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On Rodents and Rituals

The second day of February has a number of different titles. In the United States it is known as Groundhog Day; this strange secular civic holiday where a country of around 300 million people consult a Pennsylvanian rodent of unknown age and seemingly preternatural ability to determine when spring will come. Harmless as it is strange, this celebration is focused on the coming of lighter days, and the coming spring thaw under a clear sky and a bright sun. In the dead of winter we as a nation call to mind the promise of new life that comes with the growing days and a rodent's lack of awareness of his own ability to cast a shadow.

In the Church another more ancient festival is celebrated. This feast however has a number of different names. In the old Roman Calendar the feast is officially known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in the new Calendar it is known the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Both of these terms refer to the observance of the Jewish law which was carried out after the birth of Jesus to his mother, Mary (Luke 2:22-40). 40 days after the birth of any firstborn son, the parents were to offer a newborn pigeon or turtle dove in the temple as a ransom for the their child, who properly belongs to God (Exodus 13:12-15). This hearkens back to the binding of Isaac and foreshadows the end of Jesus' life on earth. This ritual, while principally meant to "buy back" the child, also served to render the mother, who was understood to be ritually unclean after childbirth, as ritually pure. Mary, of course, had no need of purification, but rather submitted herself to this ritual in obedience and as a sign of God's plan. Indeed this ritual was observed for the same reason that Jesus was baptized though he was without sin, that is "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt 3:15).

To commemorate this event in the life of the Holy Family the church carries out special rituals and traditions of her own. Each year, usually in the very early morning, before dawn Christians gather together and bless candles. Then together they process from the cold outside, holding lighted blessed candles into the church, which is our true home and celebrate the Mass which prefigures the heavenly liturgy. These candles represent our hope, the light that shines in the darkness, who is Christ our Lord (John 1:5). We hold this light before us, as Mary did, bearing in her arms the light of the world as she carried him into the temple. All the while the faithful sing the words of the prophet Simeon, whom Mary encountered in the temple at her purification, "Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel" A light to the revelation of the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel (Luke 2:23).

After Mass, the faithful bring home blessed candles to use throughout the year. This ritual is where the feast receives it's third and perhaps most popular name, Candlemas.

This feast, which marks the traditional end to the Christmas season, has us bear in our hands and bring to our homes, that which should always be in the front of our minds, and the center of our hearts, the light of hope for our salvation. This is the love of Christ that burns more intensely than the flame of any candle, and the light of God which is a lamp for our feet (Ps 119) and guides us into the way of peace (Luke 1:79). So as we all check the news to see what a rodent has to say about our fate, and as we long for spring's promise of new life, let us bear in mind the promise of rebirth that was brought to us by Christ's birth. Let us have recourse to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was chosen by God to bring light into the world, and who will always lead us to her son, who is our hope, our light, and our salvation.


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