Coming up in a couple weeks is one of those lovely opportunities to celebrate one of the Holy Days, or “red letter days” with the whole church on a Sunday: the feast of the Presentation of our Lord, or, the Purification of Mary. It’s on February 2nd, which is about two Sundays away now.
First of all, if you need to freshen up your memory on the meaning and significance of this holiday, click here for my introduction from a previous year. There you’ll get a run-down of several scripture readings, a collect, and a canticle that are associated with this celebration.
For many 1979-prayer-book-users, it is a hard adjustment realizing that we are “allowed” to celebrate holy days like this on Sundays. It cannot be emphasized enough that before 1979 it was universal practice to observe holy days that land on Sundays outside of Lent/Easter/Pentecost, and Advent. Be glad to reclaim another piece of our heritage! Plus, holy days like these also help “break up” the predictability of the Sundays of the year somewhat, providing moments of something different.
Although in the case of this feast day, it’s not really that much of an interruption, because the Presentation of Christ in the Temple has strong connections to Christmas and Epiphany. February 2nd is “the 40th day of Christmas“, matching the timing of the historical presentation in the Temple; and one of the key lines in the Gospel story of this holiday identifies Jesus as “a light to lighten the gentiles”, playing perfectly into one of the themes of Epiphanytide. So it would really be a crying shame not to observe this day a couple Sundays from now.
One of the “extra things” that make this holiday stand out is the tradition of blessing candles for the church and the congregation. There is a brief rite for this in A Manual for Priests in the American Church which I have adapted to our contemporary-language prayer book style, below. Note that this is from a book that assumes a high churchmanship which many of you who read this may not be prepared (or even desirous) to implement. But the ceremonial can always be simplified for your context, should you choose to do something like this at the beginning of the liturgy.
The Blessing and Distribution of Candles on February 2
This ancient blessing, symbolic of Christ the True Light of the world, should take place immediately before the principle Mass on the Feast of the Purification of Mary (Presentation of Christ). In many places it is customary to bless the year’s supply of candles together with the candles which are to be given to the people at this service.
The candles to be blessed and distributed are usually placed at the Epistle side of the Sanctuary, near the Altar. The Altar should be vested in white. The Priest who is to celebrate, vested in amice, alb, girdle, white stole and cope (if no cope is available the chasuble may be worn), having arrived at the Altar, goes to the Epistle side. Without turning to the people, he begins the office of blessing, singing or saying:
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, who as on this day did present your only-begotten Son in your holy temple to be received in the arms of blessed Simeon: We humbly entreat your mercy, that you would condescend to +bless, +hallow, and kindle with the light of your heavenly benediction these candles which we your servants desire to receive and to carry, lighted in honor of your holy Name. By offering them to you, our Lord and God, may we be inflamed with the fire of your love, and made worthy to be presented in the holy temple of your glory; through the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, world without end. Amen.
Then the Priest [after putting incense into the thurible and blessing it] will thrice sprinkle the candles with holy water, saying once only,
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
[Then he censes them thrice.]
If another Priest is present, he gives a candle to the celebrant, who does not kneel.
Other clergy and acolytes receive their candles kneeling at the footpace; the people kneel at the Altar Rail.
During the distribution it is customary to sing the Nunc Dimittis, in the following manner:
Antiphon: A light to lighten the Gentiles: and the glory of your people Israel.
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace * according to your word.
For my eyes have seen * your salvation,
Which you have prepared * before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles * and to be the glory of your people Israel.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son * and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be * world without end.
When all have received their candles, and returned to their places, the candles which the people are carrying should be lighted. The light may be given by acolytes or ushers.
As soon as the anthem is finished, the Priest shall sing or say: Let us pray.
We beseech you, O Lord, mercifully to hear the prayers of your people; and grant that by this service which year by year we offer to you, we may, in the light of your grace, attain to the hidden things of your glory; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Then the Procession is formed. [And first the Priest puts incense in the censer and blesses it.] Turning to the people, he sings,
Let us go forth in peace.
In the Name of Christ. Amen.
During the Procession, all carry lighted candles, and appropriate hymns and anthems should be sung. The Procession ended, the Priest lays aside his cope, and puts on the chasuble for the Mass of the feast. It is an ancient custom for all to hold lighted candles during the reading of the Gospel, and from the Consecration to the Communion.