A feast and litany procession in honor of the Lord's Presentation in the Temple was celebrated by Jerusalem Christians at least as early as the late fourth century. It took place 40 days after the feast of the Lord's birth, since the Jewish law required a mother to undergo a rite of purification 40 days following childbirth. In Luke's account of the Presentation, Symeon is recorded as proclaiming Jesus "a light of revelation to the Gentiles." And so at the beginning of the eighth century, Pope Sergius inaugurated a candlelight procession on this day; several years later the blessing and distribution of candles was added to the celebration. Hence this day came to be known as Candlemas in the West. From the sermon below, delivered in the seventh century, it seems the tradition of holding candles on this feast may be earlier than thought and may have originated in the East.
By St. Sophronios of Jerusalem
Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.
The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.
The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.
The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal.
Rejoicing with Symeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor.
Through Symeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.
By faith we, too embraced, Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel.
Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honor.
("Orat. 3 de Hypapante" 6.7: PG 87, 3, 3291-3293)