Feb. 2, 2016 marks a number of important events: Groundhog’s Day (with or without Punxsutawney Phil, Ned Ryerson and Gobbler’s Knob), the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, otherwise known as Candlemas Day, and The World Day for Consecrated Life, which is also remembered in many parish settings the following weekend. Remarkably, these three seemingly disparate celebrations have more in common than most people realize.
The tradition of blessing candles on Feb. 2 dates back centuries, in honor of both the Holy Family’s bringing the young Jesus to the Temple and of the Canticle of Simeon pronounced in that setting, when the elderly prophet named Jesus as the light to the nations (Lumen Gentium). It’s not hard to see the connections made in the ecclesial imagination down through the generations between this scene and flickering candles in a dark winter church, and the subsequent blessing of the throats with those same candles the following day on the feast of St. Blaise (Feb. 3). As in cases with liturgies devoted to the birth of Christ, what we came to call “Christ-mas,” and St. Michael the Archangel, “Michael-mas,” the day came to be known as Candlemas.
The lights and shadows at play in the Candlemas tradition came, through some admittedly circuitous routes, to inspire the Northern Saxon and German folk belief that if the day itself was fair and bright, a longer winter would be in store, and if not, then the bitter cold would soon pass. Somehow over time that came to be associated with badgers and bears and, eventually in the American context, groundhogs. (Ironically, I had a German friend abroad who had seen the classic movie “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murry but couldn’t believe the whole thing wasn’t inspired out of thin air and that such a day really exists in Pennsylvania).
Candlemas Day, when the young Jesus was dedicated to God in the Temple, was intentionally chosen by Pope John Paul II as the World Day for Consecrated Life, when the church honors men and women, whether religious or lay, who have professed the evangelical counsels, vowing future poverty, chastity and obedience so as to free themselves spiritually in a lifelong relationship with Christ. In Camden, like many other dioceses, the celebration is transferred until the following weekend, so as to maximize the importance of recognizing our brothers and sisters “set apart” for God as broadly as possible along with the whole church.
Anyone who has been to a baptism ceremony understands well that the candles there represent the light of Christ that is the vocation, duty, joy and ultimate end of all the baptized. These are highlighted at other times: marriages, ongoing Eucharistic celebrations and before the tabernacle for adoration, ordinations. The Rite of Christian Burial mirrors the baptism scene with the paschal candle ablaze near the casket and the white pall reminding us of the infant’s garment, the symbols bookending a Christian’s life.
For those called to the consecrated life, this inner flame serves not only to show Christ’s radiating luminosity within their own souls, but also to witness to the wider world the Lord who is “a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path” (Psalm 119). They have chosen not to hide this transformative brilliance under a bushel basket. Countless human beings: believers and atheists and everyone in between, Catholic school children and hospital patients and the spiritually confused and the forgotten in slums, have felt the peace, counsel, solace and compassion of Christ at the hands of the world’s consecrated men and women. The good they do can never be repaid. And those you and I know personally who have chosen this state in life to manifest their discipleship seldom ask for recognition of their radical decision.
In response to their service, let us continue to be inspired by them, grateful for them, and laboring with them for the in-breaking Kingdom of God, the glow of which thaws hatred and puts to flight the dark death-shadows of a bleak and wintry world.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, PhD, Loyola University Chicago.