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Candlemas, Feb. 2, officially ends the season of Christmas

Feast day honors Simeon, baby Jesus — and blesses the candles

By Scott Szabo | Presbyterians Today

A bunch of lit candles against a black background.

Nicola Fioravanti/Unsplash

Early in my ministry I learned that there were worship traditions foreign to the congregation I served and, while I yearned to stretch my “liturgical wings,” I contented myself by researching feast days instead — imagining how they might someday find expression in my pastorate. This is how I discovered Candlemas.

Observed on Feb. 2, Candlemas was traditionally the end of the Christmas season. Today, Epiphany, Jan. 6, is the commonly viewed end of Christmastide. But Candlemas is more than an end mark to Christmas. Simeon’s double-edged oracle of blessing and admonition, which stands at the center of the feast day’s reading from Luke 2:22–40, reminds us that the babe in the manger and the suffering servant are one and the same. Thus, Candlemas is a hinge between the Church’s celebration of Christmas and Easter.

For centuries, Candlemas was the day the Church emphasized Mary’s purification during its commemoration of the Holy Family’s visit to the Temple (Luke 2:22–40). More recently, the focus has shifted away from Mary’s purification to the presentation of the Christ child as told in Luke.

And then there are the candles that are reflected in the feast day’s name, recalling the long-standing presence of candles used on the day. Since at least the fifth century, processions by lamp or candlelight have been part of worship. Centuries later, parishioners would bring candles to church to have them blessed. So how might we celebrate Candlemas today?

First, we would do well to remember those constants that have long characterized the feast: Luke’s account of the Holy Family in the Temple and a procession and/or presence of candles. Perhaps keep the Advent wreath as a focus point in worship till Feb. 2, rather than putting it away so quickly. Using Christmastide’s liturgical colors of white and gold, rather than switching to Ordinary Time’s green after Epiphany, is another way to observe Candlemas. Also, consider singing a Christmas or Epiphany hymn or two through Feb. 2. Doing these things can parlay the Christmas season into a 40-day celebratory period, serving as a counterpoint to the Lenten fast that comes with the observance of Ash Wednesday.

The feast’s namesake symbol also highlights the day as a unifying agent for the poles of the Christian year. As candles are carried in procession, we are reminded of the light of the world dawning at Christmas, and the new fire of the resurrection burning brightly on Easter. In this way, Candlemas presents itself as a microcosm of the Christian call, one that surveys the journey of life, death and new life that all undertake. For congregations that use a Paschal candle, the previous year’s candle can be lit on Candlemas, perhaps for the last time. Similarly, it would be appropriate to bless the new candle that will be put into service on Easter. Whatever the means of observance, the flames of Candlemas will burn brightest in communities that prayerfully discern how the feast can best illumine their shared life.

Scott Szabo is the pastor of Oxford Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is pursuing his Doctor of Ministry degree at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Ways to Observe Candlemas

  • Give congregants a candle with a hangtag either explaining the significance of the feast day or with the Luke 2:22–40 passage printed on it. Or include a hangtag with a simple candle blessing.
  • Consider holding a candle-making workshop either in person — socially distanced from one another — or via Zoom. Or encourage members of the congregation to use an instructional candle-making video, and then share the candles made over social media.
  • Adopt the use of beeswax candles, which were historically preferred in liturgical use for their clean burn and because of the many symbolic associations between the bee and Christian faith. Use this as an opportunity to talk about planting a pollinator garden on the church grounds in spring.
  • The Holy Family’s encounter with Simeon and Anna in Luke’s Gospel is a wonderful illustration of intergenerational ministry. Those in the congregation celebrating milestone anniversaries might be acknowledged in worship, while young parents in the congregation could be sent notes of encouragement.

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