Thursday, February 2, 2023

Candlemas. . .

The word Candlemas (or Candlemass) comes from Latin Missa Candelarum and means "candle (church) service".  Candlemas is observed on February 2, 40 days after Christmas.  The celebration is based on an event in the early life of our Lord and is related by St. Luke, namely the presentation of Jesus and the purification of Mary at the Temple. (See the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2.)  The Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord was first observed in the fourth century in and around Jerusalem and then spread to the western Church.  In the Gospel for the day, Simeon refers to Christ as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32).  This theme was given ceremonial expression when, in the seventh century, Pope Sergius (687-701) introduced a procession with candles accompanied by the singing of the Nunc Dimittis.  The practice eventually spread to the rest of the western Church.  The candle ceremony later became the shorthand name, Candlemas (Candle Mass). By the Middle Ages Candlemas typically included the practice of blessing candles for use throughout the year.  At the time when Jesus was born, all women who gave birth were considered ritually unclean and not allowed in the Temple for a period of 40 days. After 40 days these women were purified from their ritual uncleanness and their baby presented to the Lord in the Temple.  The accomplishment of both of these then allowed mother and child to be readmitted into the community. 

According to the Gospel for this day, St. Luke 2:22–40, forty days after his birth, the infant Lord Jesus was Himself presented in the Temple to fulfill the promise of Malachi, “The Lord whom ye seek will suddenly come to His temple” (3:1), as well as in observance of the Mosaic Law for purifying mothers after child birth (Lev. 12:2–5). Jesus’ parents offered the alternative sacrifice of two turtledoves or two pigeons, the offering of the poor who could not afford a lamb.  Though this was the allowed substitution for the poor and may have reflected the circumstances of Joseph and Mary, no lamb was necessary because the infant Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Thus the mother who brought the Lamb of God into the world had only the Lamb of God to offer.  Simeon prayed the Nunc Dimittis, a prayer of great comfort and consolation for all who hold Christ in the arms of faith and in the Holy Eucharist -- a natural text to serve as the post-communion prayer and song of the faithful.

In Bach’s Leipzig, Candlemas was celebrated as a principal feast of Christ, taking precedence over any other festival falling on the same day.  Candlemas in Bach’s Leipzig called for ringing of the bells, a Communion service, and of course a cantata that echoed and expanded the content of the appointed lessons, Malachi 3:1–4 and St. Luke 2:22–32 (see Günther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, p. 56). Bach's deep faith and deep appreciation for Candlemas is revealed in his writing of no less than six cantatas for the occasion. Curiously, Cantata 82, is “the only one that Bach labeled as a cantata” (Jonathan D. Green, A Conductor’s Guide to the Choral-Orchestral Works of J. S. Bach, p. 188). It is difficult to determine why Bach specifically labeled only BWV 82 as a cantata, but this fact supports David Schulenberg’s claim that Cantata 82 was “one of Bach’s best-known vocal works and was evidently a favourite of the composer’s, existing in a version for soprano as well as the familiar one for bass.” Moreover, its popularity, “owes much to the great beauty of three arias, which trace a path from world-weariness to joyful anticipation of death, a favourite theme in Bach’s cantatas” (Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach, p. 230).


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