Candlemas

The Armenians still celebrate “The Coming of the Son of God into the Temple” (i.e. Candlemas) on the 14th of February. Terndez, as they call it, is older than our Western celebration of Christmas. The “forty days” were once counted from the Epiphany, according to the Lady Egeria (more below), which might explain that date. Later, upon the establishment of a fixed date for Christmas at Rome, by counting nine months forward from the Annunciation, the new date for Candlemas (today, February 2nd) was established by counted forward forty days from that. We glimpse the reasoning in an old arithmetic, working from traditions in approximate agreement.

Knowledge of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, as of the ancient Hebrew ritual that lay behind it (the purification of Mary, forty days after childbirth), came to the Armenians by a different route than that to Rome through the Greeks. Information travelled also to Persia, India, Ethiopia — by other routes, now lost in the sands. It travelled at different speeds: to us in the West rather slowly, in this case. The more one looks into ancient liturgical practices, the clearer it becomes that the apostolic tradition — or “Tradition” as we write in the Catholic Church — is as real as Scripture. The same accounts travelled many routes; the same letters were carefully transcribed, and themselves sent on many journeys. Everywhere men already Christian sought the best possible information. The truth was winnowed out.

That God’s hand was in it, we cannot doubt. Yet we can also understand this from a human point of view: that the process of establishing authority cannot be controlled by any one man, or committee. As in courts of law, or even disputes on the Internet, the true can defeat the false because it makes sense: is internally and externally coherent. The false account fails because it doesn’t make sense: is contradicted by facts already known, or falls apart in self-contradiction. By prayer, but also by diligent inquiry a consensus emerges, which can withstand any blast. From this great distance in time, we cannot reconstruct the whole process, but we can still see it at work, the more clearly when we are not encumbered by our modernist baggage.

It would not have been possible for “redactors” to operate in the way that modern biblical scholars like to assume, on the basis of no physical evidence. They imagine editorial habits that belong not to antiquity, but to their own time. No one was in a position to play God with widely disseminated manuscripts. The Canon was discerned, as received. Likewise, the traditions were discerned, as received. In both cases, the process was rather to separate the wheat from the chaff. The Four Gospels are a proof of that: they contain minor contradictions, that were not smoothed over; had that been tried, variant readings would even then have given the game away. They were selected for their pedigree, and for the ring of truth, in light of many other factors unknown or only darkly known today. We have every reason to trust the sincerity, as well as the high intelligence, of those who chose each “this” over “that.”

The belief that everyone in the past was stupid, and that we alone are smart, is one of the conceits passed down from the Enlightenment. It is expressed with great smugness among progressive elites, and gives a fair indication of their own intellectual limitations.

Candlemas (though not yet with candles) is described in the travel memoirs of the Lady Egeria, making her pilgrimage in the Holy Land in the fourth century. She writes “hic celebrantur,” indicating that the feast was then unknown where she came from (Galicia, in north-west Spain). I mention this because I have so often been irritated by the dismissive tone in reference works, when a Christian feast is dated to some pope who formally proclaimed it in such-and-such a century, as if he had invented it on the spot. Our Candlemas, for instance, originates in the Church of Jerusalem, and must go back many generations before Egeria witnessed it. It has nothing to do with the much later Pope Gelasius, or the pagan Lupercalia or … other common rot.

The focus in Egeria’s time is not on the purification of Mary, but instead on Christ through the eyes of Simeon and Anna. The “forty days” are not mentioned in Saint Luke, but are nevertheless taken for granted. This is because the Hebrew rite of purification after childbirth, specified in Leviticus, was understood. We can still retrieve that, but if we couldn’t the biblical scholars would have had a field day. This is a point about old sources that we neglect at our peril: writers tend not to bother repeating what everyone already knows. It does not follow that we must reject everything not attested in a literary source that happened to come down to us. (In addition to making best efforts to explain away what is directly attested.)

“On that day,” Egeria writes, “there is a procession into the Anastasis [the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre], and all assemble there for the liturgy; everything is performed in the prescribed manner with the greatest solemnity, just as on Easter Sunday. All the priests give sermons, and the bishop, too; all preach on the Gospel text describing how on the fortieth day Joseph and Mary took the Lord to the Temple, and how Simeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw Him, and what words they spoke on seeing the Lord, and of the offerings which his parents brought. After all these ceremonies, the Eucharist is then celebrated, and the dismissal given.”

The Itinerarium Egeriae is an invaluable account of liturgy and ritual that descended within that Church of Jerusalem directly from the life of Christ. The Christians in those parts knew exactly where Golgotha was, exactly where the Nativity occurred — exactly where to dig on sites the pagan Romans had covered with landfill during their persecutions. There had been humbler shrines on those sites long before the Byzantines built great churches over them. The archaeologists have gradually discovered, sometimes to academic chagrin, that these were not “urban legends.”

Our authoress had lived in Jerusalem continuously for at least three years, with wide contacts among guides, priests, and the Christian laity. As well, she had travelled everywhere in that land, and from Sinai through the Levant. She was a learned and inquisitive lady, who checked every assertion she could against physical evidence, readily at hand. When sixteen years ago I filled a Christmas newspaper section in the Ottawa Citizen with a very long article entitled, “Looking for Christ under stones in Israel,” I found a modern edition of Egeria (edited Gingras, 1970) extremely helpful. It was an aid in slicing through much twaddle and confusion in secondary and sub-secondary guidebooks. I had in my hand the work of a predecessor who had done what I was trying to do, but had years at her disposal, not the couple of months I had for my assignment; who was more than sixteen centuries closer to events, with that long-perished world still everywhere around her.

In an age of “irony” and malicious scepticism, it is best to go to the sources. Lady Egeria is of course just one. Far more existed in her time. Some wash up by happenstance, still; many others would have been found in monastic libraries had they not been so extensively rifled, torched and trashed during the Reformation, the French Revolution, and subsequent explosions of “secular humanism.” But we do probably have today enough copies printed of the Migne series to reconstruct what we need to know after the next grand conflagration; and innumerable copies of the Bible. It will thus be practically impossible to erase:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace / according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen / thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared / before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles / and the glory of thy people Israel.