Text of Homily for Candlemass or The Feast of the Purification: The Hiddenness and Poverty of Jesus and Mary


This Homily was by his grace Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (September 27, 1627 – April 12, 1704) who is considered to be one of the greatest homilists of all time.  It informs us of all the rituals that took place in the ceremony and some of their deeper meanings.  The homily also beautifully expounds the unity of Jesus and Mary in a life of poverty and hiddenness.


The act which we call the ” Purification of the Blessed Virgin ” really includes under one common name three different ceremonies of the Old Law. These three ceremonies have all mysteries hidden beneath them ; and I propose to take the opportunity of the Feast for giving some explanation of these mysteries, which are very beautiful ones, and bring out certain aspects of the life of both Mary and her Divine Son in a very touching way.

Two of these ceremonies, commanded by the law of Moses, depended on the fact that women after childbirth were counted by this law to be unclean, and hence were required by God to withdraw from the Temple and from intercourse with their fellows for a time ; and after that to present themselves at the door of the tabernacle and there to purge themselves by offering a certain kind of sacrifice specially prescribed. These two ceremonies — first the retire- ment and then the offering — concerned the mother only, and had to be fulfilled whichever the sex of the child. The third ceremony concerned the infant. It was to be observed only in the case of men- children, and then only for the first-born.

The two first named legal regulations, then, are those that specially concern the Blessed Virgin’s share in today’s Feast. But do they really concern her ? Was she in point of fact absolutely bound to fulfil them, as were other women ? Obviously not. This law of the woman’s withdrawal and her subsequent purificatory sacrifice implies — as is expressly shown by the wording of the enactment in Leviticus — that she had brought forth her child in the ordinary way ; that is, in concupiscence. Mary, as we know, had not done this : her motherhood had sprung from Faith and Obedience alone, and she was wholly pure in it. Therefore such a law, actually, could not touch her at all. If she fulfilled it, she did so merely as it was a general rule of universal application to women after childbirth, to which there was no reason for her to be excepted, as far as appeared on the surface.

Nevertheless, had Mary so chosen, she could have obtained the exception which was really her due, from a law made for the sinful, by proclaiming the truth about herself and her Divine Son. Had she done so she would have had every certainty of being believed, and of having her dignity as Mother of the Messias acknowledged before men. In the first place, she had the Truth to support her — always so powerful in itself when undoubtedly present ; then the well-known beautiful innocence and purity of her own life, and the perfect sincerity with which everybody must have unhesitatingly credited her. Lastly, there would have been the unimpeachable testimony of such a man as Joseph to the fact that she who passed as his wife was a pure Virgin, and had borne her Child by the Power of the Holy Ghost ; whilst to his own assertion he could have added the miraculous assurance of the Angel.

Yet, in spite of all, Mary made no explanation whatever. She kept absolute silence, and fulfilled the law simply, as if she were subject to sin like others ; thus confirming amongst her fellows the belief that she was a married woman and had only an ordinary child. Now, this silence of Mary’s when, obeying the Law of her People, she presented herself at the Temple, is the mystery hidden under the ceremony of her Purification ; and if we consider her history as recorded in the Gospels we find that it is part of the practice she had followed ever since she had known of her own great dignity from the Angel Gabriel. She had always refrained from proclaiming her exception from ordinary rules ; and, with the most wonderful modesty and self-restraint, had kept
perfect silence on the subject, after just once breaking forth in her Magnificat to Elizabeth : — and even this, not till her cousin had spoken so as to show her own knowledge of the marvel that had happened. Others, we find, speak of her Son as what He is : — we know that the shepherds had done so at Bethlehem, and that Mary had ” kept these words and pondered them in her heart “^ — but none of hers are recorded. Now, again, Holy Simeon pours forth his feelings on beholding the longed-for Messias with fervour that might well have incited the mother who stood by to break her silence ; but she contents herself with listening, attending, meditating on what is said and cherishing it in her heart : she does not speak.

What is the reason of this wonderful silence and self-suppression in the Redeemer’s Mother? It is simply that she is His Mother : — that is, the Mother of Him Who, after His glorious Transfiguration, said to His disciples : “Tell the vision to no man, till the Son of Man be risen from the dead”; and Who showed, by many other sayings recorded in the Gospel, that though He deigned to feel even some actual impatience for the humiliations of His cross {e.g., ” I have a baptism wherewith I have to be baptised, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished ? “) yet He never had the slightest desire for His Name to be manifested before the predestined time fixed by Divine Providence. Mary’s feelings, then, were inspired by Him that she might plainly show her- self to be animated by the same Spirit. Therefore she kept her great happiness for herself and God alone, sharing it with none but those to Whom it pleased the Holy Ghost to reveal it. She waited for her Maker to disclose the Wonder when it should be expedient for the glory of His own name. God, and Jesus her beloved Son, knew that she was a spotless Virgin : — that was enough for her.

Surely — besides the mystery of its conformity to the conduct of Jesus — we have, in this unbroken silence and reserve of Mary’s, a most beautiful picture of a soul perfectly satisfied with the testimony of God and its own conscience alone. Here is she, the fully enlightened Mother of Jesus, content to be merely one of the listeners when her Only Son is the subject of discourse — not speaking even when her own Virginity seems to be in question — letting the world think exactly what it likes and what God chooses it to think — hiding her great glory and repressing all words concerning a joy that must be almost too great to bear! Here is indeed a model for all men how to make Jesus, the Hidden God, Who inspired this deep humility in His Mother, satisfy all the desires of their souls, and to seek no human sympathy or approval in their sufferings or for their actions.

The second ceremony — or, more truly, the second part of the whole ceremony — prescribed to the woman consisted in a particular kind of sacrifice that she was to offer for her cleansing. Now, different victims were allowed here, according to the circumstances of the person who offered them : as we know from the book of Leviticus,^ The usual one was a year-old lamb, and either a pigeon or a turtle-dove ; but if the woman who came for her purification was too poor to bring a lamb, then she might substitute for it a second turtle-dove or pigeon, and so make her offering of two birds only. Hence the turtle-doves or pigeons were especially the holocaust and sin-offering of the poor. Which of these victims, then, was sacrificed by the Mother of the King of Heaven ? We find that St. Luke, in his account of Mary’s purification, merely says that she came to the Temple to make a ” sacrifice according as it is written in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons”;^ he does not say which, and he does not mention the lamb at all. Now, there may be a mystical reason for this last omission. The evangelist very likely means us to understand by his silence on that point that to offer a Lamb in the temple when ” the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world ” was brought there Himself would have been quite unsuitable. But, if this is so, there is also undoubtedly another meaning attached to the absence of precision as to the sacrifice offered by Mary in St. Luke’s account ; and that meaning is to call our attention most particularly to the poverty of Christ and His holy mother. We are to understand that, whichever was the precise offering brought after Our Saviour’s birth, it was certainly the offering of the poor. And this, next to the hiddenness, is the aspect of Our Lord’s life — and, in union with Him, of Mary’s — that the Feast of the Purification brings out so strongly. It calls us to meditate on the fact that never was there a man poorer than was the Saviour of mankind on earth. His foster-father had to earn his living by the work of his hands ; and He Himself had not a place of His own whereon to lay His head. If, as has sometimes been the case in the world’s history, both great and holy men have had the nature of their careers indicated at their birth by the appearance of certain marvellous signs, it may indeed be truly said that the beginning of Our Redeemer’s life was an exact prognostication of His after years. The most wretched of mankind have usually at least some little miserable place they can call their own, in which their children may first see the light, whilst He was rather exposed than born in a stable, rejected even by His own People. The very sign by which the shepherds should know Him was His being laid in a manger for a cradle ; and this first indication was fully carried out to the very end : for was He not even buried in a tomb not belonging to His mother, and wrapped and embalmed with linen and spices given in alms by His friends? Hence He chose that the sacrifice brought for His Mother’s Purification should be in keeping with the rest, and should serve as yet another reminder to us that the King of Glory ” being rich became poor, for our sakes ; that through His poverty we might be rich “,

We must now shortly consider the third ceremony included in the Law ; and in doing this shall see that there was a further reason for the poverty of Mary’s offering, in the fact that the presentation of Jesus Himself was a symbol of that very Death which was to be so utterly destitute. This third ceremony consisted in bringing every first born man child to offer him to God at the Altar, and then redeeming him by a certain sum of money, as a testimony that the child belonged by right to God and that the parent kept him only by a kind of special agreement.

Two reasons are given in the Book of Exodus for this regulation, but one only of these belongs strictly to the Mystery of to-day : and it is one worth considering. Almighty God, in order to show His dominion over all things, was accustomed to exact the ” first- fruits ” of everything as a kind of tribute and acknowledgment, by which man should testify that he holds his possessions only by his Maker’s munificence. For this reason He required that all the firstborn, of men and of animals, should be offered to Him as the Master of all. Hence, immediately after the words by which the consecration of the first-born is ordered — “Sanctify unto Me all the first-bom … as well of men as of beasts ” — He adds the reason : “For they are all Mine”.^ And He exacted this tribute particularly in the case of men, that He might be recognised as the True Head of all the families in Israel ; and that in the persons of the eldest sons, who represent the stem of the family, all the other children might be devoted to His service. Thus, the first-born were separated by this offering from common and secular things, and passed into the ranks of holy and consecrated ones. This is why the law is promulgated in these words : ” Thou shalt yet apart all that openeth the womb for the Lord “.”’

Tertullian has called Jesus our Saviour ” the Illuminator of the Old Law,” which was only established to typify the mysteries of His life ; and the saying is especially applicable here, for who was ever more completely sanctified to the Lord than the Son of God Himself, Whose Mother was filled with the Power of the Holy Ghost? He was truly “the first born of every creature,”^ as St. Paul calls Him, and He is moreover the ” first-fruits ” of the whole human race. To-day, therefore, they come and offer Him to God at His holy Altar, to testify that in Him alone we are all sanctified and renewed, and that through Him alone we belong to the Eternal Father and have access to the throne of His Mercy. It was this that made Him say, in His great prayer for His disciples, ” And for them do I sanctify Myself,” * that so the prophecy might be fulfilled which promised our fathers that ” in Him all nations should be blessed ” : ^ that is, sanctified and consecrated to the Divine Majesty. Such are His prerogatives as Eldest Son of the Father, and such our obligations to that devoted “first-born,” our Saviour Jesus Who sacrificed Himself for love of us.

And here we may profitably call to mind the words of the thirty-ninth Psalm, which St. Paul puts into Our Lord’s mouth in His Epistle to the Hebrews, which seem to apply exactly to the ceremony we are considering. St. Paul says : ” Wherefore when He cometh into the world, He saith : . . . Holocausts for sin did not please Thee: then said I, Behold I come!”^ meaning, the Apostle understands, that He came for the work of our salvation. Observe that Our Lord is described as saying these words when He first enters this world : ingredient in mundo. Now, the Child Jesus was but six weeks old when they brought Him to present to God in the Temple, so that one may truly look upon Him as only just entering the world. We may therefore represent Him to ourselves as offering Himself voluntarily to the Eternal Father, at the same moment that His Mother presents Him according to the Old Law as her first-born, in place of all the ancient victims, so as to perfect us for ever by the oneness of His Sacrifice. Hence this ceremony is truly, as I said above, a preparatory symbol of His Passion : and here is the deep mystery hidden in the special part borne by the Holy Infant in the great act of to-day.

And what, we may naturally wonder, were Mary’s own feelings and thoughts on this mysterious presentation of her Divine Son ? Undoubtedly she entered fully into the spiritual meaning of the ceremony, and united her will and intention to those of the infant Saviour Himself. Just as she had given her full and free consent on the day of the Annuncia- tion to the Incarnation of the Messias, so we cannot doubt that she now ratified with her whole heart the covenant He made, on being offered as victim for His people, about His Passion and Death. This conviction is strengthened by Simeon’s words ; for the holy man, after uttering all his joy and gratitude at sight of the Messias in his Nunc Dimittis, turns to Mary and makes that strange and sad prophecy of the sword that is to pierce her Mother’s heart. We cannot believe that he would have been inspired to do this, on an occasion that appeared outwardly to be full of nothing but joy, had it not been that, amongst the many things about her Son which Mary had to keep and ponder in her heart, was the knowledge of the bitter chalice He would have to drink as the consummation of the sacrifice begun on this day. This subject will be more fully treated in connection with another Feast ; what we have to learn now is that the three mysteries concealed beneath the cere- monies of the Purification should be to us so many reminders, when we reflect on them, that the life of Mary with Jesus on earth was to be not only a hidden and a poor one, but a life full of the inward and unspoken sufferings of painful anticipation : all alike freely accepted by her with absolutely perfect conformity to the Spirit of her Son and the will of the Eternal Father.

An Excerpt from

Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne. “The Hiddenness and Poverty of Jesus and Mary.” Devotion to the Blessed Virgin: Being the Substance of All the Sermons for Mary’s Feasts throughout the Year. New York: Longmans, Green, 1899. 99-111. Print.

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