Sunday, February 2, 2014


What?  Were you expecting me to talk about Groundhog's Day?

   The Presentation of the Lord   

We Catholics have a thing for candles.
They play an important role in our public worship.
Burning candles are required 
any time that Mass is celebrated.
And they play a role, too, in our private devotion.
How we love to light a small votive candle
in the shadowy corner of an old church
before some statue or shrine—
its light an offering right along 
with our uplifted prayers;
its flame lingering there long after we cannot.

Candles, from the Church’s early days,
have been given a deeply sacred significance.
Some saw in the combination 
of wax, wick, and flame
an apt symbol Christ, the Light of the nations:
pure wax, the work of bees,
is an image of his pure Body, born of the Virgin;
the wick, hidden within, an image of his soul;
and the flame, an image of his divine nature,
completely united with the human 
in one divine Person.

Such mystical symbolism brings us to today’s feast.
Forty days after Christmas,
the celebration of the Presentation of the Lord
once marked the end of the Christmas season—
concluding a time of focused meditation
on the mystery of the Incarnation:
that the Word became flesh;
that God became man and dwelt among us;
that heaven’s purifying light is now shining out on the earth.
It’s little wonder that candles came to be blessed on this day.
So intimate is the connection between the two
that one of this feast’s other names is Candlemas.

Candles, of course, originally found their way into churches
for the very same reason they were found anywhere:
to give light in times of darkness.
Before Thomas Edison and his electric light bulb came along,
people depended on candles and such.
They were essential for lengthening short winter days
and driving off the night.
Without them, our ancestors—
or our Amish neighbors, for that matter—
would have done a whole lot more stumbling around in the dark.

But we can easily forget that fact,
since today we have 
a very different relationship with candles.
We burn them not for needed light, 
but because they’re decorative:
coming in various colors, shapes, and sizes.
And candles these days 
are more often than not scented:
you can get a candle 
that smells like almost anything.
Shopping for Fr. Tom’s birthday last October,
I stopped in a candle shop and discovered
that they even make one which smells like bacon.
(Just a whiff and your arteries harden a little!)

What was once a necessity is now a luxury.
What was once absolutely essential
is today something that it’s nice to have…
…but with which we could 
easily enough do without.

I’m afraid that what’s happened with candles
is happening with the Mass, too.

Once upon a time—and, really, not all that long ago—
your average Catholic understood the vital necessity of Sunday Mass;
now, for many, it’s a spiritual luxury.
It used to be commonly understood
that to present yourself before the Lord each week—
to meet him here in the Temple,
where he comes so faithfully to meet his believing people—
is a serious obligation;
today, we squeeze it in between our other commitments…if we can.
Catholics used to take for granted that Sunday Mass is essential
for finding one’s way through this often dark world;
now so many take their chances on stumbling around without it.

What’s your relationship with getting to Mass?  And why?
What difference does that thinking make in your life?
Is the Eucharist a luxury for you—
a nice treat you enjoy as often as you can afford the time—
or is it something which you realize
you can’t really afford to go without?
Is missing church on Sunday more like going without dinner
or just passing on dessert?
Like giving up a night’s sleep
or skipping watching the Super Bowl?
Our attitude makes all the difference
not just in whether on not we come and how often,
but on how we participate while we’re here,
and what we take away.

We may not come—
like Mary and Joseph—
to this Temple each Sunday
with an offering of turtledoves 
to fulfill the dictates of the Law.
And we may not always
solemnly bless and process 
with lighted candles
as we do on this beautiful feast.
But in every Mass,
the King of glory enters in,
the Light from Light 
comes down again from heaven,
to claim not so much this building
but each of our hearts 
as his chosen dwelling.

It’s a standing appointment you don’t want to miss!
Recognize the Eucharist for what it is:
an essential source of light
for finding your way through life.


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