February 2, 2018: PURIFICATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
February 2, 2018: PURIFICATION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
Rank: Double of the II Class
“And presently the Lord, whom ye seek, and the Angel of the testament, whom ye desire, shall come to his holy Temple.”
(Malachias, iii. 1)
“And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord.”
(St. Luke, ii. 22)
O Almighty and Eternal God, we humbly beseech thy divine majesty; that as thy only Son, in the substance of our flesh, was this day presented in the temple: so our souls being perfectly cleansed, we may become a pure oblation and be presented to thee. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Forty Days of Mary's Purification are now completed, and she must go up to the Temple, there to offer to God her Child Jesus. Before following the Son and his Mother in this their mysterious journey, let us spend our last few moments at Bethlehem, in lovingly pondering over the mysteries at which we are going to assist.
The Law commanded, that a woman, who had given birth to a son, should not approach the Tabernacle for the term of forty days; after which time, she was to offer a sacrifice for her Purification. She was to offer up a lamb as a holocaust, and a turtle or dove as a sin-offering. But if she were poor, and could not provide a lamb, she was to offer, in its stead, a second turtle or dove (Lev, xii).
By another ordinance of the Law, every first-born son was to be considered as belonging to God, and was to be to redeemed by six sides, each side weighing, according to the standard of the Temple, twenty obols (Exod, xxx. 13).
Mary was a Daughter of Israel—she had given Birth to Jesus—he was her First-born Son. Could such a Mother, and such a Son, be included in the Laws we have just quoted? Was it becoming that Mary should observe them?
If she considered the spirit of these legal enactments, and why God required the ceremony of Purification, it was evident that she was not bound to them. They, for whom these Laws had been made, were espoused to men;—Mary was the chaste Spouse of the Holy Ghost, a Virgin in conceiving, and a Virgin in giving Birth to, her Son; her purity had ever been spotless as that of the Angels—but it received an incalculable increase by her carrying the God of all sanctity in her womb, and bringing him into this world. Moreover, when she reflected upon her Child being the Creator and sovereign Lord of all things—how could she suppose that he was to be submitted to the humiliation of being ransomed as a slave, whose life and person are not his own?
And yet, the Holy Spirit revealed to Mary, that she must comply with both these Laws. She, the holy Mother of God, must go to the Temple like other Hebrew mothers, as though she had lost a something which needed restoring by a legal sacrifice. He, that is the Son of God and Son of Man, must be treated in all thing's as though, he were a Servant, and be ransomed in common with the poorest Jewish boy. Mary adores the will of God, and embraces it with her whole heart.
The Son of God was not to be made known to the world but by gradual revelations. For thirty years, he leads a hidden life in the insignificant village of Nazareth; and during all that time, men took him to be the son of Joseph (St. Luke, iii. 23). It was only in his thirtieth year, that John the Baptist announced him, and then only in mysterious words, to the Jews, who flocked to the Jordan, there to receive from the Prophet the baptism of penance. Our Lord himself gave the next revelation—the testimony of his wonderful works and miracles. Then came the humiliations of his Passion and Death, followed by his glorious Resurrection, which testified to the truth of his prophecies, proved the infinite merits of his Sacrifice, and, in a word, proclaimed his Divinity. The earth had possessed its God and its Saviour for three-and-thirty years, and men, with a few exceptions, knew it not. The Shepherds of Bethlehem knew it; but they were not told, as were afterwards the Fishermen of Genesareth, to go and preach the Word to the furthermost parts of the world. The Magi, too, knew it; they came to Jerusalem, and spoke of it, and the City was in a commotion; but all was soon forgotten, and the Three Kings went back quietly to the East. These two events, (which would, at a future day, be celebrated by the Church as events of most important interest to mankind,) were lost upon the world, and the only ones that appreciated them were a few true Israelites, who had been living in expectation of a Messias, who was to be poor and humble, and was to save the world. The majority of the Jews would not even listen to the Messias' having been born; for Jesus was born at Bethlehem, and the Prophets had distinctly foretold that the Messias was to be called a Nazarite (St. Matth, ii. 23).
The same Divine plan—which had required that Mary should be espoused to Joseph, in order that her fruitful Virginity might not seem strange in the eyes of the people—now obliged her to come, like other Israelite mothers, to offer the sacrifice of Purification, for the Birth of the Son, whom she had conceived by the operation of the power of the Holy Ghost, but who was to be presented in the Temple as the Son of Mary, the Spouse of Joseph. Thus it is, that Infinite Wisdom delights in showing that his thoughts are not our thoughts, and in disconcerting our notions; he claims the submissiveness of our confidence, until the time come that he has fixed for withdrawing the veil, and showing himself to our astonished view.
The Divine Will was dear to Mary in this as in every circumstance of her life. The Holy Virgin knew, that by seeking this external rite of Purification, she was in no wise risking the honour of her Child, or failing in the respect due to her own Virginity. She was in the Temple of Jerusalem what she was in the house of Nazareth, when she received the Archangel's visit—she was the Handmaid of the Lord. She obeyed the Law, because she seemed to come under the Law. Her God and her Son submitted to the ransom as humbly as the poorest Hebrew would have to do; he had already obeyed the edict of the emperor Augustus, in the general census; he was to be obedient even unto death, even to the death of the Cross. The Mother and the Child, both humbled themselves in the Purification, and man's pride received, on that day, one of the greatest lessons ever given it.
What a journey was this of Mary and Joseph, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem! The Divine Babe is in his Mother's arms—she had him on her heart the whole way. Heaven, and earth, and all nature, are sanctified by the gracious presence of their merciful Creator. Men look at this Mother as she passes along the road with her sweet Jesus; some are struck with her appearance, others pass her by as not worth a look; but of the whole crowd, there was not one that knew he had been so close to the God, who had come to save him.
Joseph is carrying the humble offering, which the Mother is to give to the Priest. They are too poor to buy a lamb—besides, their Jesus is the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world. The Law required that a Turtle, or Dove, should be offered in the place of a lamb, when the Mother was poor. Innocent birds! emblems of purity, fidelity, and simplicity. Joseph has also provided the five Sicles, the ransom to be given for the First-born Son—Mary's only Son, who has vouchsafed to make us his Brethren, and, by adopting our nature, to render us partakers of his.
At length, the Holy Family enter Jerusalem. The name of this holy City signifies Vision of Peace; and Jesus comes to bring her Peace. Let us consider the names of the three places, in which our Redeemer began, continued, and ended his life on earth. He is conceived at Nazareth, which signifies a Flower; and Jesus is, as he tells us in the Canticle, the Flower of the field and the Lily of the valley (Cant, ii. 1), by whose fragrance we are refreshed. He is born at Bethlehem, the House of Bread; for he is the nourishment of our souls. He dies on the Cross in Jerusalem, and, by his Blood, he restores peace between heaven and earth, peace between men, peace within our own souls; and, on this day of his Mother's Purification, we shall find him giving us the pledge of this peace.
Whilst Mary, the Living Ark of the Covenant, is ascending the steps, which lead up to the Temple, carrying Jesus in her arms, let us be attentive to the mystery—one of the most celebrated of the prophecies is about to be accomplished, one of the principal characters of the Messias is about to be shown as belonging to this Infant. We have already had the other predictions fulfilled, of his being conceived of a Virgin, and born in Bethlehem; to-day, he shows us a further title to our adoration—he enters the Temple.
This edifice is not the magnificent Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed by fire, during the Jewish captivity. It is the Second Temple, which was built after the return from Babylon, and is not comparable to the First in beauty. Before the century is out, it also is to be destroyed; and our Saviour will soon tell the Jews, that not a stone shall remain on stone that shall not be thrown down (St. Luke, xxi. 6). Now, the Prophet Aggeus—in order to console the Jews, who had returned from banishment, and were grieving because they were unable to raise a House to the Lord equal in splendour to that built by Solomon—addressed these words to them, which mark the time of the coming of the Messias: “Take courage, Zorobabel, saith the Lord; and take courage, Jesus, the son of Josedec, the High Priest; and take courage, all ye people of the land;—for thus saith the Lord of hosts: Yet one little while, and I will move the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land. And I will move all nations; AND THE DESIRED OF ALL NATIONS SHALL COME; and I will fill this House with glory.—Great shall be the glory of this House, more than of the first; and in this place I will give Peace, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Agg, ii. 5, 7, 8, 10)
The hour is come for the fulfilment of this prophecy. The Emmanuel has left Bethlehem; he has come among the people; he is about to take possession of his Temple, and the mere fact of his entering it, will straightways give it a glory, which is far above that of its predecessor. He will often visit it during his mortal life; but his coming to it to-day, carried as he is in Mary's arms, is enough for the accomplishment of the promise, and all the shadows and figures of this Temple at once pale before the rays of the Sun of Truth and Justice. The blood of oxen and goats will, for a few years more, flow on its altar; but the Infant, who holds in his veins the Blood that is to redeem the world, is, at this moment, standing near that very Altar. Amidst the Priests who are there, and amidst the crowd of Israelites who are moving to and fro in the sacred building, there are a few faithful ones, who are in expectation of the Deliverer, and they know that the time of his manifestation is at hand;—but there is not one among them all, who knows, that at that very moment, this expected Messias is under the same roof with himself.
But, this great event could not be accomplished, without a prodigy being wrought by the Eternal God, as a welcome to his Son. The Shepherds had been summoned by the Angel, and the Magi had been called by the Star, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem: this time, it is the Holy Ghost himself who sends a witness to the Infant, now in the great Temple.
There was then living in Jerusalem an old man, whose life was well nigh spent. He was a Man of desires (Dan, x. 11), and his name was Simeon; his heart had longed unceasingly for the Messias, and, at last, his hope was recompensed. The Holy Ghost revealed to him, that he should not see death, without first seeing the rising of the Divine Light. As Mary and Joseph were ascending the steps of the Temple, to take Jesus to the Altar, Simeon felt within himself the strong impulse of the Spirit of God; he leaves his house, and walks towards the Temple; the ardour of his desire makes him forget the feebleness of age. He reaches the porch of God's House—and there, amidst the many mothers who had come to present their children, his inspired gaze recognises the Virgin, of whom he had so often read in Isaias, and he presses, through the crowd, to the Child she is holding in her arms.
Mary, guided by the same Divine Spirit, welcomes the saintly old man, and puts into his trembling arms the dear object of her love, the Salvation of the world. Happy Simeon! figure of the ancient world, grown old in its expectation, and near its end. No sooner has he received the sweet Fruit of Life, than his youth is renewed as that of the eagle, and in his person is wrought the transformation, which was to be granted to the whole human race. He cannot keep silence—he must sing a Canticle—he must do as the Shepherds and Magi had done, he must give testimony: “Now,” says he, “now, Lord, thou dost dismiss thy servant in Peace, because my eyes have seen thy Salvation, which thou hast prepared—a Light that is to enlighten the Gentiles, and give glory to thy people Israel.” (St. Luke, ii. 29-32)
Immediately, there comes, attracted to the spot by the same Holy Spirit, the holy Anne, Phanuel's daughter, noted for her piety, and venerated by the people on account of her great age. Simeon and Anna, the representatives of the Old Testament, unite their voices, and celebrate the happy coming of the Child who is to renew the face of the earth; they give praise to the mercy of Jehovah, who, in this place, in this Second Temple, gives Peace to the world, as the Prophet Aggeus had foretold.
This was the Peace so long looked forward to by Simeon, and now, in this Peace will he sleep. Now, O Lord, as he says in his Canticle, thou dost dismiss thy servant, according to thy word, in Peace! His soul, quitting its bond of the flesh, will now hasten to the bosom of Abraham, and bear to the elect, who rest there, the tidings that Peace has appeared on the earth, and will soon open heaven. Anne has some years still to pass on earth; as the Evangelist tells us, she has to go and announce the fulfilment of the promises to such of the Jews as were spiritually minded and looked for the Redemption of Israel (St. Luke, ii. 38). The divine seed is sown; the Shepherds, the Magi, Simeon, and Anne, have all been its sowers; it will spring up in due time; and when our Jesus has spent his thirty years of hidden life in Nazareth, and shall come for the harvest-time, he will say to his Disciples: Lift up your eyes, and see the countries, for they are white already for the harvest (St. John, iv. 35): pray ye the Lord of the harvest, that he send labourers into his harvest (St. Luke, x. 2).
Simeon gives back to Mary the Child she is going to offer to the Lord. The two Doves are presented to the Priest, who sacrifices them on the Altar; the price for the ransom is paid; the whole law is satisfied; and, after having paid her homage to her Creator in this sacred place, where she spent her early years, Mary, with Jesus fastly pressed to her bosom, and her faithful Joseph by her side, leaves the Temple.
Such is the mystery of this fortieth day, which closes, by this admirable Feast of the Purification, the holy season of Christmas. Several learned writers, among whom we may mention Henschenius and Pope Benedict the Fourteenth, are of opinion that this Solemnity was instituted by the Apostles themselves. This much is certain, that it was a long-established Feast even in the fifth century.
The Greek Church and the Church of Milan count this Feast among those of our Lord; but the Church of Rome has always considered it as a Feast of the Blessed Virgin. It is true, it is our Saviour who is this day offered in the Temple; but this offering is the consequence of our Lady's Purification. The most ancient of the Western Martyrologies and Calendars call it The Purification. The honour thus paid by the Church to the Mother, tends, in reality, to the greater glory of her Divine Son, for He is the Author and the End of all those prerogatives which we revere and honour in Mary.
The Blessing of the Candles.
(Wax-candles or tapers are solemnly blessed on this day, to be distributed to the faithful, to put them in mind, that they ought to be in the same disposition holy Simeon was in, when, taking Christ in his arms, he prophesied he should become the light of the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel)
After Tierce, follows the Blessing of the Candles, which is one of the three principal ones observed by the Church during the year; the other two are the Blessing of the Ashes, and the Blessing of the Palms. The signification of this ceremony bears so essential a connection with the mystery of our Lady's Purification, that if Septuagesima, Sexagesima, or Quinquagesima Sunday fall on the 2nd of February, the Feast is deferred to to-morrow; but the Blessing of the Candles, and the Procession, which follows it, always take place on this precise day.
In order to give uniformity to the three great Blessings of the year, the Church prescribes for that of the Candles the same colour for the vestments of the sacred Ministers, as is used in the two other Blessings of the Ashes and Palms—namely, Purple. Thus this solemn function, which is inseparable from the day on which our Lady's Purification took place, may be gone through every year on the 2nd of February, without changing the colour prescribed for the three Sundays just mentioned. […]
The mystery of to-day's ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to St. Ivo of Chartres, the wax—which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, (which has always been considered as the emblem of virginity,)—signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by his conception or his birth, the spotless purity of his Blessed Mother. The same holy Bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus, who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blest Candle: the Wax, the Wick, and the Flame. The Wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the Wick, which is within, is his Soul; the Flame, which burns on the top, is his Divinity.
Formerly, the Faithful looked upon it as an honour to be permited to bring their wax tapers to the Church, on this Feast of the Purification, that they might be blessed together with those, which were to be borne in the procession by the Priests and sacred Ministers; and the same custom is still observed in some congregations. It would be well if Pastors were to encourage this practice, retaining it where it exists, or establishing it where it is not known. There has been such a systematic effort made to destroy, or, at least, to impoverish the exterior rites and practices of religion, that we find, throughout the world, thousands of christians who have been insensibly made strangers to those admirable sentiments of faith, which the Church alone, in her Liturgy, can give to the body of the Faithful. Thus, we shall be telling many what they have never heard before, when we inform them, that the Church blesses the Candles to-day, not only to be carried in the Procession, which forms part of the ceremony, but, also, for the use of the Faithful, inasmuch as they draw, upon such as use them with respect, whether on sea or on land, (as the Church says in the Prayer,) special blessings from heaven. These blest Candles ought, also, to be lit near the bed of the dying Christian, as a symbol of the immortality merited for us by Christ, and of the protection of our Blessed Lady.
The Purification, with the Old Law explained.
The law of God, given by Moses to the Jews, to insinuate both to us and to them, that by the sin of Adam man is conceived and born in sin, and obnoxious to his wrath, ordained that a woman, after childbirth, should continue for a certain time in a state which that law calls unclean; during which she was not to appear in public, nor presume to touch anything consecrated to God (Lev, xii. 2). This term was of forty days upon the birth of a son, and the time was double for a daughter: on the expiration of which, the mother was to bring to the door of the tabernacle, or temple, a lamb of a year old, and a young pigeon or turtle-dove. The lamb was for a holocaust, or burnt-offering, in acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God, and in thanksgiving for her own happy delivery; the pigeon or turtle-dove was for a sin-offering. These being sacrificed to Almighty God by the priest, the woman was cleansed of the legal impurity, and reinstated in her former privileges.
A young pigeon, or turtle-dove, by way of a sin-offering, was required of all, whether rich or poor: but whereas the charge of a lamb might be too burdensome on persons of narrow circumstances, in that case, nothing more was required than two pigeons, or two turtle-doves, one for a burnt, the other for a sin-offering (Lev, xii. 8).
Our Saviour having been conceived by the Holy Ghost, and his blessed Mother remaining always a spotless virgin, it is most evident from the terms of the law (Lev, xii. 2), that she was, in reality, under no obligation to it, nor within the intent of it. She was, however, within the letter of the law, in the eye of the world, who were as yet strangers to her miraculous conception. And her humility making her perfectly resigned, and even desirous to conceal her privilege and dignity, she submitted with great punctuality and exactness to every humbling circumstance which the law required. Pride indeed proclaims its own advantages, and seeks honors not its due; but the humble find their delight in obscurity and abasement, they shun all distinction and esteem, which they clearly see their own nothingness and baseness to be most unworthy of: they give all glory to God alone, to whom it is due. Devotion also and zeal to honor God by every observance prescribed by his law, prompted Mary to perform this act of religion, though evidently exempt from the precept. Being poor herself, she made the offering appointed for the poor: accordingly is this part of the law mentioned by St. Luke (St. Luke, ii. 24), as best agreeing with the meanness of her worldly condition. But her offering, however mean in itself, was made with a perfect heart, which is what God chiefly regards in all that is offered to him. The King of Glory would appear everywhere in the robes of poverty, to point out to us the advantages of a suffering and lowly state, and to repress our pride, by which, though really poor and mean in the eyes of God, we covet to appear rich, and, though sinners, would be deemed innocents and saints.
A second great mystery is honored this day, regarding more immediately the person of our Redeemer, viz. his presentation in the temple. Besides the law which obliged the mother to purify herself, there was another which ordered that the first-born son should be offered to God (Exod, xiii. 2; St. Luke, ii. 23): and in these two laws were included several others, as, that the child, after its presentation, should be ransomed (Exod, xiii. 13) with a certain sum of money, and peculiar sacrifices offered on the occasion.
Mary complies exactly with all these ordinances. She obeys not only in the essential points of the law, as in presenting herself to be purified, and in her offering her first-born, but has strict regard to all the circumstances. She remains forty days at home, she denies herself all this time the liberty of entering the temple, she partakes not of things sacred, though the living temple of the God of Israel; and on the day of her purification, she walks several miles to Jerusalem, with the world's Redeemer in her arms. She waits for the priest at the gate of the temple, makes her offerings of thanksgiving and expiation, presents her divine Son by the hands of the priest to his eternal Father, with the most profound humility, adoration, and thanksgiving. She then redeems him with five shekels, as the law appoints, and receives him back again as a depositum in her special care, till the Father shall again demand him for the full accomplishment of man's redemption. It is clear that Christ was not comprehended in the law; “The king's son, to whom the inheritance of the crown belongs, is exempt from servitude:– much more Christ, who was the Redeemer both of our souls and bodies, was not subject to any law by which he was to be himself redeemed,” as St. Hilary observes. But he would set an example of humility, obedience, and devotion: and would renew, in a solemn and public manner, and in the temple, the oblation of himself to his Father for the accomplishment of his will, and the redemption of man, which he had made privately in the first moment of his Incarnation. With what sentiments did the divine Infant offer himself to his Father at the same time! the greatest homage of his honor and glory the Father could receive, and a sacrifice of satisfaction adequate to the injuries done to the Godhead by our sins, and sufficient to ransom our souls from everlasting death! With what cheerfulness and charity did he offer himself to all his torments! to be whipped, crowned with thorns, and ignominiously put to death for us!
Let every Christian learn hence to offer himself to God with this divine victim, through which he may be accepted by the Father; let him devote himself with all his senses and faculties to his service. If sloth, or any other vice, has made us neglectful of this essential duty, we must bewail past omissions, and make a solemn and serious consecration of ourselves this day to the divine majesty with the greater fervor, crying out with St. Austin, in compunction of heart: “Too late have I known thee, too late have I begun to love thee, O beauty more ancient than the world!” But our sacrifice, if we desire it may be accepted, must not be lame and imperfect. It would be an insult to offer to God, in union with his Christ, a divided heart, or a heart infected with wilful sin. It must therefore first be cleansed by tears of sincere compunction: its affections must be crucified to the world by perfect mortification. Our offering must be sincere and fervent, without reserve, allowing no quarter to any of our vicious passions and inclinations, and no division in any of our affections. It must also be universal; to suffer and to do all for the divine honor. If we give our hearts to Christ in this manner, we shall receive him with his graces and benedictions. He would be presented in the temple by the hands of his mother: let us accordingly make the offering of our souls through Mary, and beg his graces through the same channel.
The ceremony of this day was closed by a third mystery, the meeting in the temple of the holy persons, Simeon and Anne, with Jesus and his parents, from which this festival was anciently called by the Greeks Hypante, the meeting. Holy Simeon, on that occasion, received into his arms the object of all his desires and sighs, and praised God in raptures of devotion for being blessed with the happiness of beholding the so much longed-for Messias. He foretold to Mary her martyrdom of sorrow; and that Jesus brought redemption to those who would accept of it on the terms it was offered them; but a heavy judgment on all infidels who should obstinately reject it, and on Christians also whose lives were a contradiction to his holy maxims and example. Mary, hearing this terrible prediction, did not answer one word, felt no agitation of mind from the present, no dread for the future; but courageously and sweetly committed all to God's holy will. Anne also, the prophetess, who, in her widowhood, served God with great fervor, had the happiness to acknowledge and adore in this great mystery the world's Redeemer. Amidst the crowd of priests and people, the Saviour of the world is known only by Simeon and Anne. Even when he disputed with the doctors, and when he wrought the most stupendous miracles, the learned, the wise, and the princes did not know him. Yet here, while a weak, speechless child, carried in the arms of his poor mother, he is acknowledged and adored by Simeon and Anne. He could not hide himself from those who sought him with fervor, humility, and ardent love. Unless we seek him in these dispositions, he will not manifest himself, nor communicate his graces to us. Simeon, having beheld his Saviour in the flesh, desired no longer to see the light of this world, nor any creatures on earth. If we truly love God, our distance from him must be a continual pain: and we must sigh after that desired moment which will free us from the danger of ever losing him by sin, and will put us in possession of Him who is the joy of the blessed, and the infinite treasure of heaven. Let us never cease to pray that he purify our hearts from all earthly dross, and draw them to himself: that he heal, satiate, and inflame our souls, as he only came upon earth to kindle in all hearts the fire of his love.
On blessing the candles and the procession.
The procession with lighted tapers on this day is mentioned by pope Gelasius I, also by St. Ildefonsus, St. Eligius, St. Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Cyril of Alexandria, &c., in their sermons on this festival. St. Bernard says: “This holy procession was first made by the virgin mother, St. Joseph, holy Simeon, and Anne, to be afterwards performed in all places and by every nation, with the exultation of the whole earth, to honor this mystery.” In his second sermon on this feast he describes it thus: “They walk two and two, holding in their hands candles lighted, not from common fire, but from that which had been first blessed in the church by the priests, and singing in the ways of the Lord, because great is his glory.” He shows that the concurrence of many in the procession and prayer is a symbol of our union and charity, and renders our praises the more honorable and acceptable to God. We walk while we sing to God, to denote that to stand still in the paths of virtue is to go back. The lights we bear in our hands represent the divine fire of love with which our hearts ought to be inflamed, and which we are to offer to God without any mixture of strange fire, the fire of concupiscence, envy, ambition, or the love of creatures. We also hold these lights in our hands to honor Christ, and to acknowledge him as the true light (St. John, i. 9), whom they represent under this character, and who is called by holy Simeon in this mystery, a light for the enlightening of the Gentiles (St. Luke, ii. 32); for he came to dispel our spiritual darkness. The candles likewise express that by faith his light shines in our souls: as also that we are to prepare his way by good works, by which we are to be a light to men (St. Mathh, v. 16).
Lights are used by the church during the celebration of the divine mysteries, while the gospel is read, and the sacraments administered, on a motive of honor and respect. On the same account lamps burned before the Lord in the tabernacle (Exod, xxvii. 20) and temple. Great personages were anciently received and welcomed with lights, as was king Antiochus by Jason and others on his entering Jerusalem (II Mach, iv. 22). Lights are likewise expressive of joy, and were anciently used on this account in receiving Roman emperors, and on other public occasions, as at present. “Throughout all the churches of the East,” says St. Jerom, “when the gospel is to be read, though the sunshines, torches are used, not to chase away darkness, but for a sign of joy.” The apostolic canons mention incense, and oil for the lamps, then used in the churches. Many out of devotion burned lamps before the bodies of saints, as we read in Prudentius, St. Paulinus, &c. The corporeal creatures, which we use, are the gifts of God: it is therefore just that we should honor and glorify him by them. Besides, in our embodied state, they contribute to excite our souls to devotion; they are to our eyes, what words are to our ears, and by our organs move the affections of our hearts. Though piety consists in the fervor of the soul, and is interior and spiritual, yet many sensible things concur to its aid and improvement; and we may as well condemn the use of words, which are corporeal, and affect the soul by the sense of hearing, as the use of suitable approved ceremonies. Christ made use of sensible signs in the institution of his most divine sacraments, and in several miraculous cures, &c. The church always used external rites and ceremonies in the divine worship. These contribute to the majesty and dignity of religion, which in our present condition would appear naked, if destitute of all exterior. The candles are blessed previously to the use of them, because the church blesses and sanctifies, by prayer, whatever is employed in the divine service. We are to hold the candles in our hands on this day, while the gospel is read or sung; also from the elevation to the communion, in the most fervent spirit of sacrifice, offering ourselves to God with our divine Redeemer, and desiring to meet in spirit this blessed company in this mystery; likewise to honor the mother of God in her purification, and still more so, with the most profound adoration and gratitude, our divine Saviour in his presentation in our flesh for us. The same lively sentiments of devotion ought to inflame our breasts on this occasion, as if we had been present with holy Simeon and the rest in the temple, while we carry in our hands these emblems of our spiritual joy and homage, and of the consecration of ourselves in union with our heavenly victim, through the intercession of his virgin mother.
On the Christian rite of churching women after childbirth.
God, in the old law, declared several actions unclean, which, though innocent and faultless in themselves, had a constant but remote regard to sin. One of these was childbirth, to denote the impurity of man's origin by his being conceived and born in sin. For the removal of legal uncleanness in general, God established certain expiatory rites, consisting of ablutions and sacrifices, to which all were strictly obliged who desired to be purified; that is, restored to the privileges of their brethren, and declared duly qualified members of the synagogue or Jewish church. It would be superstitious since the death of Christ, and the publication of the new law, to stand in awe of legal uncleannesses, or to have recourse to Jewish purifications on account of any of them, whether after childbirth or in any other cases. It is not, therefore, with that intention, that Christian mothers come to the church, as Jewish women did to the tabernacle, in order to be purified from any uncleanness they contract by childbirth. It is not on any consideration peculiar to the Jews that this ceremony was established in the Christian church, but on a motive common to all mankind, the performing the duty of thanksgiving and prayer. Hence in the canon law, Pope Innocent III speaks of it as follows: “If women after childbearing desire immediately to enter the church, they commit no sin by so doing, nor are they to be hindered. Nevertheless, if they choose to refrain out of respect for some time, we do not think their devotion ought to be reprehended.”
In some dioceses this term is limited to a certain number of days. Where this is not regulated by custom, or by any particular statute, the party may perform this duty as soon as she is able to go abroad. Her first visit is to be to the church: first, to give God thanks for her safe delivery: secondly, to implore his blessing on herself and her child. It ought to be her first visit, to show her readiness to acquit herself of this duty to God, and to give him the first-fruits of her recovery and blessing received; as the first-fruits in every thing are most particularly due to God, and most agreeable to him, and which, in the old law, he was most jealous in exacting of his people. The acknowledgment of a benefit received, is the least return we can make for it: the law of nature dictates the obligation of this tribute; God strictly requires it, and this is the means to draw down new blessings on us, the flowing of which is by nothing more effectually obstructed than by insensibility and ingratitude: wherefore, next to the praise and love of God, thanksgiving is the principal homage we owe him in the sacrifice of our hearts, and is a primary act of prayer. The book of psalms abounds with acts of thanksgiving; the apostle everywhere recommends and inculcates it in the strongest terms. The primitive Christians had these words, Thanks be to God, always in their mouths, and used them as their ordinary form of salutation on all occasions, as St. Austin mentions, who adds, “What better thing can we bear in our hearts, or pronounce with our tongues, or express with our pens, than, Thanks be to God?” It is the remark of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that besides past benefits, and promises of other inestimable benefits to come, we every instant of our lives receive from God fresh favors; and therefore we ought, if it were possible, every moment to make him a return of thanks with our whole hearts, and never cease from this duty. We owe a particular thanksgiving for his more remarkable blessings. A mother regards her safe delivery, and her happiness in being blessed with a child, as signal benefits, and therefore she owes a particular holocaust of thanks for them. This she comes to offer at the foot of the altar. She comes also to ask the succors of divine grace. She stands in need of an extraordinary aid from above, both for herself and her child. For herself, that, by her example, instructions, and watchfulness, she may fulfil her great obligations as a mother. For her child, that it may reap the advantage of a virtuous education, may live to God, and become one day a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem: otherwise, what will it avail her to have been a mother, or the child to have been born? Now prayer is the channel which God has appointed for the conveyance of his graces to us. The mother, therefore, must be assiduous in begging daily of the Father of mercies all necessary succors for these purposes: but this she should make the subject of her most zealous petitions on the occasion of her first solemn appearance after childbed before his altar. She should, at the same time, make the most perfect offering and consecration of her child to the divine Majesty. Every mother, in imitation of the Blessed Virgin, ought to perform this triple duty of thanksgiving, petition, and oblation, and through her hands, who, on the day of her purification, set so perfect a pattern of this devotion.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Christmas, Vol. II, Edition 1868;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. I, 1903; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
Glory be to Jesus, a light to the revelation of the gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
The Root of Jesse hath budded; the Star hath risen out of Jacob; a Virgin hath brought forth the Saviour. O Lord our God! we praise thee.
The old man carried the child, and the child governed the old man. A Virgin brought him forth, and after child-birth still continued a virgin, and she adored him, of whom she was the mother.
In the bush seen by Moses as burning yet unconsumed, we recognise the preservation of thy glorious Virginity. O Mother of God, intercede for us.
Mother most pure, pray for us.