This Friday we are going to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Candles, the fiesta of Jaro. This particular feast has been celebrated in the church since the first centuries of Christianity and was known through the centuries, through various names. In the English world it is known as Candlemass, Lichtmess in German, Chandeleur in France and Candelaria in Italy, Spain and in the Philippines. In the Greek Orthodox, this feast is known as the “Hypapante,” a Greek word which means “encounter” to commemorate the meeting between Jesus, Anna and Simeon.
The feast begun as a commemoration of the event when Jesus was brought to the temple forty days after His birth. Mary and Joseph did so to fulfill what the law prescribed, that a priest should perform the rite of atonement and purification over the mother. In the diary of Aetheria written in the fourth century she observed that while she was in Jerusalem “the fortieth day after Epiphany (the old date of Christmas, thus Candlemass was celebrated on February 14 then) is celebrated with highest honor . . . there is a procession in which all take part . . . done with the greatest joy, just as at Easter.”
The Roman Emperor Justinian in the year 540 introduced it as a public holiday celebrated by his empire. The date then was changed to February 2, forty days after December 25 which became the permanent date of Christmas for the Roman Church. It was then called “the feast of the Purification of Mary.” It was during the Papacy of Sergius I (687-701) that the candles were first used to symbolize Christ as “the Light to the Gentiles.” This originated from a pagan procession called “Amburbale” which pagan Rome then celebrated with lighted candles to purify themselves. It was Christianized and integrated in the feast of the Purification of Mary. A blessing of Candles, the perdon as we call it today, was added about the year 1000.
In 1960, the official Liturgical books stipulated that this festivity must be understood as the feast of Christ and not primarily as a Marian feast. Thus, it abolished the title “Purification of Mary” and changed it to the feast of “the Presentation of the Lord,” a feast which in former times marks the end of the festivity of Christmas.
This is the history of our feast and I am presenting it so that we may know what we are celebrating on this day.
First, we must understand that we are celebrating the feast of Christ our Lord who must remain the main focus of this feast. Mary presents her to us just as she has done so to Simeon and Anna in the process of her purification in the temple. In a way, as the first reading of the mass from the prophet Malachi attests, the presence of Jesus in our lives must lead us to the painful process of self purification - to refine us “like gold and silver.” This is the greatest challenge of our celebration especially as we start our work of renewal. We must permit Jesus to purify us and to transform us into his new people.
Secondly, the candle which has a central part in our feast should not just remain a mere ornament or amulet to ward off evil. Primarily, it is a reminder for us that Christ is the light of our lives. He drives away the darkness of our sin, He is the light that makes us feel secure and at ease, and who will show us the way that leads to happiness.
May this feast help us encounter Jesus in our personal lives, in our families, and in each other. May the light of Christ be with us all.