Before first Mass on February 2nd, a very small group will gather in the porch outside the main entrance to our Church. If the weather holds, it will be a cold, dark wintry morning and the lights inside the Cathedral will beckon warmly, but there is something to be done before the regulars can enter and occupy their spots in the pews. This day is different.
The celebrant, vested, pauses at the top of the steps while the sacristan stands with a basket of candles beside him. Prayers are recited – invocation and response – voices at first hesitant then gathering in resonance as the significance of the occasion sinks in. The candles are blessed and distributed and the people, too, feel the sprinkle of holy water as they cross themselves in time honoured ritual. The candles are distributed, lit and the little congregation processes into church behind the Priest, singing a hymn. The candles are extinguished, Mass begins. What is this day?
The feast of the Presentation commemorates the occasion when the infant Jesus is presented in the temple, in accordance with Jewish Law which prescribes that all the first born of human and animal alike be offered up to the Lord, 40 days after birth. This day also commemorates the Purification of Mary, following Jewish custom for women who had given birth (in the Catholic Church this custom was continued and known as ‘Churching’. The practice has been discontinued for some time).
As a very young child, I looked forward to this day as Candlemas. We lived in Bareilly where the winters were even colder and the early mornings much darker. The church was far away, so my father would wake me up at the crack of dawn. Warmly wrapped up and muffled to the eyebrows, I was transported by bicycle, anticipation and excitement rising with every turn of the wheel. There would be other children and infants brought by their parents – a sweet reminder of that young Jewish mother and her infant son - and we would participate wide-eyed as the flickering candles dispelled the darkness. The fragrance of incense warmed the air and the musical chant of the Nunc Dimittimus resounded between stone walls. I remember Simeon’s prayer so vividly – we had to learn it ‘by heart’! - “Now dost thou dismiss thy servant, according to Thy word, in peace; for mine eyes have seen the salvation of thy people…”.
This is the day when Simeon tells Mary, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."
This day is significant in the time-line of the Church calendar. A tradition upheld. And for those of us to whom tradition is important, there is a certain tenderness in the memory and a quickening of the spirit. For, in tradition there is continuity - a link to the past and hope for today.