Egeria, whose writings date from c. AD 380, attests to a Feast of the Presentation in the church at Jerusaelm forty days after Christmas. In 542, Emperor Justinian introduced the feast to the entire Eastern Roman empire in thanskgiving for the end to a horrible pestilence afflicting Constantinople. Pope St. Gregory the Great (590 - 604) brought the Feast to Rome. Later, Pope Sergius (687 - 701) introduced the procession to the Candlemas service. The procession on this day is one of the most picturesque features of the Western Liturgy. The blessing of candles came into common use throughout the Western World in the 11th Century.
Symbolism in the Liturgy
The blessing of the candles (one of three principle blessings of the liturgical year, the others being that of the blessing of Palms on Palm Sunday and the blessing of Ashes on Ash Wednesday), is given by a priest vested in a cope. Standing at the epistle side of the altar, the priest chants 5 prayers before sprinkling the candles thrice with holy water. The candles are then incensed.
The symbolism of the candles is described by Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, in his "Liturgical Year":
The mystery of today's ceremony has frequently been explained by liturgists, dating from the 7th century. According to Ivo of Chartres, the wax, which is formed from the juice of flowers by the bee, always considered as the emblem of virginity, signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine Infant, who diminished not, either by His conception or His birth, the spotless purity of His Blessed Mother. The same holy bishop would have us see, in the flame of our Candle, a symbol of Jesus who came to enlighten our darkness. St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking on the same mystery, bids us consider three things in the blessed Candle: the wax, the wick, and the flame. The wax, he says, which is the production of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divinity.
Next, the celebrant distributes the candles to the clergy and the laity whilst the choir sings the Nunc dimittis. As the faithful take the blessed candle from the hand of the priest while kneeling at the Communion rail, they first kiss the candle (since it is a sacramental) and then the hand of the priest (which represents the hand of Christ). During the mass, the candles are lighted and held during the reading of the Gospel and then again from the Canon of the Mass to the Communion of the Priest.
There follows the distribution of candles with a profession and the chanting of anthems. The Cross goes first, followed by the clergy and the celebrant. The faithful walk behind the celebrant carrying their newly blessed and lit candles. The Church bells ring out in joy.
Recall the first of the five prayers of Blessings for the Candles:
O Holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God, who hast created all things out of nothing, and by Thy command hast caused this liquid to become perfect wax by the labor of bees: and who, on this day didst fulfill the petition of the righteous man Simeon: we humbly entreat Thee, that by the invocation of Thy most holy Name and through the intercession of Blessed Mary ever Virgin whose feast is today devoutly observed, and by the prayers of all Thy Saints, Thou wouldst vouchsafe to bless + and sactify + these candles for the service of men and for the health of their bodies and souls, whether on land or on sea: and that Thou wouldst hear from Thy holy heaven, and from the throne of Thy Majesty the voices of this Thy people, who desire to carry them in their hands with honor, and to praise Thee with hymns; and wouldst be propitious to all that call upon Thee, whom Thou hast redeemed with the precious Blood of Thy Son; Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
A procession reminds us that our whole life on earth is a homeward pilgrimage to Heaven. The Candlemas procession represents the entry of Christ the Light of the World, into the Temple of Jerusalem. It reminds us that the baptized faithful must walk as children of Light. As St. Paul declares: "For you were darkness before, but now light in the Lord. Walk then as children of the light." And our Lord said, "Yet a little while, the light is among you. Walk whilst you have the light, that darkness overtake you not. Whilst you have the light, believe in the light, that you may be children of the light" (John 12:35-36).
Thus, the Candlemas procession also symbolizes our entrance into the eternal light of Heaven - the Church bells and chants during the procession make us think of the heavenly experience which will be our reward for the blood, sweat, and tears of the earthly journey (cf. Apocalypse 22:3-5).