Lighten our hearts we beseech you, O God with the light of your presence and purify our lives with the refining fire of your spirit so that in purity and love our whole being may reflect and radiate the glory of God in the world of darkness.

Between Epiphany and Lent is Candlemas, the third festival of the Christian year. Jewish law decreed that after giving birth to a boy child, every mother was to be excluded from public worship for forty days. She would then make an offering to God so purifying herself. Thus, forty days after the birth of Jesus, his mother Mary presented herself at the Temple – St Luke’s Gospel, chapter two, verse 22 "And to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord". Mary’s purification very quickly became a celebrated event in the calendar of the early Church – the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Originally it fell on the 14th February because the birth of Christ was then celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. There is an early account of the feast in a diary of Egeria, a lady from a Roman province in Spain. She made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 380 and she describes the procession and mass in Jerusalem. At this time the festival had no special name and was simply referred to as "the fortieth day after Epiphany".

Pope Sergius IBy the seventh and eighth centuries it had become the Purification of Mary and was now celebrated on February 2nd (forty days after Christmas.) In 701 Pope Sergius I introduced the candles into the procession. Light was a symbol of goodness and purity – Jesus Christ is "the light of the world." Later at the end of the eighth century the blessing of the candles was included in the rite and the celebrant of the Mass distributed them to the congregation. After the blessing the procession, and it if from this procession of lights comes the name Candlemas.

In medieval times the Pope used to distribute blessed candles from his window. However, it became somewhat hazardous with the crowds and there were accidents. In 1573 Pope Gregory XIII abolished the ceremony. Other customs replaced it and at the end of the eighteenth century large, beautifully decorated candles were offered to the Pope in hall of the Consistory (cardinals’ court) every year on Candlemas Day. He then distributed them to the poorer churches of his diocese.

In some countries special candles are brought along to the blessing by the worshippers. These are often very elaborate and are highly treasured. Afterwards they are taken home and kept to be lighted at times of stress – during storms, in sickrooms and at the bedside of the dying. In Poland there is a legend that the Virgin Mary watches on winter nights, around Candlemas when hungry wolves prowled the villages. With her Thunder Candle she would ward off the wolves thus protecting the villagers from harm.

Candlemas shares with another feast day, that of St Swithin, a reputation for being a great day for weather forecasting. Bad weather and cloudy skies on February 2nd mean an early and prosperous summer! However, if the sun shines for the greater part of the day there will be forty more days of cold and snow! (Alas there is always a catch!)

Candlemas is also associated with change and with looking forward. In days gone by, tenant farmers had to pay their rents at Candlemas and farm labourers and maids often moved on to their new employers ready to begin work on February 3rd. Christmas decorations and every last trace of greenery in churches and homes were removed. Christmas plants and the remnants of the Yule log were burned and the ashes spread in gardens and fields to ensure healthy growth in the spring. All was made ready for the purification and the lighting of the candles on Candlemas Day, the celebration of Jesus Christ as the light of the world.

Barbara Hothersall