January 2017 Print

Feasts of Our Lady: The Purification

by Fr. Christopher Danel

“On this day the Virgin-Mother brings the Lord of the Temple into the Temple of the Lord; Joseph presents to the Lord a Son, who is not his own, but the Beloved Son of the Lord Himself, and in whom the Lord is well pleased: Simeon, the just man, confesses Him for whom he had been so long waiting; Anna, too, the widow, confesses Him. The Procession of this solemnity was first made by these four, which afterwards was to be made, to the joy of the whole earth, in every place and by every nation” (St. Bernard, First Sermon on the Purification).

The Law and the Gospel

Thus forty days after the Nativity of the Savior at Bethlehem, Our Lady fulfilled the Law of the Most High in regard to the birth of a son, the pertinent parts of which are paraphrased as follows from the twelfth chapter of Leviticus: “If a woman shall bear a male child, she shall be unclean seven days. And on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised, but she shall remain three and thirty days unclean [i.e., for a total of forty days]. And when the days of her purification are expired, she shall bring to the door of the tabernacle a lamb of a year old for a holocaust and a turtledove for sin [or two turtledoves, cf. Lev 12:8], and shall deliver them to the priest, who shall offer them before the Lord, and shall pray for her, and so she shall be cleansed.” Furthermore, if the son be the firstborn, he is to be especially dedicated to God, according to Exodus 13:2, “Sanctify unto me every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, as well of men as of beasts: for they are all mine.” Bishop Challoner (+1781) notes, “Sanctification in this place means that the firstborn males of the Hebrews should be deputed to the ministry in the divine worship, and the firstborn of the beasts to be given for a sacrifice.”

In St. Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 2), we see all of this come together on that Fortieth Day: “And after the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord, as it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord: and to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

How can the All-Pure be purified? With no issue of blood, no painful birth, how is it that the Ever-Virgin Mary could be in need of this ritual? It is clear that in the case of Our Lady, there is no actual purifying to be done. The Church’s commemoration of this event called the Purification is therefore above all a veneration of her humility and obedience before God, and of the other miraculous events and prophecies which occurred on her purification day.

A Feast of Our Lady

The feast thus commemorates Our Lady’s going up to the temple. All other events of that day result from this religious act, such as the presentation of the Infant Jesus in the temple on that occasion. Her act thus brings about the convergence of several figures: Herself and St. Joseph, Our Lord entering His temple, and Sts. Simeon and Anna. Because of this encounter, the Greeks call the feast the Meeting of the Lord (Hypapante), that is, the commemoration of the meeting of the Divine Infant with the venerable St. Simeon after the latter’s many years of faithful vigil in anticipation of that day. It results in the beautiful poetry of St. Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis: “Now thou dost dismiss thy servant O Lord, according to thy word in peace, because my eyes have seen thy salvation . . .” The Greek texts place great emphasis on the figure of St. Simeon, but the historian Theophilact pointed out in AD 602 that the feast nevertheless had a marked Marian character in the East, which included a penitential litany and procession to the Constantinopolitan shrine of the Theotokos in Blachernis.

In the Roman Rite, the feast maintained its Marian character, since its development was always closely associated with that of the other Marian feasts. In the liturgical books, its title has consistently been the Purification of Mary. The office antiphons speak of the presentation of the Infant and of Sts. Simeon and Anna, but the psalms assigned are those of Our Lady. The procession in Rome, directed toward Saint Mary Major, the principal Marian shrine of the City, had eighteen deacons carry as many standards of the Blessed Virgin before the pope. In Milan, the priests placed a large Madonna and Child called the Idéa (meaning image) on a float for the procession from a Marian shrine to the Duomo, and similar customs prevailed in Aquileia and Germany.

The History of the Feast

The initial evidence of the liturgical commemoration of the Purification comes from the Spanish nun Egeria, who wrote of the practices in the Holy Land during her pilgrimage there in AD 416. She says that at Jerusalem, it was celebrated “with the greatest of honor… for on that day there is a procession in the Shrine of the Holy Sepulcher, and all process with order and great joy, just as for Easter – valde cum summo honore . . . nam eadem die processio est in Anastase et omnes procedunt et ordine aguntur omnia cum summa laetitia, ac si per Pascha.”

Therefore it is clear that the feast was already well-established by the fifth century, as Dom Guéranger points out. The historical scholar Pope Benedict XIV (+1758) deduced that the practice of commemorating the signal events of the fortieth day after the Nativity dates back to the apostolic age. The observance of the feast spread rapidly from Jerusalem to all of the Levant. In the sixth century, Syrian sources indicate that it was celebrated throughout all of Palestine and was then adopted in the city of Constantinople by way of imitation, modo aemulatione. It was introduced there and extended throughout the empire, wrote Patriarch St. Nicephorus (+829), by the Emperor Justin in AD 527. Fifteen years later, as a thanksgiving for the cessation of a pestilence, the Emperor Justinian gave the Hypapante even more prominence.

Adoption at Rome

The feast was adopted at Rome by the seventh century and appears in the Gelasian Sacramentary from that era. The procession itself appears to have been introduced around that time or not long afterward. The Liber Pontificalis, a papal chronology kept up through the fifteenth century, states that Pope Sergius I (AD 687-701) added it to a series of three other Marian processions: “He ordered that on the days of the Annunciation of the Lord, on the Dormition, on the Nativity of the Holy and Ever-Virgin Mary Mother of God, and on St. Simeon, which the Greeks call Hypapante, the procession shall leave from St. Adrian’s and the people shall process to St. Mary Major,” where the festal Mass was then celebrated.

While the procession was introduced along with the feast, Dom Guéranger writes that uncovering the exact origin of the candles is “exceedingly difficult.” Some have speculated that the use of candles for the procession in Rome was instituted as a way of substituting the previous processions of the Lupercalia or Amburvalia, but these processions had already faded away long before the introduction of candles for the Purification. Formulae regarding the candles begin to appear in the late ninth century, for example in the Sacramentary of Padua.

The Blessing of Candles

The beautiful practice of blessing candles and processing with them gives the feast its other common name: Candlemas (that is, Candle Mass). The gesture has a symbolic connection to the prophecy of St. Simeon as he held the Divine Infant in his arms, calling Him: “A light of revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” The same Infant would later declare of Himself: “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

In Rome, older texts describe the candles being blessed by cardinals in advance of the procession. There are five prayers of blessing for the candles. The first two are from at least the tenth century, and the remaining three from the eleventh. The five prayers beseech from God the following: (a) that the candles may be blessed and sanctified as sacramentals “for the service of men and for the good of their bodies and souls in all places, whether on sea or on land”; (b) that we may be inflamed by divine charity and be made worthy to enter the “holy Temple” of heaven; (c) that we may be delivered from the blindness of sin to clearly see God’s will; (d) that we may be further enlightened by the Holy Ghost; (e) so that in the love and reverence of God we may profess the Faith. The Candlemas candles thus become special sacramentals, and it is customary for the faithful to take their candles home and burn them in times of need, especially during epidemics, storms, difficult births, and at the bedside of dying. They are used, for example, on the following day for the blessing of St. Blaise. The chant for the distribution of the candles is taken from the Gospel: the Nunc Dimittis of St. Simeon.

The Procession

The seventh century Roman ordo describes the logistics of the procession, which was at once penitential and at the same time festive. The pope and clergy would vest at the gathering church of St. Adrian. The schola would sing the antiphon Exurge Domine, after which the pope would ascend to the altar to sing the collect. Then he, the clergy, and the faithful would process in bare feet to Saint Mary Major. As the procession included the litanies with the Kyrie, the Mass would begin at Saint Mary Major with the Gloria. This practice for the beginning of the procession is still the same: at the blessing of the candles, Exurge Domine is sung, followed by a collect, and then the procession makes its way and is concluded then by Holy Mass.

The antiphons for the procession have been the subject of study by liturgists, as they are unusual specimens of Greek texts and chants in the Latin liturgy. The principal processional antiphon, Adorna thalamum tuum, is as follows: “Adorn thy bridal-chamber, O Sion, and receive Christ thy King. Salute Mary, the gate of heaven; for she beareth the King of glory, who is the new Light. The Virgin stands, bringing in her hands her Son, the Begotten before the day-star; whom Simeon, receiving into his arms, declared to the people as the Lord of life and death, and the Savior of the world.” Re-entering the church, the antiphon Obtulerunt is chanted: “They offered for Him to the Lord a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, * as it is written in the Law of the Lord. After the days of Mary’s purification were accomplished, according to the Law of Moses, they carried Jesus to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord[.]”


The second of February represents the confluence of several persons and events at the same time, namely, the Purification-day of Our Lady, her Presentation of the Divine Infant accompanied by St. Joseph, and their prophecy-laden encounter with Sts. Simeon and Anna. Our participation in this event is marked by processing at the church, representing the temple, bearing blessed candles in honor of Him who is the Light of the World. We may fittingly meditate on the liturgical symbolism pointed out by St. Yves of Chartres. The wax, he writes, symbolizes the spotless and virginal flesh of both the Divine Infant and His holy Mother, while the flame represents Christ who dispels all darkness, warming us with divine charity and filling us with the brilliance of His light.