Tuesday, February 01, 2022

The Purifying Orations of Candlemas

Alvaro Pirez d’Evora, Presentation in the Temple, ca 1430
Lost in Translation #70

In the post-Vatican II calendar, February 2 is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord; in the Byzantine rite, it is the “Meeting of the Lord”, and in the traditional Roman or Tridentine calendar it is the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All three highlight one of the things that took place when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Holy Temple forty days after His birth (Luke 2, 21-40). The Novus Ordo feast recalls that Jesus, a firstborn male, was “redeemed” or consecrated to the Lord in conformity with the Mosaic Law. [1] The Byzantine feast focuses on the meeting of Simeon and Anna with the long-awaited Messiah. And the Tridentine feast emphasizes that Mary presented herself at the Temple to be ritually purified from childbirth according to the Law of Moses.

Or was it according to the Law? Mary was free of every moral impurity, but she was also free of ritual impurity, which was contracted when a woman, “having received seed,” gave birth to a man child (Lev. 12, 2). The Mother of God gave birth to a man child, but she did not receive seed from a man, having instead conceived of the Holy Spirit. [2] Mary therefore obliged the Law out of her great humility and condescension, rather than necessity.
The feast of the Purification is nicknamed Candlemas because the day is marked with a great blessing of candles and procession. Having a light ceremony is an appropriate way to end the Christmas season, and it ties in well with Simeon’s epithet of Jesus as a Light to the Revelation of the Gentiles (Luke 2, 32).
Further, according to figures such as St Anselm of Canterbury, candles are an excellent symbol for Christ. The wax, made from the “virginal bee,” signifies the pure flesh of Our Lord taken from His Mother; the wick symbolizes His human soul; and the flame represents His divinity. Candles blessed on Candlemas Day can be taken home and used as sacramentals throughout the year.
Simeon’s prophecy and the focus on light also led to a peculiar folk belief that the weather on February 2 had a particularly keen prognostic value. If the sun shone for the greater part of Candlemas, there would be, it was claimed, forty more days of winter, but if the skies were cloudy and gray, there would be an early spring. In Germany this lore was amended by bringing into the equation the badger or the hedgehog, but when German immigrants arrived in Pennsylvania, they could find none of these creatures around. Instead they saw plenty of what the local Native Americans called a wojak or woodchuck. Since the Indians considered the groundhog to be a wise animal, it seemed only natural to appoint the furry fellow, as they say every year, “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.” The Feast of the Purification thus gave rise not only to a beautiful tradition of candle-blessing but to Groundhog Day.
Because the Purification was the occasion of Simeon’s great prophecy that Jesus Christ would be a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, today’s feast has long been a festival of lights. In the traditional Roman rite, candles are blessed on this day and processions held. Those prayers are worthy of their own study, but for now we focus on the Mass of the feast.
The Collect for the Mass is:
Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, majestátem tuam súpplices exorámus: ut, sicut Unigénitus Filius tuus hodierna die cum nostrae carnis substantia in templo est praesentátus; ita nos facias purificátis tibi méntibus praesentári. Per eundem Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Almighty, everlasting God, we humbly beseech Thy Majesty: that as Thine only-begotten Son was on this day presented in the Temple with the substance of our flesh, so too wouldst Thou grant us to be presented unto Thee with purified minds. Through the same our Lord.
The Collect hearkens to the laws of purification concerning a child-bearing woman but also focuses on the marvelous fact that the Son of God was presented “with” the substance of human flesh on this day. Most translators opt for “in” the substance of our flesh, but I believe that “with” emphasizes the fact that the Incarnate Divine Person brought His human nature with Him, so to speak, to the Holy Temple, and that in itself is a wondrous mystery. How long Israel longed for God to visit her in the Temple! And when He does, it is not just with His Divinity but with His humanity as well.
And if the Word humbled Himself by taking on our lowly human flesh, we can ask in return for a purification of our minds. Our bodies need purifying too, but our bodies are not the problem: it is our disordered thoughts and desires, which spring from our sinful minds, that are the chief cause of our woes. The Collect aims high: neither the flesh nor the soul of Jesus Christ, neither the flesh or the soul of His mother, needed purifying, but we do. On this day that commemorates a Purification, we ask for a purifying of the seat of our identity, and our problems.
The Secret is:
Exáudi, Dómine, preces nostras: et, ut digna sint múnera, quae óculis tuae majestátis offérimus, subsidium nobis tuae pietátis impende. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Graciously hear our prayers, O Lord; and so that the gifts which we offer in the sight of Thy Majesty may be found worthy, spend on us the help of Thy mercy. Through our Lord.
The Secret subtly recalls that an exchange happened on the Feast of the Purification: Joseph and Mary spent two turtle doves, in return for which Mary was purified. During the Offertory Rite we “spend” the gifts of bread, wine, money, and ourselves (not least of all!), and we humbly ask that God spend something on us: His mercy.
The Postcommunion is:
Quáesumus, Dómine Deus noster: ut sacrosancta mysteria, quae pro reparatiónis nostrae munímine contulisti, intercedente beáta María semper Vírgine, et praesens nobis remedium esse facias et futúrum. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
We beseech Thee, O Lord our God: that by the intercession of blessed Mary ever Virgin, Thou wouldst make the sacrosanct mysteries, which Thou hast bestowed upon us as a fortification of our reparation, both a present and future remedy. Through our Lord.
The Eucharist is sacrosanct, namely, both sacred and holy, and it bestows upon us a remedy, or rather, a fortification, against our sins. The same subordinate clause (ut sacrosancta...contulisti) appears in the Postcommunion for the Sunday after Easter, where it is regarded “as a protection of our new life.” [3] Here, however, we pray for the Pure One who is the Mother of God to apply the remedy both now and in the future. Although we have not been pure, we hope that God's grace through Our Mother will render us clean both ritually and morally.

[1] Exodus 13,2; 12-13; Numbers 18, 15-16.
[2] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIIa.37.4.ad 2. Aquinas even states that it appears as if Moses chose his words precisely in order to exclude the Mother of God from the requirement.
[3] Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Orations of the Missale Romanum, p. 175.

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