Over the course of history, religions have claimed prominence in culture by building over the foundations of temples or shrines to the religions they seek to displace. This has happened temporally as well as physically. In the Christian West, observances such as Christmas grew in significance as they supplanted the festivals or feast days of other religious practices. In the current post-Christian era of North America, the secular observances have dominated previously religious Christian festivals and feast days. The observance of Christmas is, for many, a Winter Holiday of lights and gifts. A homage to the Christian martyr Valentine in February has become a celebration of romance and relationships. Candlemas is barely known, while on the same day we turn, in fun and jest, to the meteorological prognostications of the lowly groundhog to determine how much longer winter will last.
In the church calendar, Candlemas is known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, commemorating the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the temple, 40 days after his birth was prescribed by Jewish law. The Gospel of Luke tells of this event as taking place according to common practice, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.” The pigeons, as sacrifice, indicate the relative poverty of the parents of Jesus.
As early as the fourth century, according to the writings of a Christian pilgrim named Egeria, the church in Jerusalem observed a feast of the Presentation, occurring 40 days after Christmas. In the year 542, the feast was introduced to the larger Roman empire by Emperor Justinian in thanksgiving for an end to a plague afflicting the city of Constantinople. From there, it was adopted by the Roman or Western church. By the 11th century, Candlemas was observed in the church as a time for the blessing of the candles to be used through the church year, and the celebration would begin with a candlelight procession into the church. This day, coming about half way between winter solstice and spring equinox, is timely in its celebration of light and the promise of spring to come. The day has been, through Christian history, a celebration of the end of the Christmas period and the preparation for the period of Lent. It has been customary in some places to leave Christmas decorations up until Candlemas, and even to have a fire burn the boughs that are removed this day.
Candlemas Day was also the day used to predict weather in anticipation of spring ploughing. People believed the rest of winter weather would go in a direction counter to that experienced on Candlemas, as the old English quatrain notes:
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Come winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain
Go winter, and come not again.
This suggests, of course, the origins of our modern Groundhog Day.
At the heart of this day – as the ancient name suggests – are candles, light and the promise of life. There is something peaceful, calming and hopeful about candles. A single light in the darkness of winter; a candle can suggest romance, hope, promise, life and expectation. Candles are at the heart of many Christian festivals, and carry significance in many other religious traditions. Candles and the image of light are used outside of religious traditions to convey many meanings. We light candles at vigils to express our hope and solidarity with one another. We light candles to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays and more. We light candles in remembrance of those who have gone before, as an act of grief, of commitment, of hope. We light candles as a demand for justice or for peace. We light candles to signify serenity.
At wedding ceremonies I conduct, the couple being married often lights a single candle from two others which represent their families. The new light represents the coming together of two lives. I present the candle to the couple following the service with the instruction that it should be relit at significant times in their new life together, at each anniversary, at the birth of a child, at a move, a new home or a new job. In relighting the candle, the event is ritualized, and I hope the vows that brought them together are remembered, and the light becomes both memory and promise.
We noted the eve of Candlemas in Chapel Vespers on Feb. 1, and on Candlemas itself, candles were lit in the chapel. For the Christian Church, this often-forgotten day is one to remember the life of the one who is the light of the world. For us all, of different religious traditions and none, I hope that in the midst of winter, we might take time to pause in the chapel, or at home, and to light a candle or even just think of lighting a candle – and in that, to know the promise of spring, of life, of joy; that we might also remember and give thanks for those who have gone before; and that we might be renewed in our commitments to the things the world needs: justice, peace, community and hope—the light of life.
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