Candlemas 2020

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Love comes suddenly to His temple, as Malachi foresees. Candlemas is the dawning of that light. The light is Christ, of Whom St John speaks: shining in a darkness that cannot overcome it.

What is the temple? It is ourselves: the flesh in which He joined Himself to us, to enlighten us from within. And the darkness? It is our suffering and the temptations it brings: even here – especially here – He shines. For our sufferings and temptations are His: He has anticipated us in them, so that, however tried, we need never deviate, or believe ourselves lost. His endurance sustains our own. The light neither condones nor shuns our darkness, but consents to use it, if only we will offer it to Him.

At Candlemas, as the season of the Nativity draws to a close, the Church offers us two interconnected mysteries to contemplate (Lk 2 22-40). After giving birth, Mary goes to the temple in Jerusalem for purification, in accordance with the Book of Leviticus. And at the same time Jesus Himself is presented in the temple, following the law laid down in the Book of Numbers.

In the liturgical commemoration of Candlemas candles are solemnly blessed and, at the High Mass, carried in procession, symbolizing the truth unfolded in Simeon’s prayer, uttered as he takes the child Jesus in his arms:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel. 

Simeon’s famous Nunc dimittis (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”) is sung daily as part of the Office of Compline, and has been set to music hundreds of times in every conceivable style. The liturgies of Candlemas featured two settings of the Nunc dimittis: a Latin setting by William Byrd, published in his Gradualia of 1605, and an English setting by the mid-twentieth-century composer Herbert Howells. This “Gloucester” setting of the Nunc dimittis is excerpted from a canticle setting written for the Anglican liturgy of Evensong, which combines elements of Vespers and Compline; Howells’s settings of the Evensong canticles beginning in the mid-1940s marked a major milestone in twentieth-century church music, helping to break free of a certain Edwardian stodginess that characterized much prewar English choral writing. In later life the composer described being inspired by “the ecstasy he felt at seeing light flood through the great east window of Gloucester Cathedral,” and this luminous quality is captured well by the impressionistic harmonies of this setting – particularly in the final words “world without end, amen.”

Falling forty days after Christmas, Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season and its Second Vespers is the last liturgy when the Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater is sung (it is replaced by Ave regina caelorum at Compline later in the evening). This year, we bid farewell to this Marian antiphon with a setting for eight-part double choir by Tomás Luis de Victoria, well known to Oratorians for his close connection to St Philip Neri and Bl Juvenal Ancina. Victoria’s setting contains a subtle musical reference that is easy to miss: at the words sumens illud ave (“receiving that Ave”), Victoria quotes from the well-known hymn melody Ave maris stella, which happens to contain the same phrase of text. The passage goes by quickly; in the midst of Victoria’s eight-voice counterpoint it is easy to miss, and so it seems likely that this quotation was intended mostly for the benefit of the singers themselves, who sang Marian hymns and chants at the great feasts of the Blessed Virgin throughout the year and would recognize Victoria’s piece as linking back to this wider tradition.

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