In the U.S., it’s Groundhog Day. Elsewhere, it’s also the Feast of Candelmas. For many, especially in some European countries, the celebration of Candlemas on 2 February is now all that is remembered of the traditional season of ‘Old Christmas’.*
Old Christmas, like Old Advent (the season leading up to Christmas Day) and the period of Lent preceding Easter, was a period of 40 days. It began on Christmas Day and continued until the day on which Christians recall the presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents, Mary and Joseph. (This despite the quirk of our Lectionary regime of readings that has already raced ahead to the Baptism of Jesus and the beginnings of his ministry.)
The presentation by Mary and Joseph, described in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2: 22-40), would have been timed to coincide with the end of Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth – a period of forty days. For that reason, the day is also sometimes referred to as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.
There are several traditions associated with Candlemas (including the eating of crepes in France and the more widespread reference to snowdrops as ‘Candlemas Bells’). However, for most Christians it is the idea of Jesus-as-light bringer that is uppermost on this day. Candles may be blessed; a candle-lit procession may take place; and, on Candlemas night, many people place lighted candles in their windows at home – all actions that remind us that Jesus is often described as the “light of the world”.
Reflecting this idea of Jesus as the light of the world, there are a number of candle-themed hymns in Singing the Faith. A number of these are associated specifically with the lighting of Advent candles in the lead up to Christmas but there are others that are equally suitable for use at Candlemas, including:
Into the darkness of this world (StF 173)
Light we now our candle’s flame (website only)
Like a candle flame, flickering small in our darkness (StF 176)
Longing for light, we wait in darkness (StF 706)
Singing the Faith offers one hymn that explores in some detail the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and the encounter of the ‘holy family’ with the old man Simeon: Through long years of watchful waiting by Thomas G. Wilkinson (StF 232). Thomas leads us carefully from that first, critical recognition of God’s presence in the baby Jesus to the inevitable, loving but painful self-giving of Christ’s crucifixion. He uses Simeon’s warning to Mary (‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too’) to bind these two events together: in verse 2, ‘Mary’s heart is crucified’; in verse 4 she recollects Simeon’s words ‘and her love dissolved in tears’; and, finally, ‘In Christ’s death outside the city / God’s own heart is pierced with pain’ (v.5). In this way, Thomas addresses the idea that it is God who, out of love for us and for creation, endures the pain of crucifixion alongside and through Jesus.
(Mary’s foreknowledge of Jesus’ later suffering is linked by Mary Rose Jensen to his circumcusion in The name of Jesus (website only), which offers an overview of Jesus’ mission.)
Also see Andrew Pratt’s hymn Mary and Joseph came to the Temple (StF 229). This is a simpler text than Thomas Wilkinson’s. It gives a more straightforward re-telling of the biblical narrative. However, unlike Thomas, Andrew devotes one verse to the older woman in the story, Anna, and his final verse alludes directly to the prayer that Simeon utters on seeing the baby Jesus. This prayer, known as the Nunc Dimittis, is given at StF 794: Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace.
*The information about Candlemas included here is based on the introduction to Living Upside Down: four sessions for small groups Part 2 – The 40 days of Old Christmas.