In everyday modern life we are hardly aware that on February 2nd we celebrate an ancient feast, common to the Church of both East and West, one which used to have a great significance in the rural calendar: Candlemas. Tributaries from many historical sources have flowed together into this feast, with the result that it sparkles with many colors. Its immediate reference is to the event when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth to perform the prescribed sacrifice of purification.
The liturgy focuses mainly on one detail of Luke’s portrayal: the meeting between the Child Jesus and the aged Simeon. Thus in the Greek-speaking world the feast was called Hypapanti (the encounter). In this juxtaposition of the Child and the old man, the Church sees the encounter between the passing heathen world and the new beginning in Christ, between the fading age of the Old Covenant and the new era of the Church of all nations.
What this expresses is more than the eternal recurrence of death and becoming; it is more than the consoling thought that the passing of one generation is always succeeded by a new one with new ideas and hopes. If that were all, this Child would not represent a hope for Simeon but only for himself. But it is more: it is hope for everyone, because it is a hope transcending death.
This brings us to a second aspect of this day, which the liturgy illuminates. It takes up the words of Simeon when he calls this Child “a light to enlighten the Gentiles.” Accordingly this day was made into a feast of candles. The warm candlelight is meant to be a tangible reminder of that greater light that, for and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus. In Rome this candlelit procession supplanted a rowdy, dissolute carnival, the so-called Amburbale, which had survived from paganism right into Christian times. The pagan procession had magical features: it was supposed to effect the purification of the city and the repelling of evil powers. To remind people of this, the Christian procession was originally celebrated in black vestments and then in purple – until the Council’s liturgical reform. Thus the element of encounter, again, was evident in this procession: the pagan world’s cry for purification, liberation, deliverance from dark powers, meets the ‘light to enlighten the Gentiles”, the mild and humble light of Jesus Christ. The failing (and yet still active) aeon of a foul, chaotic, enslaved and enslaving world encounters the purifying power of the Christian message.
It reminds me of something the playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote. As the inventor of the Theatre of the Absurd, he articulated the cry of an absurd world and was increasingly aware that it was a cry for God. “History”, he said recently, “is a process of corruption, it is chaotic, unless it is oriented to the supernatural.” The candle-lit procession in black garments, the symbolic encounter between chaos and light that it represents, should remind us of this truth and give us courage to see the supernatural, not as a waste of time, distracting us from the business of ameliorating the world, but as the only way in which meaning can be brought to bear on the chaotic side of life.
Ratzinger, J. (1986). Seek That Which Is Above. San Francisco: Ignatius Press