Feast of the Forty Days
We have an eye-witness account of a celebration of the forty days after Christ’s birth from the 4th century A.D., before the Church had even given the feast a name. A nun named Egeria, who came from what is now Spain, wrote in Latin to her religious sisters about what she saw and did during her three year pilgrimage to the Holy Land and other religious sites from 381 to 384.
In what is the oldest surviving record of a Catholic pilgrimage, Egeria described a Mass in honor of the feast of the forty days after Christ’s birth, which she observed in Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on February 14. The Church celebrated the feast on February 14 because the birth of Our Lord was observed, along with Epiphany, on January 6 at that time. When the celebration of Christmas was later moved to December 25, the date of the feast of the forty days was naturally moved back also, to February 2, forty days after the Feast of the Nativity.
“All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”
“Egeria’s Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem”: Egeria and The Fourth Century Liturgy of Jerusalem. Based on the translation reproduced in Louis Duchesme’s Christian Worship (London, 1923).
The “Meeting of Our Lord,” “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” “Presentation of the Lord”
At some point, the forty days feast acquired the name “The Meeting of Our Lord,” and it is still called by that name by at least one Eastern church. Whom did the Lord meet at that meeting? Even though He was only a baby, He was recognized by two very old people, a prophet named Simeon and a prophetess named Anna, who each separately had been praying and waiting for the long-promised Messiah, the Christ of God. In His encounter with Simeon and Anna, the Lord also symbolically met and was recognized as the Christ by His people, Israel.
Some time before the eighth century, the date of February 2 began to be celebrated as a Marian Feast, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (“In Purificatione Beatae Mariae Virginis,” in Latin), which is still celebrated on February 2 on the 1962 liturgical calendar. Jewish law said that a woman was ritually unclean for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after a girl and that afterwards a mother had to make a sacrifice to be purified.
The thought of a woman being labeled unclean after having a child is distasteful to modern sensibilities, and the fact that a woman had twice as long a time of ritual uncleanness when she bore a girl child as she did with a boy child could be a reason for resentment in women of our era. I am inclined to think there are always positive explanations for these kinds of practices that sound unfair or unreasonable to the modern ear. Whether the child was a boy or a girl, I can imagine that the time of ritual uncleanness offered a new mother precious time to be relieved of all other duties to be free to devote herself totally to her newborn, and so the birth of a girl baby would give a mother even more time to rest.
February 2 is observed as the Presentation of the Lord in the revised 1969 calendar of the Roman rite.
What Do Candles Have to Do with It?
Whatever name you observe it under, Purification or Presentation, February 2 is the feast day that is also commonly known as Candlemas, from the custom of blessing beeswax candles on this day for use in the church and in homes. The association of this feast with candles and light came about because in the Gospel of the day, Simeon speaks of the infant Jesus as the “light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
In Luke, Chapter 2, verses 29 to 32, Simeon said: Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; Because my eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
On Candlemas, the prayers said by the priest as he blesses the candles with holy water and incense include the symbols of fire and light as metaphors for our faith and for Christ Himself. The choir sings the Nunc Dimittis or Canticle of Simeon with the antiphon “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuæ Israel” (“Light to the revelation of the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel”) after each verse. A solemn procession may be made into the church building by the clergy and the faithful carrying the newly blessed candles to reenact the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into the Temple.
When DOES the Christmas Season End?
“When does the Christmas season end?” is a question with a complicated answer that is related to the date of February 2. In the secular world, Christmas Day is the end of the commercial “Holiday” celebration, but for Catholics it is only the beginning.
In the traditional Roman calendar, the Christmas season ends forty days after Christmas, on February 2. Some Traditional Catholics, like me, leave their Christmas decorations up until Candlemas. The poet Robert Herrick would have approved; this poem of his describes the taking down of the Christmas greenery on Candlemas Eve:
“Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall”
Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve”
One of the liturgical revisions made after the Second Vatican council moved the ending of the Christmas season to the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord in the new calendar. The Baptism of Our Lord used to be observed as part of the feast of Epiphany, until 1955, when Pope Pius XII instituted it as a separate feast. Pope Paul VI set the date for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord to be the first Sunday after January 6 or, “if in a particular country the Epiphany is celebrated on 7 or 8 January, on the following Monday.”
Differences of opinion about when Christmas actually ends are nothing new. For example, here is a poem from colonial Williamsburg:
When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.
The gentry in the poem were missing the point: by drinking and eating as if it were Christmas all year, they weren’t celebrating the feast of Christmas any more, just gormandizing. Just like we moderns do . . . But at least none of the people in the poem would be likely to take the Christmas tree down and throw it out the day after Christmas. They’d hold out at least until January 2, “When New Year’s Day is past and gone.”
ROSEANNE T. SULLIVAN