We enter into what I've heard some call the "Triduum of Fire," beginning February 1st with the Feast of St. Brigid. Following that on February 2nd we celebrate Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord), and then on February 3rd is the Feast of St. Blaise. These days appropriately mark the midway point between winter and spring, short daylight and darkness, in that each feast is highlighted by fire! More specifically, they each characterize the prophetic words of Simeon "a light to reveal you to the nations," which we can see closely related to each feast. (Lk 2:32). In doing some reading about these feast days I noticed that some like to focus on the Catholic weirdness of these celebrations, getting your candles or throat blessed. Don't get me wrong I am right there with them, being a Catholic is fun and at times very interesting, but there is so much more than that. There is theological depth that makes these feast days quite profound, specifically Candlemas, and completely understated.
St. Brigid of Kildare (February 1st)
St. Brigid of Kildare was born around 450AD to a Christian woman and slave that was baptized by St. Patrick. She was said to be a very giving and thoughtful girl who became consecrated to a religious order and later became an abbess. The most popular story is about her cloak which she was carrying as she approached the King to give her land to build a monastery. As to be expected he denied her, but in her pleading she countered him by asking for as much land as her cloak would cover. When she and the others there helped her stretch out the cloak, it covered several acres which she was permitted to use for a monastery.
Tradition tells us that at the monastery she founded, the nuns kept an eternal fire burning for her. In fact, this fire is said to have lasted from St. Brigid's death in 525 to 1220! It was also said to have been lit again later and burned for 400 years until the Protestant Reformation. Hence, the association of St. Brigid with the perpetual flame. However, I can't go without mentioning, given the words I quoted earlier from Simeon, the fire that Christianizes the Irish pagan rituals.
There was a Celtic goddess also named Brigid that was worshipped by many and embodied the element of fire. Before Christianity a fire was kept lit in Kildare (the place St. Brigid is from) for the Celtic goddess Brigid, and women would tend to this ritual fire while praying for good harvests. However, as Christianity began to spread, this ritual flame that was once used as a pagan symbol was Christianized. The many followers that once worshipped the goddess then became followers of Christ through Celtic saints like Brigid. Just as Simeon says, "a light to reveal you to the nations", nations being interpreted as all people, Jews and Gentiles (pagans). Christ is the light that burns perpetually for us to see what is true and makes a way for us to salvation.
Candlemas (February 2nd)
The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, also known as Candlemas, is celebrated 40 days after Christmas. On this day Joseph and Mary took baby Jesus to the temple to make an offering and dedicate their child to God. In the 1962 missal this feast would have been referred to as the "Purification of Mary," which refers to Mary being considered unclean after giving birth and in need of ritual purification and readmittance into the liturgical life of Israel. Even though this feast day isn't a part of the Christmas season, it is considered a "Christmas feast" given that it is the last one pertaining to Christ's infancy.
Candlemas comes from the Canticle of Simeon and the liturgical practices that developed in relation to it.
"Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel."
The blessing and procession of candles on this feast day became a common tradition that tapered out for some parishes but is definitely back on the rise. Even if your parish doesn't bless candles as a part of the Mass, you can always bring them with you and ask your priest to bless them for you.
After you get home with your blessed candles you can use them for the rest of the liturgical year by putting them on your home altar/ prayer space, lighting them on feast day dinners, lighting them for baptismal anniversaries (especially if you can't find your baptismal candle like me), or putting them in your Advent wreath. Remember, after they are blessed the candles are considered sacramentals, so they are not to be disposed of, but rather burned or buried when you are finished using them. Here is our home altar with the blessed candles on it.
(Image: His Girl Sunday)
Why the Christmas Tree is Still Up
For the last several years I have noticed the charitable disagreement about when Christmas ends and when their tree comes down. Some take their decorations down immediately after Christmas day, others wait until Epiphany, and some the Baptism of the Lord. As for my house, after the Baptism of the Lord when the Christmas Season ends according to the General Roman Calendar, I take down my Christmas decorations. However, I do not take down anything down that directly relates to the infant Jesus or light. More specifically I leave up the nativity scene, Christmas tree, and lit garland which I do because it makes more theological sense. I have actually found in building Catholic tradition and having formally studied theology, that you get the most richness of the Church's traditions when you blend the old and new calendars. So, that is what we do!
Candlemas, while technically not in the Christmas season anymore and some would argue never actually was, is still a Christmas feast! We are powerfully reminded that Jesus is the light born for the world in Christmas, and looking forward he is the light of salvation in Easter. Through the words of Simeon, with Christ we can truly see, our eyes are opened! Through liturgical living I want to capture this and be physically reminded of all this meaning and tradition in my home. So, on Candlemas the tree and garland are lit, the candles all have their flames, and we pray on this last infancy feast day for the great gift of the Christ child.
(Image: His Girl Sunday)