Saturday, February 04, 2023

The Five Prayers of the Candlemas Blessing and the Five Books of Moses

The Gospel of the feast of the Purification, St Luke 2, 22-32, says in its first verse that the Christ Child was presented in the temple in Jerusalem “according to the Law of Moses.” This refers to Leviticus 12, which states that “(i)f a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days … and on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised, but she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification. … And when the days of her purification are expired, … she shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of the testimony, a lamb of a year old for a holocaust, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for sin, and shall deliver them to the priest, who shall offer them before the Lord, and shall pray for her…” In the Tridentine reform of the Roman Breviary, this chapter was made the second and third reading of Matins on February 2nd.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1620, by the Flemish painter Cornelis de Vos (1584-1621). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.  
From the very beginning, as the Church wrestled with the question of whether the observances of the Mosaic law remained valid for its members, one of the strongest arguments in favor of them was that Christ Himself, who said that “not one jot or tittle should pass away from the Law” (Matt. 5, 18), had observed them Himself. The Church Fathers, therefore, emphasize that He did so in order to indicate to us the true meaning of the Law of Moses, as a prefiguration of the new Law of the Gospel. In the mid-3rd century, the great Biblical scholar and commenter Origen, who was very influential on subsequent generations of the Fathers, writes that Christ “ ‘was made under the Law to redeem those who were under the Law’, and subject them to another Law.” (Homily 14 on Luke, citing Gal. 4, 5) In St Ambrose’s time, the Presentation of Christ in the temple was celebrated on January 1st along with the Circumcision, and he comments on this passage of St Luke, “he that is circumcised of vices was judged worthy of the sight of the Lord… you see that the whole succession of the old Law was a figure of the future, for even circumcision signifies the purification of sins.” (Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, II, 56)

St Cyril of Alexandria also comments on the two episodes, the Circumcision and Presentation, at the same time. “(T)oday we have seen Him obedient to the laws of Moses, or rather we have seen Him Who as God is the Legislator, subject to His own decrees…” But the sacrifice of the birds that accompanied the latter has a mystical significance. “The (turtledove)... is the noisiest of the birds of the field: but the (pigeon) is a mild and gentle creature. And such did the Savior of all become towards us, showing the most perfect gentleness, and like a turtledove moreover soothing the world, and filling His own vineyard, even us who believe in Him, with the sweet sound of His voice. For it is written in the Song of Songs, ‘The voice of the turtledove has been heard in our land.’ (Cant. 2, 12) For Christ has spoken to us the divine message of the Gospel, which is for the salvation of the whole world.” (Sermon III on the Gospel of St Luke, ad finem.)

Finally, we may note the words of St Bede the Venerable, that neither Christ nor His Mother were subject to the conditions of the Law. Moses writes that a woman shall do these things when “she has received seed,” and borne a child, to distinguish from Her that conceived and bore a Son as a Virgin. Christ “was free from the condition of the Law, but deigned to accept it for this reason, that He might approve it as holy, just and good, and by the grace of Faith, free us from the service and fear thereof.” (Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, Liber I in cap. 2)

In the Byzantine Rite, the feast of the Purification is called “the Meeting of the Lord with Simeon”, and the liturgical texts of the feast lay great emphasis on Christ as the giver of the Law which He obeys, and from the observance of which He then releases the Church. This hymn from Vespers typifies the motif: “Today Simeon receiveth the Lord of glory in his arms, even He whom Moses saw of old beneath the darkness on Mount Sinai, giving him the tablets. This is the One who spoke in the Prophets, and the Maker of the Law; this is the One whom David proclaimeth, feared of all, that hath great and rich mercy.”
A painting in the cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Kyiv, Ukraine, based on Proverbs 9, 1-11, the first words of which are written in Greek on the building’s cornice. God the Father, with the seven great archangels to either side sends the Holy Spirit down upon the Virgin Mary, who stands in the middle of Wisdom’s house, with the Christ Child in a halo on Her chest, the icon type known as the “Virgin of the Sign.” The steps ascending towards Her are labelled “Faith (cut off by the frame), Hope, Love, Purity, Humility, Grace, Glory”; to the left are shown David, Aaron, and closest to Her, Moses, to the right, the four Major Prophets. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Several other texts on the feast and during its Afterfeast (the Byzantine equivalent of an octave) refer to the darkness that enveloped Mt Sinai when Moses went up to receive the Law, which is implicitly contrasted with the “light unto the revelation of the gentiles” of which Simeon speaks in the Nunc dimittis. Thus, the old Law, including the rites of circumcision and the sacrifice of purification, was revealed in darkness, and applicable only to the Jewish people. But it was intended to serve as a figure of the new Law, in which circumcision is replaced with baptism, which is applicable to all, “male and female, Jew and Gentile.” And thus, the feast on January 6th, which celebrates the Baptism of the Lord, is called the Theophany, but also simply “the lights.”

The Roman Rite prefers great simplicity and subtlety in its rhetoric. In the context of this feast, it asserts this relationship between the Lawgiver and the Law, and the passage from the Old Law to the New, through the five prayers of the candle blessing, each of which refers, in order, to one of the five books of the Law of Moses.

The first prayer, corresponding to Genesis, begins with the words “Lord, … who created all things from nothing…”, a reference to the creation of the world. This also explains the statement that candles are made for the use of men, and the health of their body and souls, “whether on land or at sea”, since Moses’ account of creation includes the division of the land from the waters, and the creation of man “as a living soul.” (Gen. 2, 7) This is the only one of the five prayers that mentions the Virgin Mary, the new Eve; it asks for the prayers of “all Thy Saints”, perhaps in reference to the holy Patriarchs of the Old Testament. The last part asks that that God “be merciful to all those who cry out to Thee, whom Thou hast redeemed by the precious blood of Thy Son”, a reference to the blood of the just Abel that cries to God from the earth.

The second prayer, which corresponds to Exodus, states that the faithful received the blessed candles “unto the magnificence of Thy name.” This refers to the Canticle of Moses in chapter 15, a passage familiar to all Christians from its presence among the prophecies of the Easter vigil. “Let us sing to the Lord: for he is gloriously magnified… The Lord is my strength and my praise, and he is become salvation to me: he is my God and I will glorify him: the God of my father, and I will exalt him. The Lord is as a man of war, Almighty is his name.”

(Exodus 14, 24 -15, 1, followed by the Tract from chapter 15, verses 1 and 2, sung at the vigil of Pentecost.)
The third prayer corresponds to Leviticus, and asks that the faithful may “be without the blindness of all vices, so that… we may be able to see those things which are pleasing to Thee and useful to our salvation.” This refers to the Church’s distinction between the perennially valid precepts of the moral law contained in Leviticus, and in the Law generally, and the ritual prescriptions to which She is no longer bound. Notice also here the contrast between light and darkness of which the Byzantine liturgy speaks: “so that after the dark ‘discrimina’ (both ‘hazards’ and ‘decisions’) of this age, we may merit to come to the light unfailing.”

The fourth prayer begins with a reference to God’s command to Moses to prepare oil for the lights that burn before Him in the tabernacle of the covenant. In St Jerome’s Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, this is mentioned three times in Exodus, and twice more in Numbers, the fourth book of the Law, with the verb “concinnare – to make, prepare”, which is also used in this prayer. The prayer that “the light of Thy spirit not be lacking inwardly to our minds” refers, perhaps, to the sharing of Moses’ spirit with the seventy elders of Israel described in chapter 11.

Finally, the fifth prayer, which corresponds to Deuteronomy, asks that we may be “enlightened and taught by the Holy Spirit.” This refers to the canticle of Moses in chapter 32, which begins with the words, “Let my doctrine gather as the rain, … I will invoke the name of the Lord: give ye magnificence to our God.” At the Easter vigil, after these words are sung in the Tract after the eleventh prophecy, the Church states in the prayer that follows that God “willed to teach the people by the singing of His holy song.” The prayer concludes with the petition that “we may truly know and faithfully love” God, a reference to the words of chapter 6, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength.” This commandment appears nowhere else in the Law of Moses, and is, of course, commended by the Lord Himself as the first and greatest commandment. (Matt. 22, 37)

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