THE law of God, given by Moses to the Jews, to insinuate both to us and to them, that by the sin of Adam man is conceived and born in sin, and obnoxious to his wrath, ordained that a woman, after childbirth, should continue for a certain time in a state which that law calls unclean; during which she was not to appear in public, nor presume to touch any thing consecrated to God.1 This term was of forty days upon the birth of a son, and the time was double for a daughter: on the expiration of which, the mother was to bring to the door of the tabernacle or temple, a lamb of a year old. and a young pigeon or turtle-dove. The lamb was for a holocaust, or burnt-offering, in acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God, and in thanksgiving for her own happy delivery; the pigeon or turtle-dove was for a sin-offering. These being sacrificed to Almighty God by the priest, the woman was cleansed of the legal impurity, and reinstated in her former privileges.
A young pigeon, or turtle-dove, by way of a sin-offering, was required of all, whether rich or poor: but whereas the charge of a lamb might be too burdensome on persons of narrow circumstances, in that case, nothing more was requires than two pigeons, or two turtle-doves, one for a burnt, the other for a sin-offering.2
Our Saviour having been conceived by the Holy Ghost, and his blessed Mother remaining always a spotless virgin, it is most evident from the terms of the law,3 that she was, in reality, under no obligation to it, nor within the intent of it. She was, however, within the letter of the law, in the eye of the world, who were as yet strangers to her miraculous conception. And her humility making her perfectly resigned, and even desirous to conceal her privilege and dignity, she submitted with great punctuality and exactness to every humbling circumstance which the law required. Pride indeed proclaims its own advantages, and seeks honors not its due; but the humble find their delight in obscurity and abasement, they shun all distinction and esteem, which they clearly see their own nothingness and baseness to be most unworthy of: they give all glory to God alone, to whom it is due. Devotion also and zeal to honor God by every observance prescribed by his law, prompted Mary to perform this act of religion, though evidently exempt from the precept. Being poor herself, she made the offering appointed for the poor: accordingly is this part of the law mentioned by St. Luke,4 as best agreeing with the meanness of her worldly condition. But her offering, however mean in itself, was made with a perfect heart, which is what God chiefly regards in all that is offered to him. The King of Glory would appear everywhere in the robes of poverty, to point out to us the advantages of a suffering and lowly state, and to repress our pride, by which, though really poor and mean in the eyes of God, we covet to appear rich, and, though sinners, would be deemed innocents and saints.
A second great mystery is honored this day, regarding more immediately the person of our Redeemer, viz. his presentation in the temple. Besides the law which obliged the mother to purify herself, there was another which ordered that the first-born son should be offered to God:5 and in these two laws were included several others, as, that the child, after its presentation, should be ransomed6 with a certain sum of money,* and peculiar sacrifices offered on the occasion.
Mary complies exactly with all these ordinances. She obeys not only in the essential points of the law, as in presenting herself to be purified, and in her offering her first-born, but has strict regard to all the circumstances. She remains forty days at home, she denies herself all this time the liberty of entering the temple, she partakes not of things sacred, though the living temple of the God of Israel; and on the day of her purification, she walks several miles to Jerusalem, with the world’s Redeemer in her arms. She waits for the priest at the gate of the temple, makes her offerings of thanksgiving and expiation, presents her divine Son by the hands of the priest to his eternal Father, with the most profound humility, adoration, and thanksgiving. She then redeems him with five shekels, as the law appoints, and receives him back again as a depositum in her special care, till the Father shall again demand him for the full accomplishment of man’s redemption. It is clear that Christ was not comprehended in the law; “The king’s son, to whom the inheritance of the crown belongs, is exempt from servitude:—much more Christ, who was the Redeemer both of our souls and bodies, was not subject to any law by which he was to be himself redeemed,” as St. Hilary observes.7 But he would set an example of humility, obedience, and devotion: and would renew, in a solemn and public manner, and in the temple, the oblation of himself to his Father for the accomplishment of his will, and the redemption of man, which he had made privately in the first moment of his Incarnation. With what sentiments did the divine Infant offer himself to his Father at the same time! the greatest homage of his honor and glory the Father could receive, and a sacrifice of satisfaction adequate to the injuries done to the Godhead by our sins, and sufficient to ransom our souls from everlasting death! With what cheerfulness and charity did he offer himself to all his torments! to be whipped, crowned with thorns, and ignominiously put to death for us!
Let every Christian learn hence to offer himself to God with this divine victim, through which he may be accepted by the Father; let him devote himself with all his senses and faculties to his service. If sloth, or any other vice, has made us neglectful of this essential duty, we must bewail past omissions, and make a solemn and serious consecration of ourselves this day to the divine majesty with the greater fervor, crying out with St. Austin, in compunction of heart: “Too late have I known thee, too late have I begun to love thee, O beauty more ancient than the world!” But our sacrifice, if we desire it may be accepted, must not be lame and imperfect. It would be an insult to offer to God, in union with his Christ, a divided heart, or a heart infected with wilful sin. It must therefore first be cleansed by tears of sincere compunction: its affections must be crucified to the world by perfect mortification. Our offering must be sincere and fervent, without reserve, allowing no quarter to any of our vicious passions and inclinations, and no division in any of our affections. It must also be universal; to suffer and to do all for the divine honor. If we give our hearts to Christ in this manner, we shall receive him with his graces and benedictions. He would be presented in the temple by the hands of his mother: let us accordingly make the offering of our souls through Mary and beg his graces through the same channel.
The ceremony of this day was closed by a third mystery, the meeting in the temple of the holy persons, Simeon and Anne, with Jesus and his parents, from which this festival was anciently called by the Greeks Hypante, the meeting.8 Holy Simeon, on that occasion, received into his arms the object of all his desires and sighs, and praised God in raptures of devotion for being blessed with the happiness of beholding the so much louged-for Messias. He foretold to Mary her martyrdom of sorrow; and that Jesus brought redemption to those who would accept of it on the terms it was offered them; but a heavy judgment on all infidels who should obstinately reject it, and on Christians also whose lives were a contradiction to his holy maxims and example. Mary, hearing this terrible prediction, did not answer one word, felt no agitation of mind from the present, no dread for the future; but courageously and sweetly committed all to God’s holy will. Anne also, the prophetess, who, in her widowhood, served God with great fervor, had the happiness to acknowledge and adore in this great mystery the world’s Redeemer. Amidst the crowd of priests and people, the Saviour of the world is known only by Simeon and Anne. Even when he disputed with the doctors, and when he wrought the most stupendous miracles, the learned, the wise, and the princes did not know him. Yet here, while a weak, speechless child, carried in the arms of his poor mother, he is acknowledged and adored by Simeon and Anne. He could not hide himself from those who sought him with fervor, humility, and ardent love. Unless we seek him in these dispositions, he will not manifest himself, nor communicate his graces to us. Simeon, having beheld his Saviour in the flesh, desired no longer to see the light of this world, nor any creatures on earth. If we truly love God, our distance from him must be a continual pain: and we must sigh after that desired moment which will free us from the danger of ever losing him by sin, and will put us in possession of Him who is the joy of the blessed, and the infinite treasure of heaven. Let us never cease to pray that he purify our hearts from all earthly dross, and draw them to himself: that he heal, satiate, and inflame our souls, as he only came upon earth to kindle in all hearts the fire of his love.
On blessing the candles and the procession
The procession with lighted tapers on this day is mentioned by pope Gelasius I., also by St. Ildefonsus, St. Eligius,1 St. Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Cyril of Alexandria, &c., in their sermons on this festival St. Bernard says:2 “This holy procession was first made by the virgin mother, St. Joseph, holy Simeon, and Anne, to be afterwards performed in all places and by every nation, with the exultation of the whole earth, to honor this mystery.” In his second sermon on this feast he describes it thus:3 “They walk two and two, holding in their hands candles lighted, not from common fire, but from that which had been first blessed in the church by the priests,* and singing in the ways of the Lord, because great is his glory.” He shows that the concurrence of many in the procession and prayer is a symbol of our union and charity, and renders our praises the more honorable and acceptable to God. We walk while we sing to God, to denote that to stand still in the paths of virtue is to go back. The lights we bear in our hands represent the divine fire of love with which our hearts ought to be inflamed, and which we are to offer to God without any mixture of strange fire, the fire of concupiscence, envy, ambition, or the love of creatures. We also hold these lights in our hands to honor Christ, and to acknowledge him as the true light,4 whom they represent under this character, and who is called by holy Simeon in this mystery, a light for the enlightening of the Gentiles;5 for he came to dispel our spiritual darkness. The candles likewise express that by faith his light shines in our souls: as also that we are to prepare his way by good works, by which we are to be a light to men.6
Lights are used by the church during the celebration of the divine mysteries, while the gospel is read, and the sacraments administered, on a motive of honor and respect. On the same account lamps burned before the Lord in the tabernacle7 and temple. Great personages were anciently received and welcomed with lights, as was king Antiochus by Jason and others on his entering Jerusalem.8 Lights are likewise expressive of joy, and were anciently used on this account in receiving Roman emperors, and on other public occasions, as at present. “Throughout all the churches of the East,” says St. Jerom, “when the gospel is to be read, though the sun shines, torches are used, not to chase away darkness, but for a sign of joy.”9 The apostolic canons mention incense, and oil for the lamps, then used in the churches.10 Many out of devotion burned lamps before the bodies of saints, as we read in Prndentius,11 St. Paulinus,12 &c. The corporeal creatures, which we use, are the gifts of God: it is therefore just that we should honor and glorify him by them. Besides, in our embodied state, they contribute to excite our souls to devotion; they are to our eyes, what words are to our ears, and by our organs move the affections of our hearts.13 Though piety consists in the fervor of the soul, and is interior and spiritual, yet many sensible things concur to its aid and improvement; and we may as well condemn the use of words, which are corporeal, and affect the soul by the sense of hearing, as the use of suitable approved ceremonies. Christ made use of sensible signs in the institution of his most divine sacraments, and in several miraculous cures, &c. The church always used external rites and ceremonies in the divine worship. These contribute to the majesty and dignity of religion, which in our present condition would appear naked, if destitute of all exterior. The candles are blessed previously to the use of them, because the church blesses and sanctifies, by prayer, whatever is employed in the divine service. We are to hold the candles in our hands on this day, while the gospel is read or sung; also from the elevation to the communion, in the most fervent spirit of sacrifice, offering ourselves to God with our divine Redeemer, and desiring to meet in spirit this blessed company in this mystery; likewise to honor the mother of God in her purification, and still more so, with the most profound adoration and gratitude, our divine Saviour in his presentation in our flesh for us. The same lively sentiments of devotion ought to inflame our breasts on this occasion, as if we had been present with holy Simeon and the rest in the temple, while we carry in our hands these emblems of our spiritual joy and homage, and of the consecration of ourselves in union with our heavenly victim, through the intercession of his virgin mother.
On the Christian rite of churching women after childbirth
God, in the old law, declared several actions unclean, which, though innocent and faultless in themselves, had a constant but remote regard to sin. One of these was childbirth, to denote the impurity of man’s origin by his being conceived and born in sin. For the removal of legal uncleanness in general, God established certain expiatory rites, consisting of ablutions and sacrifices, to which all were strictly obliged who desired to be purified; that is, restored to the privileges of their brethren, and declared duly qualified members of the synagogue or Jewish church. It would be superstitious since the death of Christ, and the publication of the new law, to stand in awe of legal uncleannesses, or to have recourse to Jewish purifications on account of any of them, whether after childbirth or in any other cases. It is not, therefore, with that intention, that Christian mothers come to the church, as Jewish women did to the tabernacle, in order to be purified from any uncleanness they contract by childbirth. It is not on any consideration peculiar to the Jews that this ceremony was established in the Christian church, but on a motive common to all mankind, the performing the duty of thanksgiving and prayer. Hence in the canon law, pope Innocent III. speaks of it as follows: “If women after childbearing desire immediately to enter the church, they commit no sin by so doing, nor are they to be hindered. Nevertheless, if they choose to refrain out of respect for some time, we do not think their devotion ought to be reprehended.”14
In some dioceses this term is limited to a certain number of days. Where this is not regulated by custom, or by any particular statute, the party may perform this duty as soon as she is able to go abroad. Her first visit is to be to the church: first, to give God thanks for her safe delivery: secondly, to implore his blessing on herself and her child. It ought to be her first visit, to show her readiness to acquit herself of this duty to God, and to give him the first-fruits of her recovery and blessing received; as the first-fruits in every thing are most particularly due to God, and most agreeable to him, and which, in the old law, he was most jealous in exacting of his people. The acknowledgment of a benefit received, is the least return we can make for it: the law of nature dictates the obligation of this tribute; God strictly requires it, and this is the means to draw down new blessings on us, the flowing of which is by nothing more effectually obstructed than by insensibility and ingratitude: wherefore, next to the praise and love of God, thanksgiving is the principal homage we owe him in the sacrifice of our hearts, and is a primary act of prayer. The book of psalms abounds with acts of thanksgiving; the apostle everywhere recommends and inculcates it in the strongest terms. The primitive Christians had these words, Thanks be to God, always in their mouths, and used them as their ordinary form of salutation on all occasions, as St. Austin mentions,15 who adds, “What better thing can we bear in our hearts, or pronounce with our tongues, or express with our pens, than, Thanks be to God?” It is the remark of St. Gregory of Nyssa,16 that besides past benefits, and promises of other inestimable benefits to come, we every instant of our lives receive from God fresh favors; and therefore we ought, if it were possible, every moment to make him a return of thanks with our whole hearts, and never cease from this duty. We owe a particular thanksgiving for his more remarkable, blessings. A mother regards her safe delivery, and her happiness is being blessed with a child, as signal benefits, and therefore she owes a particular holocaust of thanks for them. This she comes to offer at the foot of the altar. She comes also to ask the succors of divine grace. She stands in need of an extraordinary aid from above, both for herself and her child. For herself, that, by her example, instructions, and watchfulness, she may fulfil her great obligations as a mother. For her child, that it may reap the advantage of a virtuous education, may live to God, and become one day a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem: otherwise, what will it avail her to have been a mother, or the child to have been born? Now prayer is the channel which God has appointed for the conveyance of his graces to us. The mother, therefore, must be assiduous in begging daily of the Father of mercies all necessary succors for these purposes: but this she should make the subject of her most zealous petitions on the occasion of her first solemn appearance after childbed before his altar. She should, at the same time, make the most perfect offering and consecration of her child to the divine Majesty. Every mother, in imitation of the Blessed Virgin, ought to perform this triple duty of thanksgiving, petition, and oblation, and through her hands, who, on the day of her purification, set so perfect a pattern of this devotion.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)