I wrote a brief explainer for our churches’ weekly email, and it might be of wider interest (not least for myself next year!).
This Sunday we celebrate Candlemas. What is this, and why do we celebrate it?
40 days after Jesus was born, he was presented in the Temple in Jerusalem. This gives Candlemas its official title in the Church of England: The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. If you count 40 days from Christmas, this gets you to 2 February (although it can be celebrated on a Sunday, as is our practice).
Why was Jesus presented in the Temple? It was required in the Old Testament (see Leviticus 12). Blood was very significant in the Temple, and bleeding (for example, in childbirth) would make a person ceremonially unclean. (There is nothing sinful about giving birth, of course — the first commandment in the Bible was, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’! — but all sorts of things might have made someone unclean in the Old Testament.) This gives Candlemas its other name: The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin.
The name Candlemas comes from the use of candles to celebrate Jesus as the light of the world. When Jesus was presented in the Temple, Simeon recognised the baby Jesus as ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32).
Candlemas used to stand on its own, but the Church of England has (since 2000) observed a season of Epiphany between Epiphany itself (6 January) and Candlemas (2 February). During the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus, and we rejoice in the spread of the gospel to all nations. White is the liturgical colour during this period, because we celebrate the presence of Christ among us, as the light of the world. After Candlemas, we enter a period of ordinary time (green), before the season of Lent (purple), which begins on Ash Wednesday (2 March this year), and which prepares us for the great events of Good Friday and Easter Day.
Candlemas is the moment in the church year when we ‘turn from the crib to the cross’, remembering that Jesus came into the world in order to die for our sins.
Note: Epiphany may be celebrated on the Sunday between 2 and 8 January, and Candlemas between 28 January and 3 February. These dates don’t quite correspond to the Sundays nearest to 6 January and 2 February. For Epiphany, the reason to prefer 2 January to 9 January, which is what happened this year, seems to be that the original rule was that you could celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday between 2 and 6 January, which isn’t possible when Epiphany itself falls on a Friday or Saturday, and this was subsequently extended to make it possible to celebrate Epiphany on a Sunday in any year, which involves bumping the Baptism of Christ to the following day when Epiphany is celebrated on Sunday 7 or Sunday 8 January. (Thank you to Peter Owen for making those details available.) For Candlemas, the only reason I can think of to prefer 28 and 29 January to 4 and 5 February is so that we’re all in Ordinary Time from the first weekday after 2 February. See the table of ‘Sundays in January’ in the Weekday Lectionary.