Liturgical Notes on Candlemas - The Blessing of and Procession with Candles

The feast of the Presentation of Our Lord and Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also called Candlemas and celebrated on February 2nd, takes place forty days after Christmas. It was at this time that the Mosaic law required that mothers 'bring to the temple a lamb for a holocaust and a young pigeon or turtle dove for sin.' With the feast day fast approaching, I wanted to focus on some historical considerations in relation to this feast's custom of the blessing of and procession with candles. 

To do so, let's first begin with Dom Prosper Gueranger. In The Liturgical Year, Gueranger comments accordingly on the history of the blessing of the candles on Candlemas:

It is exceedingly difficult to say what was the origin of this ceremony. Baronius, Thomassin, and others are of the opinion that it was instituted toward the close of the 5th century, by Pope Gelasius, in order to give a Christian meaning to certain vestiges still retained by the Romans of the old Lupercalia. St. Gelasius certainly did abolish the last vestiges of the Lupercalia, which in earlier times the pagans used to celebrate in the month of February. Pope Innocent III, in one of his sermons for the feast of the Purification, attributes the institution of this ceremony of Candlemas to the wisdom of the Roman Pontiffs, who turned into the present religious rite the remnants of an ancient pagan custom, which had not quite died out among the Christians. The old pagans, he says, used to carry lighted torches in memory of those which the fable gives to Ceres, when she went to the top of Mount Etna in search of her daughter Proserpine. But against this we have to object that on the pagan calendar of the Romans there is no mention of any Feast in honor of Ceres for the month of February. We therefore prefer adopting the opinion of Dom Hugh Menard, Rocca, Henschenius, and Pope Benedict XIV; that an ancient feast that was kept in February, and was called the Amburbalia, during which the pagans used to go through the city with lighted torches in their hands, gave occasion to the Sovereign Pontiffs to substitute in its place, a Christian ceremony, which they attached to the Feast of the sacred mystery, in which Jesus, the Light of the world, was presented in the temple by His Virgin-Mother. 

Continuing on, Gueranger comments on the Candlemas procession: 
Filled with holy joy, radiant with the mystic light, excited, like the venerable Simeon, by the impulse of the Holy Spirit, the Church goes forth to meet her Emmanuel. It is this meeting which the Greek Church calls the Hypapante, under which name she also designates today's Feast. The Church would imitate that wondrous Procession, which was formed in the Temple of Jerusalem on the day of Mary's Purification.


The holy Church opens her chants in this Procession with the following Antiphon, which is found, word for word, in the Greek Liturgy of this same Feast.

ANT. Adorn thy bride-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 daystar; whom Simeon receiving into his arms, declared to the people as the Lord of life and death, and the Saviour of the world. 

However, with regard to the question of the historical origins of the candlelit Candlemas procession, Archdale King, in his appendix, "Byzantine Influence on the Roman Rite" (The Liturgy of the Roman Church) comments:
The feast of the Purification, which, like the Annunciation, was originally a feast of our Lord, was observed in Jerusalem with a solemn procession as early as the end of the 4th century, although there is no mention of candles. The... Presentation... was, however celebrated with lights in the following century, a usage which Cyril of Scythopolis ascribes to a Roman lady of the name of Ikelia. It was thus a Christian practice borrowed from Jerusalem that was introduced at Rome, not an imitation of the pagan Lupercalia. (p. 451) 

King likewise comments on the antiphon noted above, noting that it is "a translation of a Greek tropary which seems to come from Cosmas the Hagiopolite."

Anton Baumstark in Comparative Liturgy speaks to both points noted by Gueranger and King above. Commenting on the question of the origin of the candlelit procession -- pagan Roman or Eastern Christian -- he suggests:

May not the explanation lie in the fact that the practice of using candles in celebrating the traditional Feast of the [Presentation] was introduced at Jerusalem in the fifth century by the Roman lady named Ikelia? An ancient Roman custom would thus have been brought to Jerusalem and there become attached to a Christian Feast... Later it would have returned to its place of origin as an element in the Christian celebration when this was established at Rome. (p. 150-151)

Whatever the case, the Candlemas procession is certainly a beautiful custom invested with Christian meaning and significance. We conclude with the following description, provided by Cardinal Schuster in his work, The Sacramentary, which details a description of the Candlemas procession culled from the Codex of St. Armand, as it might have been in Rome circa A.D. 800:

At dawn on February 2, each title and deaconry in the city [of Rome] sent out its own parochial procession, which wended its way towards the Forum Romanum to the church of St Adrian. In order to guide their steps in the darkness through the ruins of the ancient buildings of Imperial Rome, the faithful carried lighted candles, whilst the clergy chanted psalms and sang antiphons, to which the people replied with the customary cry: Kyrie eleison. As soon as the Pope arrived with his deacons at the basilica of the martyr he entered the Secretarium and assumed the black Paenula as a mark of penitence, those immediately accompanying him doing the same.

Then the clergy and the various scholae of cantors were admitted into the presence of the Pontiff that they might each receive a candle from his hands. This distribution being ended, the cantors intoned the antiphon of the Introit: Exsurge, Domine, which is still preserved in our present Missal, and the Pope made his solemn entrance into the church of St Adrian. After the Introit followed the Kyrie eleison, as in all Masses. Next came the Collect -- now preserved only in the Gregorian Sacramentary -- after which the procession commenced.

... even in the ninth century the people divided themselves into seven companies, each one of which was preceded by its own cross...

The Pope walked barefoot and was preceded by two acolytes with lighted candles in their hands. These walked on each side of the subdeacon who swung a thurible from which arose clouds of incense. Two staurophori, each bearing a cross, walked before the Pope, who was followed by the scholae of cantors in ordered ranks, chanting psalms.

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