In the United States, February 2 is commonly known as Groundhog Day. This is the day when a groundhog, known as Punxsatawney Phil is said to predict the duration of winter by virtue of the presence or absence of his shadow. This year is the 138th time this weather prognosticating groundhog made an appearance at sunrise on February 2 in Punxsatawney, PA. Interestingly, this local legend has its roots in the ancient Catholic Feast of the Presentation of the Lord which since at least the 5th C. has been celebrated on February 2, 40 days after Christmas. The earliest reference to this feast dates to the middle of the 4th C. However, at that time the feast was celebrated on February 14, 40 days after January 6 which was the original date of “Christmas.”
Today, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord is regrettably one of the lesser-known and undervalued feasts in the course of our liturgical year. The Gospel of the day (Luke, chapter 2) relays the story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the temple 40 days after his birth to offer two turtle doves. This was to fulfill the law as noted in Leviticus chapter 2. It was during this visit to the Temple that they encountered Simeon, a righteous and devout man as well as Anna, a prophetess. Simeon called Jesus a “light for revelation to the nations” while Anna recognized Jesus as the redeemer she had been waiting for.
This feast is also known as Candlemas because, as revealed by Simeon, Jesus is indeed the light of the world. That is why on this day the church traditionally has blessed the candles that are used in the liturgy. In many places additional candles are blessed for people to take home and use in domestic devotions. This was very much a custom in Belgium when I was growing up. I have some vivid memories of this day as a child and a young adult.
Our family faithfully attended early morning Mass on Candlemas. Upon entering the church, we received a thin, tall candle, one per family. After the priest said a prayer and sprinkled Holy Water, we walked around the church in procession. As the oldest child I was tasked with carrying our family’s candle under the watchful eye of my parents and the envious glances of my siblings. After Mass we were encouraged to take our candle home and to care for it with reverence. The priest told us to light the candle in times of need. I distinctly remember lighting our candle when my great-grandfather was mortally ill while we prayed for his recovery. We also found some solace in this candle once he died. We would even light the candle and huddle around it during bad storms. It made us less afraid. When we cleared out my parents’ home, we found several half-burned Candlemas candles in the drawer, right where we used to keep them. I still have one at home today.
While at university I lived in a Benedictine abbey. There we celebrated Candlemas with even greater ceremony as the candles were bigger, the procession was longer, and the psalm verses sung were more numerous. We started the celebration in the chapter room. After the lighting and blessing of our candles we processed through the entire cloister into the church while singing Lumen ad revelationem gentium or A light of revelation to the Nations. I can still hear the sounds, see the sights, and smell the copious amounts of incense used for the procession.
The essence of the feast is this: year after year we are called to be the new Simeon and the new Anna and proclaim Christ as the Light to the Nations and the Savior of the world. The candles are a tangible affirmation that Christ is indeed the Light. And the procession is not just a pretty parade rather it symbolizes and rehearses us in our calling to bring Christ’s light to the world.
At The Basilica we will bless candles both for liturgical and domestic use on Sunday, February 4 during the celebration of the Eucharist. Some candles will be available for purchase after our Sunday Masses. We invite you to light these candles and say a prayer when you find yourself in any kind of need.
And how did this feast morph into Groundhog Day? Candlemas became known as the celebration of light and folklore rose around it. It was said that a bright and sunny February 2 promised another six weeks of Winter. When Candlemas and its surrounding folklore reached Germany the shadow of a German hedgehog became the prognosticator. When the custom reached the United States, the hedgehog was replaced with a groundhog and though the prediction still happens on February 2 it is totally disconnected from Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
Johan van Parys
Managing Director of Ministries
Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts