by Fr. John Berg FSSP

February 2 marks the end of the 40 days of Christmas, which some years even overlaps the beginning of the preparation for Lent, Septuagesima. Unfortunately this feast of the Purification is often overshadowed by the feast of St. Blaise and its blessing of throats on February 3. This feast of Our Lady, however, which is popularly know as Candlemas, has always been one of great solemnity in that it is the oldest feast of Blessed Virgin on the Church’s calendar. The very candles used for the blessing of throats are connected to the procession of candles which so strikingly sets apart the Mass of the Purification. At one time it was frequent to count the academic calendar by this feast. First semester was known as Michaelmas term (for the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, September 29), and the second as Candlemas term.

The feast celebrates the what is really a double event, the purification of Mary in the temple, and the presentation of Our Lord on that same day. According to the Law of Moses, after conceiving a child, the mother was unclean for a total of 40 days if the child were a male, and 80 days if it were female. For a man child this counted the week until his circumcision in the temple, and then a further 33 days in which she was to “touch no holy thing, neither shall she enter into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled” (Lev 12:4). At the same, according to the Law, it was commanded to “sanctify unto God every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel” (Ex 13:2). Thus, at the same time, Our Lord was presented in the temple as being offered to God.

One might at first be confused to think that Mary and Our Lord went through these rites of the Old Law since she was of course without any stain, being immaculately conceived and therefore needed no purification, while He had been consecrated to the work of His Father since the moment of the Annunciation, “Behold, I come to do thy will”. But this would be to misunderstand the role of the Old Testament and Christ’s relation to it. St. Augustine and St. Thomas are clear that the Old Law has all of its meaning insofar as it foreshadows the new, and thus prepares for its coming. This is why Our Lord insists that He has not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it, to show its full meaning it. Christ is of course the Primogenitus, in a sense entirely above what the Law of Moses means by it. He is the firstborn, being the uncreated Son of the Father, as He tells the Pharisees later “Amen, Amen I say to you, before Abraham was made, I am” (Jn 8:57), and they rightly understood that He is saying much more than “I was”, thus claiming Himself to be eternal as God. In his human nature He is also the firstborn among men as St. Paul tells us, having been predestined before all things in the plan of God, and being the Head (exemplar cause) of our birth in grace after having died in sin.

So too, Our Lady is the culmination of womanly purity, and being both virgin and mother, is the model for all women, both mothers, and those who are consecrated religious. In the New Law the rites of circumcision and presentation are replaced by the Sacrament of Baptism which they foreshadow. Although it is simply a blessing, and not a Sacrament, the Church has the special blessing of a woman after childbirth, which is commonly known as ‘churching’, and this rite has as its model the purification of Our Lady. In recent years, like so many riches of the Church’s liturgy, it has been largely cast aside and has even been misunderstood by some as a sign that the Church considers childbirth to be an unclean act. One look at the ceremony, however, shows that it is not based upon the shadow of the Law instituted by Christ, but rather upon its fulfillment in the Mother of God. The mother, carrying her newly baptized child, is lead by the priest into the church up to the altar, where she recites Our Lady’s Magnificat, asking to acquire the Blessed Virgin’s humility, and generosity, and ultimately docility to the Divine Will which may include sufferings, just as those prophesied by Blessed Simeon for the Blessed Virgin on the day of her purification “and thy own soul a sword shall pierce . .” (Lk 2:35). The prayer of blessing also explains well the idea that the bearing of children takes on a new meaning with the coming of Christ:

“Almighty, everlasting God, who by the childbearing of the Blessed Virgin Mary, hast for thy faithful turned the pains of child-bearing into joy, look with kindness on this Thy servant, who comes rejoicing to Thy holy temple to give thanks to Thee, and grant that after this life she and her child may, by the merits and intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, attain to the joys of everlasting life ...”

As Pius XI explains in his encyclical on marriage, before Christ the command to husband and wife was to populate the earth, but after having raised natural marriage to being a Sacrament, the end is that of populating heaven. In this way the natural pains (which, alas, remain after the coming of Christ) are overshadowed by the supernatural joys.

The whole idea of the relationship of the Old and New Testament perhaps finds its best expression in this Feast of the Purification. In it, the Church Fathers see Christ as taking posession of the Temple, the Temple which He would destroy and rebuild in three days with His resurrection. This is seen in the prophesies of Simeon and Anna, who in a away stand for all of the just fathers of the Old Testament. All of the just before Christ are saved through Him and longed for their redeemer as Simeon, “just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). In Simeon and Anna we see models of some of the most important virtues of the Christian life. The most striking is or course perseverance through waiting and longing for Christ. All Jews, however, were awaiting and longing for the Messiah. What is striking is that so few recognized His coming. The questions arises: how could a people so well prepared for His coming through hundreds of years, by and large fail to see him? The answer lies in our ability for self-deception. Our tendency like the Israelites in the desert to form our image of God after our own ideas, instead of conforming ourselves to what God has objectively revealed of Himself.

If we consider it a bit we see how frequent this tendency is, both among those within and those outside the Church. There is a tendency in the face of a largely atheistic or at least agnostic society to think that belief in God, and being a ‘good guy’ is enough, as if it did not matter what the content of the word “God” meant. This is most evident in Modernists such as Feuerbach who would say that he believes in God and even in Christ but that ultimately God is no more than an image that man has of himself, which he is developing into.

This is a bit far-fetched or extreme as an example, but even among ourselves there is a constant tendency which we must fight of forming ‘our own idea about God’. Is it not telling that some of the truths most often denied even among Christians are those which Christ speaks of the most often such as the existence of hell? How many reason that hell cannot exist because “I don’t think God would do such a thing”? In the end it is simply saying: “I do not want God to be like this therefore it can not be like that”.

There is a beautiful verse from the Psalms which I have always thought especially fits this Feast, and the model we see in Blessed Simeon: “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon Him: to all that call upon him in truth” (Ps. 144:18). It expresses a central element in the spiritual life. There is a danger today to think that love of God (which is indeed the end of the spiritual life) means a vague fuzzy feeling about God. But love of God cannot exist without knowledge of God, since we can not love something we do not know, and an increase in love can only go hand in hand with deeper knowledge of the thing loved. If we want to grow in the spiritual life, and if we want to impart the love of God upon our children, we can not forget the importance of devoting time to knowing Him. This is not intended to mean that we must all strive for doctorates in theology, but too many of us lack constant nourishment for the spiritual life which can only come through knowing Christ further, whether it be through the Scriptures of spiritual writers of the Church. We also too rarely pray for this further knowledge and wisdom which are gifts of the Holy Ghost.

The beginning of this month, then, marks a good time to reflect upon our desire to know God, to know Christ, and then to conform to this knowledge. We must especially pray for those gifts of the Holy Ghost (too often forgotten a week after we have memorized them at our Confirmation), who led Blessed Simeon into the Temple that day to meet the Blessed Virgin and His Redeemer (Lk 2:27). It is only in this way that we can come to a deeper love of God, and “take Him into our arms” in a way analogous to Blessed Simeon on this day.

(written 2001; Fr Berg is the Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter)

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