Monday, February 01, 2021

A Comparison of the Old and New Blessing of Candles on Candlemas

Coped priest blessing candles at the side of the altar (usus antiquior)
Of late, comparing and contrasting the prayers of the Pauline modern missal with those of the traditional Roman missal has been a passionate avocation of mine. Taking my cue from Lauren Pristas and Matthew Hazell, true masters of this labor, I find that simply placing the old and new texts beside one another and pondering their differences can be an extraordinarily enlightening exercise. It tends to confirm, time and time again, the doctrinal richness, ascetical realism, and poetic flair of the old prayers and the absense of these qualities in the new.

In this article I shall compare the prayers for the blessing of candles on February 2nd, Candlemas day, known in the old calendar as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in the new calendar, with a Grecophilic nod, as the Presentation of the Lord.

The first and most obvious difference is that the traditional Roman rite blesses the candles by means of a sequence of five prayers, in which is expressed a well-developed theology of candles as sacramentals; of how they relate to the order of creation and the order of redemption; of the liturgical reenactment and mystical participation in Christ’s own entrance into the temple; of Jesus Christ as the light of the world and His Spirit as the internal fire/light that guides us through the “perilous darkness of this life to the never-failing light” of heaven; of Simeon as a model of one so guided, whom we should imitate as we receive Jesus in the substance of our flesh; and of the connection between the oil Moses commanded to be prepared so that lamps might burn continuously in the Lord’s presence and the blessed candles we now burn as symbols of the “lumen Spiritus” in our inward minds. The prayers are particularly outstanding for their pneumatology.

A second obvious difference is the repetition of the act of blessing the candles, which is similar to the many signs of blessing to be found in the traditional rite of Mass (think of the Roman Canon!), the rite of blessing of holy water, the rite of baptism, and so forth. Precisely seven times the priest makes the sign of the cross over the candles, using the language “bless and sanctify” in the first, second, and third prayers, and asking one last time for “the grace of Thy blessing” in the fifth prayer.

First prayer

DOMINE sancte, Pater omnipotens, æterne Deus, qui omnia ex nihilo creasti, et jussu tuo per opera apum, hunc liquorem ad perfectionem cerei venire fecisti: et qui hodierna die petitionem justi Simeonis implesti: te humiliter deprecamur; ut has candelas ad usus hominem, et sanitatem corporum et animarum, sive in terra, sive in aquis, per invocationem tui sanctissimi nominis, et per intercessionem beatæ Mariæ semper Virginis, cujus hodie festa devote celebrantur, et per preces omnium Sanctorum tuorum benedicere, et sanctificare digneris: et hujus plebis tuæ, quæ illas honorifice inmanibus desiderat portare, teque cantando laudare, exaudias voces de cælo sancto tuo, et de sede majestatis tuæ: et propitius sis omnibus clamantibus ad te, quos redemisti pretioso Sanguine Filii tui: Qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia sæcula sæculorum. R. Amen.

(Holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God, who hast created all things out of nothing, and by Thy command hast caused this liquid to become perfect wax by the labour of bees: and who, on this day didst fulfil the petition of the righteous man, Simeon: we humbly entreat Thee, that by the invocation of Thy most holy Name and through the intercession of Blessed Mary ever Virgin whose feast is today devoutly observed, and by the prayers of all Thy Saints, Thou wouldst vouchsafe to bless ✠ and sancti✠fy these candles for the service of men and for the health of their bodies and souls, whether on land or on sea: and that Thou wouldst hear from Thy holy heaven, and from the throne of Thy Majesty the voices of this Thy people, who desire to carry them in their hands with honour, and to sing Your praises; and that You would look with favour on all who call upon You, whom You have redeemed with the precious Blood of Your Son, who being God, lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end. R. Amen.)

Second prayer

OMNIPOTENS sempiterne Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum ulnis sancti Simeonis in templo sancto tuo suscipiendum præsentasti: tuam supplices deprecamur clementiam; ut has candelas, quas nos famuli tui, in tui nominis magnificentiam suscipientes, gestare cupimus luce accensas, benedicere, et sanctificare, atque lumine supernæ benedictionis accendere digneris: quatenus eas tibi Domino Deo nostro offerendo digni, et sancto igne dulcissimæ caritatis tuæ succensi, in templo sancto gloriæ tuæ repræsentari mereamur. Per eumdem Dominum nostrum. R. Amen.

(Almighty and everlasting God, who on this day didst present Thine only-begotten Son in Thy holy temple to be received in the arms of holy Simeon: we humbly entreat Thy clemency, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to bless ✠ and sancti✠fy and to kindle with the light of Thy heavenly benediction these candles, which we, Thy servants, desire to receive and to bear lighted in the honour of Thy Name: that, by offering them to Thee our Lord God, being worthily inflamed with the holy fire of Thy most sweet charity, we may deserve to be presented in the holy temple of Thy glory. Through the same our Lord. R. Amen.)

Third prayer

DOMINE Jesu Christe, lux vera, quæ illuminas omnem hominem venientem in hunc mundum: effunde benedictionem tuam super hos cereos, et sanctifica eos lumine gratiæ tuæ, et concede propitius; ut, sicut hæc luminaria igne visibili accensa nocturnas depellunt tenebras; ita corda nostra invisibili igne, id est, Sancti Spiritus splendore illustrata, omnium vitiorum cæcitate careant: ut, purgato mentis oculo, ea cenere possimus, quæ tibi sunt placita, et nostræ saluti utilia; quatenus post hujus sæculi caliginosa discrimina, ad lucem indeficientem pervenire mereamur. Per te, Christe Jesu, Salvator mundi, qui in Trinitate perfecta vivis et regnas. R. Amen.

(Lord Jesus Christ, the true Light who enlightenest every man that cometh into this world: pour forth Thy blessing ✠ upon these candles, and sancti✠fy them with the light of Thy grace, and mercifully grant, that as these lights enkindled with visible fire dispel the darkness of night, so our hearts illumined by invisible fire, that is, by the splendour of the Holy Spirit, may be free from the blindness of all vice, that the eye of our mind being cleansed, we may be able to discern what is pleasing to Thee and profitable to our salvation; so that after the perilous darkness of this life we may deserve to attain to never-failing light: through Thee, O Christ Jesus, Saviour of the world, who in the perfect Trinity, livest and reignest. R. Amen.)

Fourth prayer

OMNIPOTENS sempiterne Deus, qui per Moysen famulum tuum, purissimum olei liquorem ad luminaria ante conspectum tuum jugiter concinnanda præparari jussisti: benedictionis tuæ gratiam super hos cereos benignus infunde; quatenus sic administrent lumen exterius, ut, te donante, lumen Spiritus tui nostris non desit mentibus interius. Per Dominum nostrum. R. Amen.

(Almighty and everlasting God, who by Thy servant Moses didst command the purest oil to be prepared for lamps to burn continuously before Thee: vouchsafe to pour forth the grace of Thy blessing ✠ upon these candles: that they may so afford us light outwardly that by Thy gift, the gift of Thy Spirit may never be wanting inwardly to our minds. Through our Lord. R. Amen.)

Fifth prayer

DOMINE Jesu Christe, qui hodierna die in nostræ carnis substantia inter homines apparens, a parentibus in templo es præsentatus: quem Simeon venerabilis senex, lumine Spiritus tui irradiatus, agnovit, suscepit, et benedixit: præsta propitius; ut ejusdem Spiritus Sancti gratia illuminati, atque edocti, te veraciter agnoscamus, et fideliter diligamus: Qui cum Deo Patre. R. Amen.

(Lord Jesus Christ, who appearing on this day among men in the substance of our flesh, wast presented by Thy parents in the temple: whom the venerable and aged Simeon, illuminated by the light of Thy Spirit, recognized, received into his arms, and blessed: mercifully grant that, enlightened and taught by the grace of the same Holy Ghost, we may truly acknowledge Thee and faithfully love Thee; Who with God the Father. R. Amen.)

After sprinkling candles the priest sprinkles the ministers as well
Candles are first distributed to the ministers...
...and then to the people.
After this, the priest sprinkles the candles thrice with holy water while saying the antiphon Asperges me, then incenses them thrice. He distributes them at the altar rail to the faithful, who first kiss the candle, then kiss his hand as they receive it. Meanwhile the Schola chants the antiphon Lumen ad revelationem gentium and the Canticle of Simeon. After the distribution, the antiphon Exsurge Domine is sung (Arise, O Lord, help us and deliver us for Thy name’s sake. We have heard, O God, with our ears: our fathers have declared to us); there is a Flectamus genua/Levate, and a Collect:

EXAUDI, quæsumus Domine, plebem tuam: et quæ extrinsecus annua tribuis devotione venerari, interius assequi gratiæ tuæ luce concede. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. R. Amen.

(We beseech Thee, O Lord, hearken unto Thy people, and grant that by the light of Thy grace, we may inwardly attain to those things which Thou grantest us outwardly to venerate by this yearly observance. Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.)

The procession then begins with Procedamus in pace/In nomine Christi, Amen. Two antiphons are chanted and a responsory, as much as time permits. When the procession reenters the church, Mass begins with the Introit, Suscepimus Deus.

The procession begins.

In the modern missal of Paul VI, the ceremony begins with this antiphon (“or another appropriate chant”): Ecce Dominus noster cum virtute veniet, ut illuminet oculos servorum suorum, alleluia (Behold, our Lord will come with power, to enlighten the eyes of his servants, alleluia). Instead of all the candles being gathered in one place for the priest’s blessing, sprinkling, and incensing of them, the rubrics say the candles should already be distributed among the faithful.

The priest, facing the people, makes the sign of the cross, and then reads this exhortation (“he may use these or similar words”):

Dear brethren (brothers and sisters), forty days have passed since we celebrated the joyful feast of the Nativity of the Lord. Today is the blessed day when Jesus was presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph. Outwardly he was fulfilling the Law, but in reality he was coming to meet his believing people. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Simeon and Anna came to the Temple. Enlightened by the same Spirit, they recognized the Lord and confessed him with exultation. So let us also, gathered together by the Holy Spirit, proceed to the house of God to encounter Christ. There we shall find him and recognize him in the breaking of the bread, until he comes again, revealed in glory. 

Then the priest blesses the candles with one prayer (making a choice of two options):

Let us pray. O God, source and origin of all light, who on this day showed to the just man Simeon the Light for revelation to the Gentiles, we humbly ask that, in answer to your people’s prayers, you may be pleased to sanctify with your blessing + these candles, which we are eager to carry in praise of your name, so that, treading the path of virtue, we may reach that light which never fails. Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.
Or in these words:
O God, true light, who create light eternal, spreading it far and wide, pour, we pray, into the hearts of the faithful the brilliance of perpetual light, so that all who are brightened in your holy temple by the splendor of these candles may happily reach the light of your glory. Through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.
Nearly all of the dense theological content that we saw in the traditional prayers, with their deep roots in salvation history and their magnificent pneumatology, is glaringly absent here. In its place, we find jejune generalities. The first prayer dares to actually bless the candles while the second safely escapes the danger of multiplying popish baubles.

The rubrics then go out of their way to contradict the traditional ones: “He sprinkles the candles with holy water without saying anything, and puts incense into the thurible for the procession.” These rubrics would read strangely except against the backdrop of the old custom of saying the Asperges and incensing the candles, which the reformers wished to exclude.

The procession begins with “Let us go forth to meet the Lord” or “Let us go forth in peace” with the response: “In the name of Christ. Amen.” Since there is no distribution of the candles, the procession begins with the chanting of the Canticle of Simeon (“or another appropriate chant”). One of the older antiphons is suggested as a possible (additional or alternative) chant. The other antiphon and the responsory are gone, at least as far as the Missal is concerned (they show up in the 1974 Graduale Romanum). When the procession reenters the church, Mass begins with the Entrance Antiphon.

The above textual and rubrical comparison (minus evaluative comments) has been formatted as a two-page three-column chart:
*          *          *

Faced with such an abyss of discrepancy—two liturgical worlds between which almost no commonality can be traced—one can better understand why traditionalists increasingly avoid the language of “two forms of the Roman rite,” and a fortiori the language of “ordinary” and “extraordinary,” and simply speak of the classical (or traditional) Roman rite and the modern papal (or Pauline) rite.

Photos courtesy of St. Mary's Oratory, Wausau, Wisconsin.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s website, SoundCloud page, and YouTube channel.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: