As I noted in my entry last year, Candlemas, also known the Feast of the Presentation, is one of the Twelve Great Feasts and is celebrated by Christians world-wide in commemoration of the gospel account of Mary and Joseph’s presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem to complete Mary’s ritual purification forty days after birth in accordance with the Law of Moses.
The tradition of purification following childbirth was something that, unsettlingly to many in our contemporary culture, survived well into the modern era in the Catholic and Anglican practice of churching new mothers forty days after childbirth wherein a blessing is given to mothers and prayers of thanksgiving are offered for the survival of the child, which with higher infant mortality concerns was a major reason to give thanks.
In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Feast of Candlemas became deeply syncretized with the Irish quarter celebration of Imbolc which, even in modern Ireland, is considered to mark the beginning of Spring and is a festival fundamentally associated with the ancient goddess Bríg or Brigid, who may be fundamentally considered the same as the Christian Saint Brigid of Kildare whose feast occurs traditionally on the first of February. At this point, it’s hard to say which celebration and traditions influenced one another but in practice they have become so fused that to this day many modern Pagans celebrate it as one of their major yearly celebrations however the tradition of setting lights and keeping vigil are maintained.
Western ecclesial practice for this day maintains the tradition of blessing bees-wax candles to be used in church and by members of the community throughout the year. According to some traditions, the candles used by the faithful put to flight the assaults of evil spirits or faeries and have the additional advantage of warding away the harmful effects of storms. The emphasis on beeswax is something that deeply interests me in light of the current ecological disaster facing many beekeepers with the current die-offs as well as being someone who grew up in an agricultural community where bees are essential to daily life. The connection between liminal (cross-between) times, prophesy, and enlightment and the bee is something I find fascinating, in particular as a modern Gnostic.
Throughout the ancient Levant, the bee was believed to be the sacred insect that bridged the natural world to the underworld. Tomb decorations, in particular the Mycenean tholos tombs, were even shaped like bee-hives, likely in reference to the ancient goddess Potnia whose name simply means, “mistress”. Her title and epithets were also inherited by classical and Mycenean Greek and applied to many goddesses, including Kore in her role in the Arcadian mysteries of Eleusis.
The bee was also connected in many of these cultures with the gift of prophesy, elements of which are also apparent 1 Samuel 14:24-30:
“He [Jonathan] extended the staff that was in his hand, and dipped the tip of it in the honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes brightened. Then one of the soldiers said, “Your father strictly charged the troops with an oath, saying, ‘Cursed be anyone who eats food this day.’ And so the troops are faint.” Then Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land; see how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if today the troops had eaten freely of the spoil taken from their enemies; for now the slaughter among the Philistines has not been great.”
The Biblical connection between honey and prophesy continues in the account of the prophet John the Baptist who was said to wear clothing of camel hair and feed on locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4, Mark 1:6) as well in the Apocalypse of John (Rev. 10:9-10)
Although the Romantic notion of a connection between a supposed Jesus Dynasty flourishing in France such as those popularized in the fictional books Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the The DaVinci Code, has been definitively disproven, golden bees (or cicadas!) as a symbol of royalty were discovered in 1653 in Tournai in the tomb of Childeric I, founder in 457 of the Merovingian dynasty and father of Clovis and were resurrected in usage by Emperor Napoleon of France in his coat of arms. Interestingly, as Father Donato+ points out in his speculative essay:
“[A] few days before his imperial coronation, Napoleon met with the Roman Pontiff in secret. This was the social and political backdrop of Dr. Fabré-Palaprat’s discovery of the Lévitikon in Paris that same year. The secretive meeting between Napoleon and the pope took place in Paris, but not as a State visit. During their private talks, the pope reportedly pressed Napoleon to sign a document in which Louis XIV “disavowed the articles of the declaration of the clergy in 1682, which was drawn up by Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet as the foundation of the liberties of the Gallican Church… The pope was asking that Napoleon sign a document repudiating the authority of the French Monarch to his extraordinary authority over the established Catholic Church in France, which was claimed – and never relinquished legally – by Louis’ successors. Here, it is important to recall that after Louis XIV, his nephew, Philippe d’Orleans, served as regent for Louis XV. This Philippe is the Duke of Orleans who was appointed Grand-Master of the Order of the Temple, and reformer of its statutes. In name alone, but still by intention, this made Philippe and his successors the Johannite Patriarchs – privy to the secrets and the succession of St. John and everything that entailed. With a renewed monarchy, such as the one Napoleon was about to create, all of these prerogatives would eventually fall into the imperial lap. And the pope knew it.”
Although speculative, for Johannites this connection between the bee and its relevance to the mysteries of John may prove something fun to think about.
This Saturday Holy Paraclete Community will be celebrating the Vespers service of the Apostolic Johannite Church, a central part of the ceremony being the lighting of the lucernarium. Traditionally, it would be during the vespers service that the candles would be blessed however, in absence of a priest; I plan on distributing candles to the community out of symbolic solidarity.
For me personally, the morning of Candlemas will be spent in contemplative meditation and participation in Teo Bishop’s Solitary Druid Fellowship’s February Cross Quarter liturgy. Though not pagan myself (in spite of what P. Sufenas Virius Lupus may say), the emphasis on ecological awareness and integration as well as spiritual enlightenment and transformation found in modern druidry appeals to me very much and, in honor of the Brigid’s might not be a bad opportunity to help focus on the Sacred Flame within all people and all paths.
note: in the original post, I had erroneously called Imbolc and Irish ‘cross-quarter’ celebration. As PSVL notes in the comments: “Imbolc is not a cross-quarter day for the Irish, it’s a quarter-day. The whole notion that Imbolc, Beltaine, Lugnasad, and Samain are “cross-quarter days” comes from Wicca, not from Irish tradition. This is the first day of Spring for the Irish, just as Beltaine is the first of Summer, Lugnasad the first of Autumn, and Samain the first of Winter.”