If you attended Catholic school, you probably have the memory of the cold candles touching your neck during the blessing of throats on the Feast of Saint Blaise, February 3. Saint Blaise was a medical doctor and bishop in the ancient Armenian city of Sebaste. He lived in the fourth century and he was known for his great sanctity. People appreciated his spiritual wisdom and healing as much as his capacity to treat physical ailments. During one of the periodic persecutions of Christians, the Roman governor had Blaise seized and in 316AD, he was martyred for his faith.
His people remembered his sanctity and they continued to benefit from his example and seek his intercession. Devotion to the Saint was particularly strong in the Middle Ages, and it was then the custom of throat blessing arose due to a tale from his life in which he saved a young boy who was choking to death because of a fish bone lodged in his throat. As a child, I knew none of these things, but those annual blessings with those cold candles pressed to the throat left a powerful impression. It was a good lesson about the importance of blessing and the human desire for good health and protection from disease.
The candles used for this blessing are themselves blessed the day before at the Mass for the Presentation of the Lord. Formerly called the Purification of Mary, the feast recalls the day when Mary and Joseph went up to Jerusalem to present the offering for Mary’s purification after childbirth and for the redemption of their first-born son. (The event is described in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel.) It serves in some ways as a second epiphany when Simeon and Anna now behold the Savior that they had awaited with such devotion. For this reason, the Christmas season used to continue until the feast on February 2. While the Christmas season now concludes with the Baptism of the Lord, this beautiful feast continues to employ the symbolism of light, recalling Simeon’s Canticle calling Jesus the “light to the nations.” On this feast, the priest blesses the candles to be used on the altar throughout the year – and the candles for Saint Blaise. Many churches have a candlelight procession as part of this blessing. It’s a beautiful Mass to attend and a lovely custom in the gloom of winter. Even if you do not typically attend daily Mass, you might find spiritual insight and encouragement by going to your parish on the 2nd of February.
The larger culture around is most interested in the Feast of Saint Valentine (Feb. 14). Like Blaise, Valentine was an early bishop of the Church, serving in Terni, Italy in the third century. He was arrested and brought to Rome and martyred in 269AD. The association of Saint Valentine with courtly love appears to have arisen in the Middle Ages on account of his signing a letter to one of his converts “from your Valentine.”
As it happens, Valentine’s Day coincides this year with the observance of Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and abstinence. Of course, Ash Wednesday is the much higher value and deserves the full measure of our devotion. It inaugurates the solemn season of Lent and challenges us all to renew our commitment to divine love and be reconciled by the grace of the Lord Jesus.
With this in mind, I ask with all respect that we maintain the unique importance of Ash Wednesday. If you would like to wine and dine your Valentine, please do so on the Tuesday before. February 13 is Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” a perfect day to feast and celebrate!
May these February feasts lift your heart, draw you closer to the heart of Jesus, and renew your faith!
The beautiful feast of Our Lady of Lourdes takes place February 11. This year it falls on a Sunday and the Sunday prayers take precedence. I still encourage you to remember our Blessed Mother that day and I will other some more thoughts on that feast and the World Day of the Sick next week.