Candlemas – Ritual Purity

It’s a common misconception that Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, is the occasion of His circumcision. Actually, that’s on the 1st of January (Novus Ordo has it as the Feast of Mary the Mother of God), eight days after Christmas, suitably enough.

Candlemas, 40 days after Christmas (and the final end of the Christmas season), is the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin / The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. According to the Old Law, a woman was unclean for seven days after birth, and then was to remain thirty-three days after that “in the blood of her purification” before making an offering and so being purified:

Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt say to them: If a woman having received seed shall bear a man child, she shall be unclean seven days, according to the days of separation of her flowers. And on the eighth day the infant shall be circumcised: But she shall remain three and thirty days in the blood of her purification. She shall touch no holy thing: neither shall she enter into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification, be fulfilled. But if she shall bear a maid child, she shall be unclean two weeks, according to the custom of her monthly courses, and she shall remain in the blood of her purification sixty-six days.

And when the days of her purification are expired, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of the testimony, a lamb of a year old for a holocaust, and a young pigeon or a turtle for sin, and shall deliver them to the priest: Who shall offer them before the Lord, and shall pray for her, and so she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that beareth a man child or a maid child.

And if her hand find not sufficiency, and she is not able to offer a lamb, she shall take two turtles, or two young pigeons, one for a holocaust, and another for sin: and the priest shall pray for her, and so she shall be cleansed.

-Lev. 12: 2-8

About this point some of us might be starting to wonder. In the first place, how can childbirth be considered an ‘unclean’ thing that would stain a woman for forty days? Isn’t bearing a child a good thing? And regardless of that, the Blessed Virgin was sinless, so why would she of all people require purification?

The fundamental error here is in thinking that ‘unclean’ is synonymous with ‘sinful’, which stems from the state of things in the west today. Phillip Campbell in the book The Feasts of Christendom puts it very well when he describes it as failing to distinguish what is necessary and what is fitting. We today tend to focus on the former and regard the latter as an unnecessary burden. Our attitude is, “That’s not really important, is it?” or “That isn’t necessary; God doesn’t care about that” and so on.

But there is a big problem with that, and I’m not just referring to the problem that trying to do the bare minimum is usually not a very good strategy in anything. It is this: humility and obedience are part of the necessary components of pleasing God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” etc. But a person who takes it upon themselves to decide what is necessary to please God, who stands on his own knowledge of his personal purity, and who makes an issue of following laws and customs and so on is, for that reason, not being humble. To put it another way, part of Mary’s sinless purity manifested in her delight in following the law and humbly submitting to God’s commandments. So, no, purification was not a moral requirement for her, but she would have never considered dispensing with it precisely because she was of such a purely holy character that purification was not a moral requirement. A perfectly good person does not require purification, except that part of being a perfectly good person is living in accord with God’s law, which includes ritual purification.

Ritual purity is a matter of doing what is fit; of having a pattern to follow in order to show honor to sacred things and in general to keep the different elements of life in their proper hierarchy. Hence the Old Law had rules about when and under what circumstances people could approach the holy places in order to keep it in mind that they were holy.

When you have to follow a ritual, or when you are barred from certain things at certain times, what it fundamentally does is that it forces you to stop and think: what do I need to do here? Am I properly purified? Have I done anything that would render me ritually unclean? It separates the act of going to worship from all other acts, just as the dietary rules separated the Israelites from all other peoples.

Entering the Temple of the Lord should not be the same as entering a marketplace, as Christ reminded people when He threw out the money lenders. Following the laws of ritual purity was the Divinely appointed way of showing proper respect to the Lord; of course the Holy Family is going to do that.

To return to the idea that unclean does not mean sinful. This is difficult for us because we’ve almost wholly lost the idea of ritual as an essential part of life. We think of living a good life as avoiding evil, doing good as and when we can, and serving God. But for most of humanity in most eras, another aspect of a good life is living according to proper ritual; the patterns of the seasons, the ceremonial of the temple, the etiquette of court, and so on. Again, living as is fit, according pattern of a good life and in acknowledgement of one’s place in the order of creation. It is not that violating these things are necessarily immoral in themselves, it is that deliberate violation of them often shows a degree of contempt for the larger culture or the order of creation, or pride in oneself. To put it colloquially, “no, these things are not morally necessary as such, but why are you making an issue of this?”

I really think this is a tragic loss for western civilization, and through it a good deal of the rest of the world; that we’ve forgotten the beautiful pattern of ritual life and the notion of ‘fitness’ in general and with it have lost much of the segregation of the Sacred and the commonplace. Candlemas and the fourth Joyful Mystery recall to us that the Holy Family did not consider themselves above such things. Perhaps we should take it as a call to do likewise.

A Blessed Candlemas, everyone!

Note the Holy Infant nibbling His holy fingers

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