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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Candlemas: Blessing of Candles

Fr. Scott Haynes



History


Jerusalem is the City of the Holy! It was consecrated through the crucifixion and suffering of Our Lord Jesus Christ; thus, it is sacred ground. The Church of Jerusalem is the Mother Church of all Christians due to the fact that it was there that the Christian liturgical year was established and where their liturgical services were developed. The Christian Community of Jerusalem held liturgical celebrations in their historic settings to commemorate the major events of the life of Christ. However, the solemn celebrations were significantly augmented by the influx of pilgrims who started to congregate around the Holy Places subsequent to the Constantinian Peace of 313 A.D. According to the evangelist Saint Luke, the joyous observance of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple originated in Jerusalem during the fourth century. It was Saint Cyril of Alexandria who exhorted the faithful, saying: “Let us celebrate the feast (of the Presentation) in a solemn way, illuminating the mystery of the day with lights.”

 

Egeria, a Spanish nun, authored the most ancient written record of the solemn observance of the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, which traces back to the fourth century. Towards the end of that century, Egeria documented her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in a diary. She writes:

“The fortieth day after Christmas is indeed celebrated here (in Jerusalem) with the greatest solemnity. On that day there is a procession into the Anastasis (Basilica of the Resurrection), and all assemble there for the liturgy, and everything is performed in the prescribed manner with great solemnity.” (Egeria, Diary of a Pilgrimage, ch. 26).

 


Early in history, it appears that the Feast was referred to merely as The Fortieth Day After the Nativity, without a specific name. Subsequently, it was designated The Encounter of Our Lord, a reference to the earliest homily on the Feast, ascribed to Hesychius of Jerusalem (d. after 450 A.D.), which centers on the encounter between Saint Simeon and Jesus in the Temple. The feast was referred to as “The Purification” in the West, which derived its name from Mary's adherence to the legal purification stipulated by the Law (Lk. 2:22). However, within the English-speaking world, the phrase “Presentation” was modified to reflect the fact that Jesus was “offered” to God in the Temple on that very day (Lk. 2:22). In other places, the Feast was designated as “Candlemas” due to the solemn blessing of candles that was mandated for that day.

 

During the fifth century, the solemn observance of the Feast was transferred from Jerusalem to Egypt (cf. Saint Cyril’s Homily), Syria, and Asia Minor (see Homily of Theodore of Ancyra). Byzantine Emperor Justinian I proclaimed “Hypapante” a Solemn Feast throughout the entirety of the empire in 542 A.D. (see Nicephorus Call, in History of the Church, XVII, 28). In the early sixth century, Pope Saint Gregory the Great (590—604 A.D.) instituted the observance of the Feast in Rome, which subsequently proliferated across the Western Hemisphere.

 

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Saint Simeon chanted the hymn “Master, now Thou can lettest Thy servant depart in peace...” as he embraced the Infant Jesus. (Lk. 2:29-32). This text is prominently featured in the liturigcal texts of the day. Saint Simeon's profound hymn, “Lumen ad revelationem Gentium,” which he composed by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, moved the first Christians of that day to participate in the procession bearing a lit candle or lamp—a representation of the transcendent essence of Jesus, the “True Light” (Jn. 1:9). In fulfillment of the Law, the solemn procession itself represented the journey of Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem.

 

The Spanish Pilgrim Egeria omitted any reference to the utilization of candles during the Jerusalem procession, as this practice was not implemented until the Roman matron Ikelia introduced it around the middle of the fifth century. In their homilies, both Saint Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444 A.D.) and Theodore of Ancyra (d. 446 A.D.) make reference to the utilization of lighting during the Feast procession. The Chronicle of Theophanes provides evidence of illumination processions that occurred in sixth-century Constantinople.

 

The lit candle represents the Divine Presence of God. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn.1:5), God dwells in ”inaccessible light.” (1 Tim. 6:16) As an indication of His presence among the people, God Himself commanded the Israelites to light lamps as a sign of His presence. (Lev. 24:14)  

 

The Christians adhered to the same stipulation described in the New Testament, as confirmed by Saint Epiphanius (d. 403 A.D.) in his epistle to the monk John of Jerusalem. While traversing the region surrounding Anablatha, the Saint came across a structure where he observed a lit lamp. Upon his inquiry, he was informed that the edifice in question functioned as a “Christian Church.” In our churches even today, a glowing vigil-light signifies the True Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist wherever the Most Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the Tabernacle. In his Holy Gospel, Saint John the Evangelist describes Our Lord Jesus Christ as the “Light of Life.” (Jn. 8:12) The burning candle that is presented to us at baptism represents the new spiritual life that we acquire through the sacrament.

 

Saint Matthew uses light to represent the teachings of Christ: “The people that lived in darkness (of ignorance) have seen a great light...” (Mt. 4:16) Therefore, during liturgical services, it is customary to have two lit candles, one on each side of the Gospel, while it is being read, as Saint Jerome explained in 378 A.D., when he wrote:

“In all the churches of the East, whenever the Gospel is to be read, candles are lighted although the sun is already shining. Of course, it is not done to dispel the darkness but to express our joy … Under the material light that Light is represented of which the Psalmist speaks: ‘Your Word, 0 Lord, is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’“ (Saint Jerome, Against Vigilantius, 7). 

The burning candles, flanking the Gospel, remind us that the teaching of Christ should enlighten us and guide us on our way to salvation as indicated by the words of Our Lord Himself:

“I am the light of the world; anyone who follows Me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).

 

In the biography of Saint Sabas, written around the year 556, it appears that the hermits initiated the practice of lighting oil lamps or candles in front of the icons in their caverns so as to create an atmosphere conducive to prayer. (J. Moschus, Spiritual Meadow, 155) Saint Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople (715-733), a prominent advocate for the veneration of icon, advised other bishops: Let it not scandalize some that lights and incense are burnt before the holy images, for these rites were devised in their honor, .. . since visible lights are a symbol of their gift of divine grace and the burning incense is a symbol of pure inspiration and the fulness of the Holy Spirit.”  (Ancora to Bp. Thomas)

 

In 787 A.D., the Council of Nicaea II confirmed the pious practice of presenting candles or oil lamps as offerings before the icons of Our Lord, the Blessed Mother of God, the Angels, and all the Saints; additionally, offerings were made in honor of the Holy Cross and the Book of Gospels. This practice had its roots in antiquity, according to the council.  By situating lit candles and candles in proximity to the sacred icons, one is prompted to reflect on the illumination that illuminated their exemplary lives and is motivated to strive for personal transformations that mirror their “good works.” (Mt. 5:16)

 

The origins of the blessing of candles can be traced back to ancient times. According to The Chronicle of Saint Theophanes, Emperor Justinian I commanded that a candle-lit procession traverse the city of Constantinople on the Feast of the Presentation in 541 A.D., in an effort to beseech Divine protection against the numerous earthquakes and pestilence that had beset the city. In response to the devout gesture of the faithful, God caused the disease and earthquakes to subside. This prompted similar processions on other times when the general welfare of the people was jeopardized.

 

Even today, devout souls treasure the tradition of the blessing of candles at the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas), as these sacramentals are kept in the home for spiritual protection. Throughout the year, blessed candles are lit and kept in our churches and homes before sacred images, especially in times of illness or impending disaster. Lighting the candle, the devout offer prayer to the Lord, seeking Divine supplication for protection and deliverance. In Ruthenia, these blessed candles are commonly called “hromnicja” after the Ruthenian word “hrom” (thunder), because it is used by the parents to assuage the fear in children caused by darkness or thunder.


When a loved one is dying, the devout and pious keep a lit candle during the administration of the Last Rites in the home. Additionally, while the priest recites last prayers before the departure of the soul, when death is imminent, a blessed candle ought to be placed in the dying person's hand that he should be guided to God as the “champion of faith” (Saint John Chrysostom, Hom. on Hebr., IV, 7).

 

Just as Our Lord is “a light to enlighten the Gentiles” (Lk. 2:32), the burning candle symbolizes the abiding presence of Jesus Christ in the midst of the Christian community as He, Himself, had promised :

“Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am in their midst.” (Mt. 18:20)

Thus, the Church mandates the illumination of a minimum of two candles atop the Altar during every Sacred Liturgy; the quantity of candles employed increases in proportion to the degree of solemnity.

 

Additionally, the lit candles foster a more contemplative ambiance within our sanctuaries. It is emphasized that our prayers ought to emanate from an innermost being filled with devotion to God, and that they ought to be directed towards heaven, where God dwells in the “impassible light.” Thus, the use of blessed candles is an important sacramental that contributes positively to the intensity of our devotion. In addition to its sacrificial intent, the liturgy of a votive candle in a church setting carries a symbolic significance: it signifies the perpetuation of our prayers even after our departure from the church.

 

Blessing of Candles


V. The Lord be with you.

R. And with thy spirit.


Let us pray. O Holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God, who hast created all things out of nothing, and by Thy command hast caused this liquid to become perfect wax by the labor of bees: and who, on this day didst fulfill the petition of the righteous man Simeon: we humbly entreat Thee, that by the invocation of Thy most holy Name and through the intercession of Blessed Mary ever Virgin whose feast is today devoutly observed, and by the prayers of all Thy Saints, Thou wouldst vouchsafe to bless ✠ and sanctify ✠ these candles for the service of men and for the health of their bodies and souls, whether on land or on sea: and that Thou wouldst hear from Thy holy heaven, and from the throne of Thy Majesty the voices of this Thy people, who desire to carry them in their hands with honor, and to praise Thee with hymns; and wouldst be propitious to all that call upon Thee, whom Thou hast redeemed with the precious Blood of Thy Son: Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end.

R. Amen.

 

Let us pray. O almighty and everlasting God, who on this day didst present Thine only-begotten Son in Thy holy temple to be received in the arms of holy Simeon: we humbly entreat Thy clemency, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to bless ✠ and sanctify ✠ and to kindle with the light of Thy heavenly benediction these candles, which we, Thy servants, desire to receive and to bear lighted in the honor of Thy Name: that, by offering them to Thee our Lord God, being worthily inflamed with the holy fire of Thy most sweet charity, we may deserve to be presented in the holy temple of Thy glory. Through the same Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

 

Let us pray. O Lord Jesus Christ, the true Light who enlightenest every man that cometh into this world: pour forth Thy blessing ✠ upon these candles, and sanctify ✠ them with the light of Thy grace, and mercifully grant, that as these lights enkindled with visible fire dispel the darkness of night, so our hearts illumined by invisible fire, that is, by the splendor of the Holy Spirit, may be free from the blindness of all vice, that the eye of our mind being cleansed, we may be able to discern what is pleasing to Thee and profitable to our salvation; so that after the perilous darkness of this life we may deserve to attain to neverfailing light: through Thee, O Christ Jesus, Saviour of the world, who in the perfect Trinity, livest and reignest, God, world without end.

R. Amen.

 

Let us pray. O almighty and everlasting God, who by Thy servant Moses didst command the purest oil to be prepared for lamps to burn continuously before Thee: vouchsafe to pour forth the grace of Thy blessing ✠ upon these candles: that they may so afford us light outwardly that by Thy gift, the gift of Thy Spirit may never be wanting inwardly to our minds. Through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

 

Let us pray. O Lord Jesus Christ, who appearing on this day among men in the substance of our flesh, wast presented by Thy parents in the temple: whom the venerable and aged Simeon, illuminated by the light of Thy Spirit, recognized, received into his arms, and blessed: mercifully grant that, enlightened and taught by the grace of the same Holy Ghost, we may truly acknowledge Thee and faithfully love Thee; Who with God the Father in the unity of the same Holy Ghost livest and reignest, God, world without end.

R. Amen.



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