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Notes from the Knightstand: The history of Lent

By Martin Reidy

If Candlemas be fair and bright
come winter have another flight;
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain
go winter and come not again!

And so goes the English folk song regarding Candlemas and the weather – but more on that later! Alas, alack! I am afraid that Candlemas is long forgotten in these modern times – probably because we no longer burn candles for lighting though that is not the origin of the Feast of Candlemas but is rather tied into the ancient Jewish rites of Purification where at a woman presented herself in the Temple forty days following the birth of a male child to experience the Rite of Purification according to the dictum of Leviticus 12: 2-8 which you may refer to in your leisure time in order to further your enlightenment. There was also a time limit were the child to be a “maiden” but the Feast to which this article refers is that of the birth of Christ and the subsequent forty days of purification by Mary when she then can present herself in the Temple for the blessing of the High Priest, Simeon. Simeon prophesized Mary’s soul would be pierced by a sword in reference to the eventual Passion of Christ – but he first referred to her Son (Christ) as the Light of Revelation of the Gentiles and it is from this that is derived the Blessing of the Candles, or Candlemas, at Mass forty days after Christmas. Now, for those of you who are really, really, “old Church” the time to take down your Christmas tree and put away the manger scene is on the eve of the Feast of Candlemas!

And so it is that we begin the month of purification – for that is, literally, the meaning of February – not only from our Christian perspective but also from an historical stand point as the Romans, for whom February was the LAST month of the year, utilized this month to “purify” all their relationships with family, friends, acquaintances – and even the dead! In other words, begin the New Year (March 1st) with a clean slate – no hard feelings, no animosities, no evil happenings to affect the coming year – as the Romans believed that such negative relationships could actually adversely affect the course of the events of the coming year. They believed that the souls of the dead could actually come back from the grave and “haunt” them were they – the dead – not treated right. So, they also had a rite of Purification to attend to this probability called the Parentalia (from whence comes our word, “parent” meaning to “bring forth”) which was held from the 13th to the 21st of February, with the 21st culminating in the Feralia, or grand celebration of “carrying” to the dead their portion of grain, wine, violets and appropriate closing prayers. The Feralia was a day of celebration, a free day from all work and responsibilities and from that root we have “ferial” or “ferial day” – a term at one time could be found on every Catholic calendar and which meant that there was no designated saint or other ritual encumbrances on that day and from which comes the word “fair” for a celebratory market and in medieval times occurred on a saint’s feast day.

The history and development of Lent as we know it has a cloudy past as to ritual preparation for Easter though fasting appears to be a significance factor in its development. It became cohesive over the early centuries and by 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the Great – and church reformer – moved the beginning of Lent to Ash Wednesday from the previous Sunday, instituted the practice of the anointing of all Christians with ashes and not just the catechumens preparing for baptism and those in the state of serious sin, and made Sunday a feast day. But be glad that you did not live in those days as the fasting was rigorous – until the 800’s you were allowed only water for 40 days! This changed at that time to being allowed to eat something after 3 p.m., and by the 1400’s you only had to wait until noon! However, it was during the 800’s that meat was disallowed except on Sunday – and so remained until 1966. (There were exceptions: In Oklahoma St. Patrick’s Day was a feast day, thus no Lenten obligation and no school!)

Well, enough of history and etymology and to move onto final thoughts: We share in the ancient practice of February forgiveness by our Lenten preparation for Easter which, in a sense, is for us a “new year, a new time”. Many of our rituals and customs are amalgamations derived from both our Jewish and non-Christian past though these have been lost in the passing of time and are now decidedly Christian in meaning and character. And, now, allow me if you would my February moment of forgiveness to Deacon Tom Gorman for failing to mention the turkey drive, the pie contributors from the Women’s Club, and failing to note that Msgr. Gier was selected to be Knight of the Year in last month’s column (though brevity of space contributed to this omission).( A thought: You may wish to stop by Monsignor’s office and view his award – and you just may be receptive of a glass of Solera 1847 Cream Sherry…- if there is any left! It was part of the award!)

And finally this: An easy way to remember Candlemas? Simple! It is the same day that Punxsutawney Phil predicts the continuing winter weather – by or by not his shadow! In other words Candlemas and Groundhog Day are on the same day – February 2nd! See you all at Mardi Gras on Valentine’s Day! (Now that’s an easy one: Saturday, February 14th!)


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