Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly beseech Thy Majesty, that as Thine only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh, so Thou wouldst cause us too to be presented unto Thee with purified hearts.
– From the Collect for the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This Sunday is one of the oldest feasts of the Church—The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, popularly known as “Candlemas.” This feast marks the last feast of the Christmas cycle, celebrating both the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary forty days after giving birth to Jesus Christ and the coming of Our Lord into his Temple.
It’s hard to imagine a more dissonant name for a feast than “The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” After all, how can she who is all-pure be purified?
According to the Law, every woman who gives birth to a son must wait forty days before entering the temple, and then “she shall take two turtles, or two young pigeons, one for a holocaust, and another for sin: and the priest shall pray for her, and so she shall be cleansed” (Lev 12:8). So why did the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had no need to be purified, submit to the process of purification? St. Bede explains,
Mary, God’s blessed mother and a perpetual virgin, was, along with the Son she bore, most free from all subjection to the law…[Mary], who by a singular privilege was above the law, nevertheless did not shun being made subject to the principles of the law for the sake of showing us an example of humility. (Homilies on the Gospels 1.18)
Like the Lord being baptized by John the Baptist, even though he had no need of it, so too does Mary follow the laws of purification, even though she has no need for them, in order to be obedient and a model of humility.
This feast also celebrates the coming of the Lord into his temple. As the prophet Malachi proclaims, “presently the Lord, whom you seek, and the angel of the testament, whom you desire, shall come to his temple” (Mal 3:1). In the Presentation of the Lord, we see the long-expected fulfillment of God’s promises. For more than a millennium, the Jewish people waited for the Messiah. Generation after generation endured hardship and suffering—evil kings, idolatrous neighbors, exile—yet still, they waited. This patient expectance is typified in Simeon and Anna, two faithful Jews who greet the baby Jesus in the Temple, recognizing at last the One who is to come.
And what does Simeon say when he sees the Messiah in the form of a human baby? “My eyes have seen thy salvation.” As St. Basil the Great preached,
Now, it is a custom in Scripture to call the Christ of God, salvation, as Simeon says…Therefore let us subject ourselves to God, because from him is salvation…[Salvation] is not some mere active force, which provides us with a certain grace…What then is salvation? ‘For he is my God and my Savior: he is my protector, I shall be moved no more’ (Ps 61:3 LXX). The Son, who is from God, is our God. He himself is also Savior of the human race. (Homily on Psalm 61.2)
What is our salvation? The very name given to the Messiah tells us, for the name “Jesus” means “God is salvation.” And as St. Peter would later preach about the name of Jesus, “For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The Lord comes into his Temple, though a tiny child, to signal that salvation has arrived.
Finally, why is this feast popularly called “Candlemas?” After proclaiming that he has now seen his salvation, Simeon calls the baby Jesus “a light to the revelation of the Gentiles.” The candles that are blessed and then processed through the church represent this “light,” for Jesus himself says, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12). Mankind was in darkness, but now, through Jesus, we are saved by his light.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.