A Thousand Points of Light

Russian Orthodox icon of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple

So, cryogenics and anti-feminist princess rhetoric aside, Disney was right about one thing: It is a small world after all. What’s got me thinking that today is Candelaria, or Candlemas, or Hypapante, or whatever you and yours call the religious celebration on February 2nd, if you call it anything at all. Coming 39 days after Christmas, the religious observance of February 2nd commemorates the first time Mary brought Jesus to the Temple, when he was 40 days old. This was in observance of the Jewish tradition of ritually purifying the mother, and, in the case of a firstborn son, releasing him from priestly obligations. (I learned, from Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt, that the firstborn does not need to be redeemed if he is born by C-section because of some Biblical verse that says only a child that opens his mother’s womb needs to be redeemed.) According to Wikipedia, the Redemption of the Son is an Orthodox Jewish practice. If anyone knows more about it, please share your wisdom!

Supercute 11th century Armenian icon of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple from the Mugni Gospel

I know in the Greek Orthodox Church, it’s common practice to bring a 40-day-old baby to church to be blessed; my sister just went with her friends Helen and John to bless their baby, Hercules (Marina had assisted at the birth as a doula–so cool!). It used to be that women and newborns didn’t leave the house for 40 days after birth in Greece, which sounds to me like a surefire recipe for post-partum depression, but I’ve also heard that it’s a smart move because by day 40 the baby’s immune system is ready to go. I just punched 40 days and immune system into the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” website and learned that babies do get a check up at 6 weeks (about 40 days) and that the 40 day rule also applies in Mexico, Arab cultures, and in Pakistan! See, small world, after all!

Anyway, because Mary observed this Jewish custom long ago (bringing Jesus–and some lit candles–to the temple), today Christians celebrate Candelaria (as it’s called in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries), a.k.a. Candlemas in the Anglican Church, a.k.a the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Catholicism, some Protestant churches, and Orthodoxy; it is also sometimes referred to as Hypapante, or “Meeting” in Orthodoxy, for “the Meeting of the Lord.”

Joan Gage's photo of a lady in Puebla bringing her Christ Child to church, resting on the way.

Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting article about how Mexicans celebrate Candelaria in the New York area, and my mom, Joanie, has been in Mexico for the festival, which involves dressing up the household’s baby Jesus statue and bringing it to church to be blessed. I love the dressing up aspect, which respects the importance of the event, and also brings in an opportunity a little fashion creativity, a nice added bonus. (Link to the article here: www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/nyregion/01baby.html)

Joan Gage's photo of an ad for a store that specializes in dressing Baby Jesuses

And the baby Jesus dolls remind me of King cakes, a great pastry pyramid scheme that takes place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras season, in which someone brings a King cake, a delicious, if off-puttingly frosted in green, purple and yellow, coffee cake to the office, and whomever gets the piece with the little plastic baby Jesus in it is a.) lucky and b.) the person who has to bring in the next day’s King cake. You can get King cakes at the supermarket in New Orleans, and you can choose one with a white baby Jesus, a black baby Jesus, or a gold baby Jesus if you so desire.

King Cake

I’m leaning towards a gold baby Jesus today, as I think about these kinds of melting pot traditions that cross religious lines and refer back to the shining soul in all of humanity. And what makes me think that February 2nd has some sort of significance for all of us, religious or not, is the fact that February 2nd is about the mid point between the Winter Solstice (the darkest night of the year) and the Spring Equinox (when night and day are equal). An ancient pagan festival called Imbolc celebrated this transition into the light. It was also known as the day devoted to the Celtic goddess Brigid, goddess of knowledge and smithcraft (which has to do with fires, and therefore light). Said goddess had a later incarnation as the Irish Saint Bridget, inspiring the lighting of candles to this day.

Whatever you’re celebrating, more light is a good, hopeful thing. And I apologize if the Small World song is now stuck in your head.

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