Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad and the author of two books, Ceremony of Innocence and Seraphic Singles.

Dorothy has an MA in English literature from the University of Toronto, an M.Div./STB from Regis College and spent two years in doctoral studies in theology at Boston College.

Canadians whose familiarity with London, England, is confined to films and novels produced before 1970 may have been confused, not just horrified, by the images from London that flashed across their televisions recently. The murder in broad daylight of an English solider by two black men, at least one of whom had a London accent and claimed to be a Muslim, makes absolutely no sense if you think London is the London of Foyle’s War.

I received an e-mail the other day from a teenager who had been approached at a farmer’s market by one of the vendors. He told her that he was new to the area and was hoping for friends. She seemed like a peaceful person, and he’d like to get to know her better.

When the Boston bombing suspects were first named, they were granted the title “unhappy foreign students.” Before the details of the Tsarnaev brothers’ 10-year residence in the United States were revealed, pundits floated this theory as a way to encourage pity for them. After all, they were foreign.
“Give me a break,” I yelled at the Internet. “I was an unhappy foreign student in Boston.”

There’s an extraordinary painting in the National Gallery of Scotland of a Spanish wake. Painted in 1864 by John Philip, La Gloria depicts a mother grieving in the shadows as her dead little daughter is taken from her home. Friends encourage her to look into the sunny square where the neighbours are celebrating the entrance of the little girl’s soul into heaven.

During Holy Week I went on a quest for a lamb cake mould. We had Polish guests for Easter, and I was determined to produce Polish Easter dishes and cakes, including the traditional three-dimensional lamb cake. This proved more challenging in Edinburgh than it would be in multicultural Toronto, and as I scurried from shop to shop in the unseasonably frigid air, I could be heard muttering, “I know exactly where I could find one on Roncesvalles.”

If you are what you eat, it would seem that the three dimensional cake-bakers of Edinburgh are high-heeled shoes, garden bugs and the Easter Bunny. I began to loathe the Easter Bunny, so prominent was he in the cooking departments and shops of Edinburgh. In Britain lambs are considered a harbinger of spring, so I was surprised not to find even chocolate ones among the regiments of rabbits and eggs...

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Easter witnessed a victory over the bonds of sin and death that had held humanity fast since our fall from grace. Paradoxically, the victory was won by the peaceful life and innocent death of the victor. The apostles had expected a political conquest; the reality was so much more...

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These are sad days for Catholics in Edinburgh. I’m sure readers are sick and tired of scandals involving Catholic priests and bishops. Hannah Arendt was definitely on to something when she described the “banality of evil.” But, as I’ve discovered, there’s nothing banal about a clerical scandal when it involves your own archbishop.

“My favourite Pope has broken my heart.”

Jet-lagged at 6:30 in the Montreal morning, I stared at my Facebook page in shock. My friends in Rome had the news first, and they were sending it to friends electronically. More out of instinct than reason — for I do not consciously trust the secular press to report Catholic news accurately — I clicked to the UK’s Telegraph. My eyes had not deceived me, and my Rome friends had not gone crazy. The Holy Father really had announced — no, not his resignation — his abdication. The unthinkable had not only been thought but said.

In March 2011 a 13-year-old girl in London, England, stood on a window ledge and begged a teenage boy to erase the cellphone video he possessed of her being sexually abused. He refused and she slipped, falling 20 metres to her death. An inquest this January ruled it an accident.

The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Candlemas, dates from the early fourth century and has for centuries been celebrated on Feb. 2. The “purification” refers to an ancient Jewish ceremony, described in Leviticus 12:2-8, in which a woman who has recently given birth returns to the synagogue after some time away. It seems unpleasant now to think that women might need purification for something as blameless and natural as giving birth, but the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean were very uneasy about any rupture between the body and the outside world. They found any kind of bleeding particularly worrisome.

As a Jewish woman of the first century, our Lady naturally followed such prescriptions of Mosaic Law. According to the Gospel of Luke, “when the time came for her purification,” Mary and Joseph took Jesus, as a firstborn son, with them to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented as holy to the Lord. (Fittingly, then, this was a joint ceremony for mother and Son together.) There they met Simeon and Anna, both elderly people who had longed for many years to see the Messiah. Simeon’s joyful response, beginning, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,” is now a canticle known as the “Nunc Dimittis.” It has been for centuries part of Christian evening prayer.

These are the events in the life of the Holy Family specially commemorated at Candlemas, which takes its name from the traditional blessing of the year’s stock of candles before Mass.

The first prayer of the blessing service in the Extraordinary Form is particularly beautiful, invoking both creation and expectation, both the sacred and the mundane:

“O holy Lord, Father almighty, eternal God, who hast created all things out of nothing, and by Thy word hast caused this liquid through the work of bees to come to the perfection of wax, and who on this day did fulfil the petition of just Simeon; deign, we humbly beseech Thee, to bless and sanctify these candles for the uses of men, for the health of bodies and of souls, whether on the land or on the waters, by the invocation of Thy most holy name, and by the intercession of the blessed Mary ever virgin, whose festival we this day celebrate…”

There are five prayers, followed by an antiphon from Luke — “A light to the revelation of the gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” — and the Nunc Dimittis. The juxtaposition of “light” with the revelation of the Messiah to Simeon underscores that the flames of the blessed candles will represent the light of Christ. Blessed candles are distributed to everyone at the service, and there is usually a candle-lit procession.

When I went to the Candlemas services in Edinburgh last year, there was no candle-lit procession as the chapel was so small and crowded. I took spiritual warmth from the beauty of the blessing service and the Mass, particularly in the almost-comical reference to the humble bees as ministers of God’s work of creation. There was the music, of course, sung by four musicians around the harmonium, and the priest’s gold vestments. And there was the joy of Simeon, who had been waiting all his long life for the fulfilment of the Holy Spirit’s promise that he would see Jesus, and the joy of Anna, a widow of 84, whose life revolved around fasting and prayer.

What beautiful juxtapositions: the baby, the young mother, the foster father, the elderly man, the elderly woman and, thanks to the candles, the bees. At Christmas, the Christ Child is revealed to local shepherds, to the Jews. At Epiphany, He is revealed to the gentiles. At Candlemas, He is revealed to the elderly and, not coincidentally, inspires an exclamation of utter trust in the face of death, an exclamation that even welcomes death, for the speaker has seen God’s salvation with his own eyes.

As the presentation is itself an epiphany, it is fitting that Candlemas traditionally marks the end of Epiphany and is the last feast day of Christmas. Those who have not yet taken down their Christmas decorations may rejoice to know that it is perfectly traditional to leave them up all January. But, alas, on Candlemas Eve, down they must come.