The Last Holdout

One more evening of candles in the windows!

It’s February 1, and my Christmas wreaths and candles are still up. Everybody else took their decorations down a month ago. I’m the last holdout, and there are several reasons for it. I’m waiting until tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Candlemas Day. It’s a minor religious celebration, as far as Catholics are concerned. I think that’s too bad.

Tomorrow also happens to be the day of the world’s greatest pagan feast, the Super Bowl. And it’s Groundhog Day in America, another tradition that we imported from elsewhere. More on that later.

As for Candlemas Day’s religious significance, we should make a little more of it. Why? Because it marks yet another occasion that shows just how close we, Catholics and Christians, are to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

What Mary and Joseph did on this day, 40 days after Jesus was born, was to fulfill their religious obligations as devout and loyal Jews. The little baby they brought to the temple wasn’t an Irish Catholic; he grew up Jewish. If more of us took that to heart, we’d be better equipped to combat the vile contagion of anti-Semitism that is awakening again.

The Gospel of Luke spins the Jewishness out of the event that Catholics call The Presentation of the Lord. How the story was told seems to me to be the first time that the essential difference between Christians and Jews was expressed. Is Jesus divine, and the Redeemer of all mankind? Catholics say yes, Jews say no.

That family disagreement has led to untold and utterly needless suffering down through history. It would be so much better if we could just wait until Judgment Day. Then when the Messiah comes, we just ask him “Hey, buddy, have you been here before? Or is this your first time?”

One of the many paintings of The Presentation of Christ. This one is by Simon Vouet. It was commissioned by France’s Cardinal Richelieu around 1640 for the Church of Saint-Paul-Louis. It now hangs in the Louvre.

The Jewish Rite: Purification and Redemption

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for the rites of purification and dedication as prescribed by the Torah. According to the Book of Leviticus (12:1-4), when a woman bore a male child, she was considered “unclean” for seven days. On the eighth day, the boy was circumcised.

By the way, Catholics used to call January 1 The Feast of the Circumcision. Now it’s The Solemnity of Mary. Another needless distancing from our Jewish roots.

The Jewish mother continued to stay at home for 33 days for her blood to be purified. After the 40 days, the mother and the father came to the temple for the rite of purification, which included the offering of a sacrifice — a lamb for a holocaust (burnt offering) and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. For a poor couple who could not afford a lamb, two pigeons or two turtledoves sufficed. That’s what Joseph and Mary offered. (Lk 2:24).

Also, Joseph and Mary were obliged by the Torah to “redeem” their first born son: “The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me’” (Ex 13:1).

The price for such a redemption was five shekels, which the parents paid to the priest. This “redemption” was a kind of payment for the Passover sacrifice, by which the Jews had been freed from slavery.

The Catholic Rewording: Consecration to the Lord and Identification as the Messiah

St. Luke in the Gospel does not mention this redemption, but rather the presentation of Our Lord:

“When the day came to purify them according to the law of Moses, the couple brought Him up to Jerusalem, so that He could be presented to the Lord, for it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every first-born male shall be consecrated to the Lord’” (Lk 2:22-23). So the focus is on Jesus’ consecration to God.

The verb “to present” (paristanai) also means to “offer,” which evokes Jesus being presented as the priest who will offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice to free us from the slavery of sin, seal the new and eternal covenant with His blood, and open the gates to the true promised land of heaven.

Luke also tells of Simeon, a just and pious man, who awaited the Messiah and looked for the consolation of Israel. He was inspired to come to the temple, held baby Jesus in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed, displayed for all the peoples to see: A revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2:29-32).

Simeon, thereby, announced that the Messiah has come not just for the Jew but the gentile; not just the righteous, but the sinner.

He then blessed the Holy Family, and said in turn to Mary: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed— and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword — so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Lk 2:34-35).

So the Presentation is a proclamation of Christ — Messiah and Priest, Lord and Savior. He is the light who came into this world to dispel sin and darkness.

And this is the reason that, traditionally at least since the seventh century, candles that will be used throughout the year have been blessed at Mass this day. Hence the term “Candlemas.”

To reiterate, I think it’s sad that Catholics haven’t been taught just how Jewish that “The Presentation” really is, and how much we owe our Jewish “elder brothers,” as Pope John Paul II once put it.

The Christmas Season is Now Officially Over – and Winter’s Halfway Done

In many countries of Europe, the feast of the Presentation officially closes the celebration of Christmas. That’s logical, once again, when you consider what Mary and Joseph were doing at the temple in the first place. She was now ritually pure, and her son had been dedicated to the Lord and redeemed by their offerings. The business of living their family life here on earth could now proceed.

Pope John Paul agreed with this official ending of the Christmas season. He began the custom of keeping the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s square until February 2. I’m doing likewise, keeping my wreaths up and my candles burning until then.

An old superstition held that any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 6, when I took down my tree) should be left up until Candlemas Day.

Remember also that the day is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Light is returning to the world. We just don’t need the candles as much as we did back in December.

And What About Groundhog Day?

Candlemas Day also was important in the lives of farmers. They thought that Candlemas Day predicted the weather for the rest of winter. Their beliefs and traditions led to our Groundhog Day.

An old English song went:

“If Candlemas be fair and bright, / Come, Winter, have another flight. / If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, / Go, Winter, and come not again.”

So if the bright sun “overshadows” the brightness of Candlemas Day, there will be more winter. However, if the light of Candlemas Day radiates through the gloom and darkness of the day, the end of winter is near.

A German proverb states:

“The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.”

I guess our groundhog learned from their badger.

So Here’s My February Wish for You

Now that the days are getting longer and light is returning to the world, we might need fewer of those candles and other artificial means of illumination. But I’m sure you agree with Ecclesiastes (2:13): “I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.”

So I urge you to keep blessing all of us with your special gifts, your own beautiful self, and share the light that you and no one else has. Heed Matthew (5: 15-16):

“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works”

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