite catch the change in sense of the day:

1962: We beseech Thee, O Lord our God, that the most holy mysteries, which Thou hast given us to safeguard our regenerated nature, may, through the intercession of blessed Mary ever Virgin, be to us a healing remedy, both for the present and for the future.

1970 (ICEL): Lord, you fulfilled the hope of Simeon, who did not die until he had been privileged to welcome the Messiah. May this communion perfect your grace in us and prepare us to meet Christ when he comes to bring us into everlasting life, for he is Lord forever and ever.

The first gives us mystery, the precarious health of our souls, and the intercession of the Virgin. The second seems to assure us that redemption is our right. It is a change in comparison from Mary, who is mightier than we, to Simeon, who is portrayed as someone just like us.
Votive lamps in the Tomb of the Virgin, Jerusalem.

The blessing of candles, along with those of ashes and palms, is one of the three major blessings of the year. This rite is one of those cultural bulwarks that grounds our faith in something larger and often less transient than an intellectual frame. Blessed candles in the home are tokens that remain with us and excite devotion after sermons and bulletin notes fade. In storm and sickness they are there reminding us of the aid we can call upon. In lighting one of these candles in time of need, we make an act of faith through a counter-cultural gesture.
They are artifacts of our assent to a worldview at ease with transcendent mystery.

These little candles in the darkness of our world and like customs are the things that will help re-enchant our culture after the pursuit of novelty for novelty’s sake has exhausted itself. At Fisheaters, you will find many of the customs related to today. I particularly liked this poem on lighting blessed candles to ward off trouble:

This done, each man his candle lights,
Where chiefest seemeth he,
Whose taper greatest may be seen;
And fortunate to be,
Whose candle burneth clear and bright:
A wondrous force and might
Both in these candles lie, which if
At any time they light,
They sure believe that neither storm
Nor tempest cloth abide,
Nor thunder in the skies be heard,
Nor any devil's spide,
Nor fearful sprites that walk by night,
Nor hurts of frost or hail.
The 17th Century English poet, Robert Herrick, captures some of the folk culture that went along with Candlemas:


Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the misletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box, for show.

The holly hitherto did sway;
Let box now domineer,
Until the dancing Easter-day,
Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box, which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin,
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments,
To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.


Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn;
Which quench'd, then lay it up again,
Till Christmas next return.

Part must be kept, wherewith to teend
The Christmas log next year;
And where 'tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.
(And happy birthday to Mrs. G.)