Thursday, February 02, 2023

Candlemas Day (or, Why Punxatawney Phil is a Catholic)

“When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.” (Luke 2:22-24)

Today, both the Eastern and Western churches observe the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (known as "Candlemas" in the West), and traditionally cited as the fortieth day of Christmas. (Yes, I counted them the other day, and with Christmas itself as Day 1, this is Day 40.) In the Catholic tradition, the Christmas Cycle officially ends with this day, and preparation for Lent can begin, which includes the "Carnival" season in much of South America. But today, and throughout the world, the faithful will process in and around their churches bearing lighted candles, which are blessed for the coming year.

The origin of this feast is described in detail, in this excerpt from the classic work of Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, entitled The Liturgical Year.

The mystery of today's ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, always 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 blessed 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 top, is His divinity.

This year's formality is provided courtesy of the NBC affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio.

Six more weeks of winter. Oh joy. (sigh!)

In Catholic Europe, especially in Germany where the practice originated, this feat of prediction was ascribed to German badgers. But since badgers are not found in the eastern United States, German immigrants to this country were obliged to depend for meteorological guidance on a species of marmot called by the Indians 'weejak' or woodchuck, also known as ... the groundhog.

Finally, we end with the appropriate carol. Yes, there is a carol for ending the "forty days of Christmas." The lyrics are by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), employing a Basque melody adapted by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). This recording is courtesy of John Roberts and Tony Barrand, two of the foursome known as "Nowell Sing We Clear."

"We tend to think of Christmas decorations around the house being a fairly modern invention, like the Christmas tree brought to the UK by Prince Albert, but in earlier times houses were decorated for many months of the year with sprays of leaves and branches, and those decorations changed through the seasons, following the church's year. This lovely seasonal carol was written to celebrate Candlemas Eve by the great 17th Century poet and priest Robert Herrick ... and is taken from his book Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve published in 1648 while England was under the rule of Oliver Cromwell."

And with that, on to Carnival!