The Christmas Season comes to a close with Candlemas, which is the "Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary," on February 2.  Only a few weeks later (this year on February 17) we celebrate Septuagesima Sunday and start preparing for Lent.  Following are some reflections on these two important feasts, one that closes the Easter Season, and one that begins our preparation for Advent and the season of Lent.  

Candlemas: The “Meeting of Our Lord,” the “Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and the “Presentation of the Lord”

The first record of  a forty days feast after the birth of Our Lord was in a letter sent back to her monastery by religious sister called  Egeria during a pilgrimage she took to the Holy Land between 381 to 384. Later, the forty days feast acquired the name “The Meeting of Our Lord." Whom did the Lord meet at that meeting? Even though He was only a baby, He was recognized by two very old people, a prophet named Simeon and a prophetess named Anna, who each separately had been praying and waiting for the long-promised Messiah, the Christ of God. In His encounter with Simeon and Anna, the Lord also symbolically met and was recognized as the Christ by His people, Israel.

Meeting of the Lord, 15th C Russianicon 

Meeting of the Lord, 15th C Russian icon

Some time before the eighth century, the date of February 2 began to be celebrated as a Marian Feast, the "Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary" (“In Purificatione Beatae Mariae Virginis,” in Latin). Jewish law said that a woman was ritually unclean for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after a girl and that afterwards a mother had to make a sacrifice to be purified.

St. Joseph carries the two doves required for purification of a mother. Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Menologian of Basil II, 1000 

St. Joseph carries the two doves required for purification of a mother. Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Menologian of Basil II, 1000.

What Do Candles Have to Do with It?

Nunc Dimittis from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - 1416

Nunc Dimittis from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – 1416

February 2 is known as Candlemas from the custom of blessing beeswax candles on this day for use in the church and in homes. The association of this feast with candles and light came about because in the Gospel of the day, Simeon speaks of the infant Jesus as the “light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

In Luke, Chapter 2, verses 29 to 32, Simeon said: Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; Because my eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

On Candlemas, the prayers said by the priest as he blesses the candles with holy water and incense include the symbols of fire and light as metaphors for our faith and for Christ Himself. The Nunc Dimittis or Canticle of Simeon is recited with the antiphon “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuæ Israel” (“Light to the revelation of the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel”) after each verse. A solemn procession may be made into the church building by the clergy and the faithful carrying the newly blessed candles to reenact the entry of Christ, the Light of the World, into the Temple.

Below: Photos from the blessing of candles and procession on Candlemas 2013 at St. Margaret Mary Church in Oakland, CA, with Canon Olivier Meney, 

Image 3 Image 4 Image

Below: Candlemas 1871, at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

Candlemas 1871, at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada 


Luke 2:22-40 Explains It All 

This feast is unique because it is both a feast of Christ and a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  All of the doctrines about the feast are in the Gospel of Luke 2:22-40, which is read
that day.

  • The law required the first-born son to be presented to the Lord and called holy, and so Mary and Joseph brought Christ the Only-begotten Son of God to present Him to His Father in the Temple.
  • They brought Jesus to the Temple on the fortieth day after His birth to observe the Mosaic law that a woman was ritually unclean for forty days after the birth of a son.
  • As part of the purification requirements, they brought the two doves acceptable for a burnt offering and a sin offering when the mother was poor and couldn’t afford a lamb.

(Of course, Mary did not need to be purified. She who was immaculately conceived was not impure herself, and she could not possibly have been made unclean by giving birth to the Holy One of Israel. The Church teaches that Mary observed the Law in spite of the fact that she was above it, from humility, as an example of obedience, and so as not to cause scandal.)

  • The Spirit of God had told Simeon he would see the Messiah, the consolation of Israel, before he died, and Simeon came into the temple that day prompted by the Holy Ghost.
  • When Simeon saw Jesus, he prayed the song of praise that we know of as Nunc Dimittis or The Canticle of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis comes from the first words of the canticle in Latin, “Now may you dismiss …” ).
  • Simeon under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost proclaimed Christ the Light of the Gentiles and the glory of His people, Israel.
  • The holy widow, Anna, who was always at the Temple, also recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and then she talked about Him to everyone “who looked for the salvation of Israel.”

Luke 2:22-40 (Douay-Rheims)

22 And after the days of her purification, according to the Law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord:

23 As it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord:

24 And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons:

25 And behold there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Ghost was in him.

26 And he had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.

27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when his parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law,

28 He also took him into his arms, and blessed God, and said:

29 Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace;

30 Because my eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples:

32 A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

33 And his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning him.

34 And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted;

35 And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was far advanced in years, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity.

37 And she was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day.

38 Now she, at the same hour, coming in, confessed to the Lord; and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel.

39 And after they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their city Nazareth.

40 And the child grew, and waxed strong, full of wisdom; and the grace of God was in him.

Septuagesima Sunday, February 17, 2019 

septuagesima image

Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B., abbot of Solesmes from 1837-1875, devoted a whole volume of his L’Année LiturgiqueThe Liturgical Year to Septuagesima. In his Preface, Dom Guéranger referred to Septuagesima as a season of “transition, inasmuch as it includes the period between two important Seasons, – Christmas and Lent."  Reading the image above, we see the first step is SEPTUAGESIMA, the second SEXAGESIMA, the third is QUINQUAGESIMA. They make up the three Sundays of the Septuagesima season, which leads us up to ASH WED. (on the left of the circle that signifies LENT).  The meaning of the Latin names for the Sundays of  the Septuagesima season are explained below.


In the Gospel of Septuagesima Sunday, the master invites workers into his vineyard, and he pays the ones who came last the same as the ones who worked all day in the heat of the sun. “The last shall be first, the first shall be last.”

 In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.” 

Septuagesima Sunday is the ninth Sunday before Lent, and it is the day that begins the Septuagesima season, which is made up of three Sundays: Septuagesima (which means seventieth), Sexagesima (which means sixtieth), and Quinquagesima (which means fiftieth), and then it extends until Ash Wednesday.

 Quadragesima is the name given in most languages to the season of Lent that starts on Ash Wednesday. For a few examples, in Spanish the name is cuaresma, in Portuguese quaresma, in French carême, and in Italian quaresima. In English, in contrast, the word for spring, lent, was used, which derives from the German word for long, because at this time of year the days get longer.

Also in “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger explained that the names of the Sundays in Septuagesima are in reference to Quadragesima, “The first Sunday of Lent being called Quadragesima (Forty), each of the three previous Sundays has a name expressive of an additional ten: the nearest to Lent being called Quinquagesima (Fifty); the middle one, Sexagesima (Sixty); the third, Septuagesima (Seventy). He wrote: “The words Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, and Septuagesima, tell us of the same great Solemnity as looming in the distance, and as being the great object towards which the Church would have us now begin to turn all our thoughts, and desires, and devotion.”

So it is obvious that in this season as in all aspects of the Catholic faith, numbers are always highly weighted with symbolism but they often are not used literally. For more examples, although Quinquagesima means fiftieth, it is actually forty-nine days before Easter. It is fifty days before Easter only if you include the day of Easter itself. (Similarly, Pentecost is supposed to be fifty days after Easter, but that is true only if you count Easter and Pentecost in the numbers of days.) The numbering of the Sundays in Septuagesima get more approximate the further back each Sunday is from Quinquagesima. Sexagesima, which means sixtieth, is actually fifty-six days before Easter, and Septuagesima (seventieth) is actually sixty-three days.

And as Dom Guéranger explained, the mysteries of this Septuagesima “season of holy mourning” are based on the number seven, which is one of the most significant of all the numbers associated with the doctrine of the Catholic faith. In one way, the season of Septuagesima can also be seen as embracing the whole time between the Sunday of Septuagesima and Easter. “The season upon which we are now entering is expressive of several profound mysteries. But these mysteries belong not only to the three weeks which are preparatory to Lent: they continue throughout the whole period of time which separates us from the great feast of Easter. … The people of Israel, whose whole history is but one great type of the human race, was banished from Jerusalem and kept in bondage in Babylon. 

Now, this captivity, which kept the Israelites exiles from Sion, lasted seventy years; and it is to express this mystery, as Alcuin, Amalarius, Ivo of Chartres, and all the great liturgists tell us, that the Church fixed the number of seventy for the days of expiation. It is true, there are but sixty-three days between Septuagesima and Easter; but the Church, according to the style so continually used in the sacred Scriptures, uses the round number instead of the literal and precise one.”

How the Church Keeps Septuagesima

Beginning with Compline (Night Prayer) on the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday the Alleluia, Gloria, and Te Deum are not said any more until Easter. Two extra Alleluias are said at Vespers on that Saturday. Throughout Septuagesima, violet vestments are worn, except on feasts observed during weekday.

Following is Dom Guéranger’s  thorough and lyrical way of explaining these differences during this penitential season from his chapter “The Mystery of Septuagesima.”

“The leading feature, then, of Septuagesima is the total suspension of the Alleluia, which is not to be again heard upon the earth, until the arrival of that happy day, when, having suffered death with our Jesus, and having been buried together with him, we shall rise again with him to a new life [Coloss. ii. 12].

“The sweet Hymn of the Angels, Gloria in excelsis Deo, which we have sung every Sunday since the Birth of our Saviour in Bethlehem, is also taken from us; it is only on the Feasts of the Saints, which may be kept during the week, that we shall be allowed to repeat it. The night Office of the Sunday is to lose, also, from now till Easter, its magnificent Ambrosian Hymn, the Te Deum . . ..

“After the Gradual of the Mass, instead of the thrice repeated Alleluia, which prepared our hearts to listen to the voice of God in the Holy Gospel, we shall hear but a mournful and protracted chant, called, on that account, the Tract.

“That the eye, too, may teach us, that the Season we are entering on, is one of mourning, the Church will vest her Ministers, (both on Sundays and the days during the week, which are not Feasts of Saints,) in the sombre Purple.”

The prayers and readings in the Mass and in the Divine Office take up the season’s refrain of holy mourning too, as part of preparing our minds and hearts for the remembrance of Lent and of the Passion to come.

“Circumdederunt Me" is the incipit (the beginning) of the Introit for Septuagesima Sunday and is a fitting introduction to this season of holy mourning.

“The sorrows of death surrounded me, the sorrows of hell encompassed me; and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice from His holy temple. — (Ps.17. 2, 3). I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength: the Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer. “ 

How Are We to Keep Septuagesima?

On the day before Septuagesima Sunday, various ceremonies are practiced in some Catholic churches and homes, to say “goodbye to the Alleluia." One homeschooling mother blogged about having her children use fingerpuppets to sing goodbye to the Alleluia. In some churches, charming ceremonies are practiced in which a symbolic piece of paper with Alleluia written on it is put into a little coffin and buried, to be resurrected again on Easter Sunday.

Dom Guéranger also tells us how we are supposed to keep Septuagesima:

• By entering into the spirit of the Church in sober, mournful, preparation for the penitence of Lent

• By growing in holy fear of God

• By considering what original sin and our own sins have done to deserve God’s judgments

• By rising up from indifference

• By realizing our need for the saving sacrifice of Christ that we will remember in great detail during Lent

“After having spent the three weeks of Septuagesima in meditating upon our spiritual infirmities, and upon the wounds caused in us by sin, —we should be ready to enter upon the penitential season, which the Church has now begun. We have now a clearer knowledge of the justice and holiness of God, and of the dangers that await an impenitent soul; and, that our repentance might be earnest and lasting, we have bade farewell to the vain joys and baubles of the world. Our pride has been humbled by the prophecy, that these bodies would soon be like the ashes that wrote the memento of death upon our foreheads.” – Dom Guéranger in “The Practice of Lent” in The Liturgical Year.