Candlemas: Remembering when Jesus got presented in temple.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 February

In Leviticus the LORD told Moses the following.

Leviticus 12.1-8 KWL
1 The LORD told Moses, 2 “When you speak to Israel’s children, say,
This is about a woman who conceives and bears a male.
She’s ritually unclean seven days, just like she’s unclean during the days of her period.
3 On the eighth day, circumcise the flesh of the baby’s foreskin.
4 Have the mother sit 33 days, for purification from blood.
She mustn’t touch anything holy, can’t come to sanctuary, till her purification days are full.
5 If she bears a female, she’s unclean two weeks, like her period;
have her sit 66 days, for purification from blood.
6 When the mother’s purification days are full, for a son or daughter,
she must bring a lamb, born that year, for a burnt offering,
and a pigeon chick, or dove, for a sin offering.
Bring them to the meeting tent’s door, to the priest.
7 The priest offers it to the LORD’s face, to cover the mother.
She’s now ritually clean from her bloodflow.
This law is for any woman who begets male or female.
8 If the mother can’t find enough at hand for a lamb, bring two doves or pigeon chicks;
one for burnt offering, and one for sin offering.
The priest covers her, and she’s ritually clean.”

2 February marks 39 days after Christmas—representing the week after Jesus’s birth, then the 33rd day after that. This’d be the day Mary finished her ritual purification after giving birth, so off she and Joseph went to temple.

Luke 2.22-24 KWL
22 Once the days were fulfilled for Mary’s purification, according to Moses’s Law,
they took Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord,
23 just as it’s written in the Lord’s Law:
“Every male who opens a womb will be called holy to the Lord.” Ex 13.2, 12
24 And giving a sacrifice, according to the saying in the Lord’s Law:
“A pair of doves, or two young pigeons.” Lv 12.8

So that’d make today Candlemas, the Christian holiday which remembers Jesus’s presentation in temple. It’s called Candlemas because traditionally, Christians bring certain candles to church to have ’em blessed, then use these sacred candles the rest of the year for various customs, rituals, and religious practices. The candles are a reminder Jesus is the world’s light—and when we follow him, so are we.

In some countries, Christmas decorations don’t come down till Candlemas. (I know; plenty of western Christians put ’em away before New Year’s Day.) Because now the Christmas and Epiphany season is over. Tomorrow we go back to regular time—the period between Christmas and Easter, or Easter and Christmas. (Which, in 2020, ain’t long. Ash Wednesday is on 26 February.)

Churching new mothers.

Childbirth is a dangerous time. Our survival rate nowadays is really good… but in prescientific days, this wasn’t the case. Any complication would turn fatal, for either the mother, or child, or both.

So a lot of cultures developed the custom of celebrating new mothers. Believe it or not, this includes the 39 to 72 days the LORD set aside for ritual purification. During the time women were ritually unclean, they were expected to stay home—to not interact with anyone else, lest they make others ritually unclean. But most importantly, they didn’t have to perform any tasks outside the house, didn’t have to go back to work, and weren’t obligated to go to temple or synagogue: They could stay with their newborn baby, and concentrate on their little one. Or, if childbirth didn’t go so well, they could otherwise recover. Or mourn.

Since Christians don’t really bother with ritual cleanliness anymore (the Holy Spirit indwells us, so when are we ever ritually unclean for worship?) it often meant the end of this rest time for Christian women after childbirth. But various Christian leaders recognized the need for some form of maternity leave, and this evolved into the custom of churching new mothers: Forty days after giving birth, the mother was expected to come to church and be publicly blessed.

But till then, she wasn’t expected to come to church. She could stay home and recuperate. (And Irish folk tradition added if she didn’t stay home, the fairies might get her. Disney movies have really sanitized how people imagine fairies; in folklore they’re evil spirits, so… not good.)

Some churches mixed together some of their churching traditions with their Candlemas traditions, so new mothers might bring candles and get ’em blessed. Other churches might have the new mothers take 40 days off, but not hold a blessing for them till Candlemas itself, and then bless all the new mothers at once. And if churches believed in baptizing babies, sometimes they’d do that too.

Of course, churches which aren’t liturgical don’t always hold special times of blessing for new mothers. Which is a shame. New babies are a big deal! Motherhood should be recognized. So if it’s not a formal part of your church, see if you can get something started.