Although the Church’s liturgical Christmas season officially ended with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, in the old calendar it continued through February 2, the Presentation of the Lord, or, in the old tradition, the Purification of Mary. This was coupled with what is called “Candlemas Day.” On that day, the priest blesses the altar candles that might be used throughout the year. Participants sometimes process into the church with candles.
I mention this, in part because it strikes me that the image of the lit candle is both the conclusion of Christmas and the beginning of Easter. With the Presentation it marks the end of the season of the mystery of the Incarnation. Some two months or so later the Candle will be one of the first and predominant symbols of the season of Easter. On Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil, the Paschal Candle will be blessed, lit from the new fire, and carried into the darkened church, with the proclamation “Christ our Light!” The light – the lit candle - is therefore one of the first signs of the season of the Paschal mystery.
After Christmas, we have a brief passage of Ordinary time, and we enter into Lent. Is Christ’s light diminished during the two great feasts? No. But ritually we enter with Him into a period of preparation – Christ’s retreat into the desert for forty days. He, the Son of God, withdrew. He fasted and prayed. He Himself was tempted by the devil.
We also will separate ourselves a little. For about Forty Days we will focus our intentions and attention on fasting, prayer, and turning away from temptation and sin.
We know, of course, that the Incarnation of our Lord is forever. We profess and believe that the power of His dying and rising saves us in every season. So also, at every time, we must renew our interior spirit of prayer, of growing in the virtues of selfless love, putting aside some of those material things that may present themselves as false remedies to the longings of our heart and soul.
But our Lenten time is important now. We have to “go away” for a while with Christ. Put aside the things that distract us from the authentic meaning and final goal of our life: to serve God now; to reach Heaven and be with Him forever. I believe the tradition of “giving up” creature comforts during Lent is valuable. Anyone who wants to love more must learn to say “no” to themselves, to their own conveniences and preferences. Lent can be a season, not merely of deprivation, but of renewing and deepening the spiritual dimension of our prayers, our daily work, and even our joys.
At Candlemas, Christ the light has come into the Temple to “meet His believing people.” (Introductory for the Presentation of the Lord, Roman Missal for February 2, #4). At Easter, He is heralded as the “Morning Star, who never sets… and who, coming back from death’s domain sheds His peaceful light on humanity.” (Exsultet)
At the last day of Christmas we are shown a candle. On the first night of Easter it burns again. In between? Christ, the light, is that Morning Star which never sets. Hidden for a while, He reappears to break open our darkness. Let us ready ourselves in this holy Season of Lent to see Him when He rises.
Excerpt from LENT, a poem by George Herbert
It's true, we cannot reach Christ's forti'eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour's purity;
Yet we are bid, 'Be holy ev'n as he, '
In both let's do our best.
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand, and more:
May strengthen my decays.