Source: St. George's in Pittsburg, PA
Yesterday was the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, commonly called Candlemas in the English-speaking world, or the “Encounter” as it is called in the Byzantine rite. This day commemorates the purification of Our Lady according to the Mosaic Law and all the wonderful events recounted in St. Luke’s Gospel which ensued.
Our Lady, although “full of grace” (Luke 1:28), was still humble. As the human parent, and indeed the sole blood of God-made-Man, it would be sensible to think Our Lady shared many traits in common with Our Lord, namely humility and submissiveness. Our Lady neither sinned nor considered herself above the law of Moses and her ancestors, whose promise from God was fulfilled in her womb, “He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of His mercy: As He spoke to our fathers, Abraham and His seed forever” (Luke 1:54-55).
Mary’s humility in presenting herself to the Law set the scene for Jesus to reveal Himself to St. Simeon, a holy man who God had promised would not die until he beheld the Christ of God, the Savior of his people. Overwhelmed in the beatific joy only God can bestow, the saint sang a new canticle now so familiar to those who say Vespers (Byzantine rite) or Compline (Roman rite) with any regularity:
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.
The old man St. Simeon had become holy in the sense that Cardinal Newman understood holiness, not the accomplishment of works required by law, but seeing the world as God sees it and wishes for us to see it. Simeon’s only desire was to see Israel’s promise fulfilled and the world again sanctified, a consolation rather than an accomplishment. St. Simeon is unlikely to have lived even into Christ’s public ministry, given his age, but God granted this man to know the purpose of the Christ, which would eventuate spiritual deliverance for Israel and all peoples, not a political liberation for a small tribal nation along the Palestinian coast. The best description I have heard of St. Simeon comes from St. Ambrose’s commentary on the Gospel at Matins for this day, in which the Milanese bishop calls Simeon just man, confined in the weary prison of the body, desiring to be dissolved and to begin to be with Christ.”
All this came to pass simply because of Mary’s humility in the temple. Where there is Our Lady, there is Her Son doing good nearby.
In most all of Christendom churches bless candles this day. The Byzantine rite calls for a general blessing, while in the Roman rite a church ought to bless all candles used for the entire year at this point. The Roman rite curiously calls for a penitential procession, with the priest vested in violet and the deacon and subdeacon in folded chasubles. Perhaps this procession and penitential spirit preceded the celebration of the Purification, but remained, in an obscure manner, in the rites for February 2nd. One of the delightful quirks of the Roman rite.
I should like to draw attention to the Sarum rite, the liturgy used in the diocese of Salisbury until the Reformation eliminated the Mass and the Latin office in England for centuries. Some priests undoubtedly kept saying Mass in the familiar Sarum rite, albeit furtively, until Jesuit missionaries brought the Roman rite, which remained when the Church returned to public worship in English in the 19th century. The first public celebration (to my knowledge) of the Sarum rite came in 1996 under the Newman Society at Oxford Univeristy, who conscripted Fr. Sean Finnegan, then of the nascent Oxford Oratory, to celebrate Solemn Mass at the Merton College chapel. I do not know which feast was celebrated, but the deed was repeated in 1997 by the same organization and the same celebrant for Candlemas. The Mass has been recorded and is available online. One is struck by the beauty of the music and ceremonies, rites so rich they almost bring the tridentine Roman rite to shame.
Knowing the priest who preached the sermon at the second Mass, I asked him why celebration of the Sarum rite ceased. He told me that they had intended to celebrate it annually during Hilary term, but someone sent a report to a Roman congregation which in turn told them to desist in their celebrations of the rite. Those who put on the Mass formed a small group called the Society of St. Osmond (or the “Donny Osmond Society” according to this priest), investigated the matter, determined that the Sarum Mass was perfectly legal to celebrate, and still obtained permission from the Archbishop of Birmingham. It was quite legal. Rome, however, thought the “Society of St. Osmond” was a newfangled British version of the Society of St. Pius X and immediately panicked! Perhaps there is a lesson in this: liturgy should not be dictated by bureaucrats and legalists.
I have included below a clip from the offertory of the Mass. You will notice the cantors wearing copes, an acolyte in a tunicle, lots of incense, the kissing of the “text,” and a chant tone slightly off from what we know in the Roman rite. The motet after the plainsong, about a minute and a half into the clip, is one of my all-time favorites: Gaude, gaude, gaude, Virgo Maria by John Sheppard.