By CAROLE BRESLIN
Candles have a deep and lovely history in the Catholic Church. Candles have an aura of peace and quiet. They represent the light of the world, Jesus Christ, in many of our liturgical celebrations.
In the early days of February, the Church celebrates two feasts regarding candles. On February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord begins with the Blessing of Candles Procession. On February 3, St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, has an optional memorial Mass.
Many centuries ago, about the time of the 11th century, the blessing of the candles to be used in the liturgy for the following year took place on this day. It is reminiscent of the Light of the World being brought into the Temple.
In those bygone days, the ceremony began outside the church. The candles, made of beeswax, were passed to the faithful as the Canticle of Simeon, Nunc Dimittis, was sung (Luke 2:29-32). The candles were then lit.
As members of the congregation processed into the church, they sang, “Adorna thalamum tuum, Sion.”
Adorn thy bridal chamber, O Sion,
And receive Christ the King:
Embrace Mary, who is the gate of Heaven,
Who herself truly brings the glorious King of new light.
She remains a virgin, though bearing in her hands
A Son begotten before the daystar,
Whom Simeon, taking him in his arms,
Proclaimed to the people to be the Lord
Of life and death, and Savior of the world.
After entering the church, those in the procession sang the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-80). The Mass then continued with the Gospel reading of Luke 2:22-40.
Although the liturgy has been simplified since those times, the lay faithful are encouraged to attend this celebration as it is one of the more important ones, having the rank of a feast rather than just a memorial or an optional memorial.
The second tradition, February 3, is the optional memorial of St. Blaise. Although there is very little known about this saint, there are many celebrations and observances that date back centuries in both the Western and Eastern Churches. (The Eastern Church celebrates his feast on February 11.)
In the late third century, Blaise was born to a wealthy and very influential family in the vicinity of Armenia. He was raised as a faithful Christian with a gentle and pious nature. He must have received an education of some sort since he became the bishop of Sebastea in Armenia at a very young age, according to his legend.
When another persecution arose, the bishop, evidently by divine inspiration, removed himself to the mountains where he lived a solitary life in a cave. His nature, like that of St. Francis of Assisi, attracted even the wild animals, who came to him freely. Many were injured animals whom St. Blaise cured through his ministrations to them. According to some writings, if the animals came to him while he was in meditation and prayer, they would wait patiently until he was done.
One day, while he was tending the beasts, some hunters came upon him. Despite the issuance of the Edict of Milan, the persecutions in Asia Minor were resumed under Emperor Licinius. Knowing that Blaise was a Christian, the hunters forced him to return to face Agricolaus, the governor of Cappadocia and Lesser Armenia.
On the way, many miracles occurred by the intercession of St. Blaise. He cured man and beast alike. Two particular marvels are worthy of mention since traditions arose from them that are still observed to this day.
First of all, Blaise and his guards met a poor woman who was bewailing the loss of her pig. It had been carried off by a wolf. To a person of poverty, a pig was a very valuable asset. Upon learning of her plight, St. Blaise, commanded the wolf to return the pig to the distraught woman. To the amazement of his captors, not only did the wolf return the pig, but he did so without having harmed the pig in any way. The thankful woman would later play an important role.
The other incident which led to the blessing of throats involved a boy. His mother had heard of the many miracles wrought by St. Blaise, so she rushed to him with her young son who had been choking on a fish bone. St. Blaise prayed over him and he was completely healed.
Owing to this and many other cures throughout the years, both before and after his death, Blaise has become the patron saint of those suffering from throat ailments.
The guards continued their journey with their prisoner until they reached the governor. At the governor’s order, Blaise was scourged and put in prison. Furthermore, he was not allowed to have any food and was left in the dark dungeon.
However, the woman with the restored pig did not forget the favor which St. Blaise had done for her. In thanksgiving, she brought food to the prisoner as well as candles to light the darkness. Thus, the blessing of throats with candles became the tradition in the church in honor of this saint.
Yet another tradition developed among the wool combers. When Licinius learned that Blaise had not died, he ordered him tortured again with various instruments of a gruesome nature. One instrument was the comb used by wool gatherers to comb out the shearings from the sheep for weaving.
In the end, Blaise was beheaded in 316.
The wool combers have taken him as their patron saint as well. For centuries, he has been honored with celebrations in Norwich in England. The Norwich Woolcombers Guild developed a great devotion to St. Blaise with many activities, prayers, and followers. In fact, during the Protestant persecutions in England that began with Henry VIII, the king’s henchman dared not disturb those celebrating the Feast of St. Blaise since the wool combers were both wealthy and powerful. To this day the celebrations go on.
In France and Germany, there are also a number of churches that claim to have Blaise’s relics and celebrate his feast with great fanfare. Here in the United States, many families attend Mass on this day to have their throats blessed. At the end of Mass, the priest holds the candles in the form of St. Andrew’s cross, which is similar to the letter X. The candles are held either on the throat or over the head as the person is blessed to protect from any afflictions of the throat throughout the coming year.
Dear St. Blaise, you followed where God led you and by your intercession many have been healed. May we, by your powerful intercession remain faithful despite the sufferings and persecutions that may come our way. Pray for us that we may increase in faith, hope, charity, and patience in order to give greater glory to God now and forever. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)