January was a long month, but now the roots of the huge willow tree in the garden embrace clumps of snowdrops, and mornings and evenings begin to lighten. Candlemas is always a kind of fulcrum of the year, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
The “Christianity” section of the BBC website quotes an ancient rhyme: “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright/ Winter will have another fight/ If Candlemas Day bring cloud and rain/ Winter will not come again.” There are other revelations which suggest that the person compiling the information has a hard time distinguishing between religion and superstition. It is not, to my knowledge, part of the devotion of the feast to believe that if your candle drips wax down one side only this portends the death of a family member that year. Equally, I was unaware that “on Candlemas night many people place lighted candles in their homes”. Perhaps they do in other countries, which is a lovely idea, but risky given how much more flammable candles are than snowdrops.
I find it fascinating that one of the earliest diktats of the English Reformation was that no candles might be burnt in church except those on the altar, and yet superstitions around Candlemas have survived 500 years in English folklore. It shows how powerful an anthropological hold Catholic rituals retained.
Superstitions are actually a kind of “spilt religion”. They derive from an immature understanding of religious cults or their corruption. Superstition is to faith what fetish is to sexuality: an attempt to reduce the whole mystery to a detail of it because one is frightened of the mystery and needs to feel in control of it. Superstition is the defence mechanism of one whose heart tells him that the world of the divine is everywhere and immensely more powerful and mysterious than can be grasped by his understanding. Yet his psyche resists the humility and surrender required to serve, to worship for the sake of the honour owed to the divine, for this would be to embrace his essential poverty, his subjection to the deity. Superstition is the approach-avoidance path to the divine.
The Christian feast itself, of course, took the place of a pagan festival of light and is very much grounded in a Jewish religious milieu which is no longer familiar to us. Indeed, even by the time St Luke wrote his Gospel, it seems that some of its details had become obscured, for the Evangelist combines two separate cultic acts: the purification of the mother, which normally took place after seven days, and the presentation of the firstborn child, which took place after 40 days (or 60 if it was a girl). The absence of the mother from cultic worship for that time did not signify some kind of distaste for childbirth so much as a deep reverence for the mystery of sharing in new life which, like everything holy, meant being set apart, demarcated from the risk of coming into too casual a contact with the world of the profane.
Knowing that Mary’s childbirth was not that of ordinary Jewish mothers, but a miraculous parthenogenesis, and that her child is the already firstborn Son of God, gives particular significance to Mary and Joseph’s presence in the Temple. Though it is not strictly required of them, such is their humility that they fulfil the law in letter and in spirit.
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