If Candlemas Day is bright and clear There’ll be two winters in the year.
If Candlemas be cloud and rain Winter will be gone and not come again.
If Candlemas be fair and bright Winter will have another bite.
The same date – forty days after the birth of Jesus – marks the day when Mary, as an observant Jewish mother, was required to present herself and her child at the temple. After the birth of a male child, the Jewish mother was considered ritually unclean during that forty-day period, and would come to the temple and make an offering – in Mary’s case, the poor person’s offering of two turtle-doves – to the priest. The name for the feast on the fortieth day after Christmas became known as The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary – it was still called that in our 1928 American Book of Common Prayer – and the emphasis was on Mary’s obedience to Jewish law. The service of Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the “Churching of Women,” was also in all the historic Anglican prayer-books, although the focus came to be on giving thanks to God for coming through the ordeal of childbirth safely and on blessing the mother, rather than the ancient idea of purification.
In some Eastern churches the feast has always been called the Meeting of Christ with Simeon. Simeon was the old man at the temple who had been promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and recognized Jesus as such when his parents brought him to the temple to make their offering. He is the source of the canticle we use both at Evening Prayer and at Compline, the Nunc dimittis:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, According to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, . Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, To be a light to enlighten the gentiles, And to be the glory of thy people Israel.
The “return of light” at this time of year was used by the early Church to symbolize the image of Christ as the “Light of the world,” and Simeon’s recognition of that fact. It was in English-speaking countries that the feast became informally known as “Candlemas,” after the custom of blessing all the candles for use during the church year at this mass. A lighted and blessed candle carried home from this service was believed to drive the devil from the house and cure diseases. There are many medieval stories and legends about miracles associated with this practice.
The variety of names for this feast day testifies to the wealth of spiritual meaning that generations of Christians have found in the biblical account of Mary’s visit to the temple. The hymn we sing after the blessing of candles, as we process with lit candles into the church, makes the point that when Mary placed her infant into Simeon’s arms, the old and the new were meeting – the old burnt offerings and sacrifices were about to be done away with, because a new, perfect offering – “the Truth himself” - had come into the temple in person:
O Sion, open wide thy gates, let symbols disappear; A priest and victim, both in one, the Truth himself, is here. No more the simple flock shall bleed; behold, the Father’s Son Himself to his own altar comes for sinners to atone.
Conscious of hidden deity, the lowly virgin brings Her new-born babe, with two young doves, her humble offering. The aged Simeon sees at last his Lord, so long desired, And Anna welcomes Israel’s hope, with holy rapture fired.
But silent knelt the mother blest of the yet silent Word, And pondering all things in her heart, with speechless praise adored.