Candlemas – Annemarie Woodward

St. Mary’s, Hadlow

 

Candlemas: 31st January 2016.

(Luke 2: 22-40)

 

Lighten our Darkness[1]

 

May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

 

‘Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise,[2] because ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’[3]

 

Today, on this last Sunday of Christmas,[4] we celebrate the feast of Candlemas – the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.[5] Here I have to declare a special interest: in 1976 our son, Stephen, was born on Candlemas.[6] The 2nd February is also a cross-quarter day, falling halfway between the shortest day of the year and the spring equinox – time now to leave the dark winter evenings behind. Initially a pagan festival of light,[7] with its close ties to the rhythm of the farming year, this was the day when fir branches were burnt and returned to the earth as compost or fertiliser.[8]

 

Possibly as early as the 4th century the Christian Church adopted the symbol of universal, eternal light for the Feast of Presentation and Purification. By the 11th century – indeed by the time St Mary’s here in Hadlow was consecrated – Candlemas was celebrated as a High Holy Day. Just imagine – a candlelit procession would have wound its way through the churchyard and in through the West Door. Gradually, as the procession filed slowly into the nave, St Mary’s would have been filled with light and, in a solemn Mass, the costly beeswax[9] candles for the coming year would have been blessed by the parish priest,[10] each candle symbolising the eternal ‘light that shines in the darkness.’[11]

 

Our gospel reading this morning is both fascinating and complex. Today the Song of Simeon[12] takes centre stage – an outpouring of praise, recognition, revelation and humble acceptance. To begin with he echoes the joyful thanksgiving we hear in both the Magnificat, and Zechariah’s song of jubilation, but his Song is tempered by a darker prophecy. But, before we come to Simeon we need to set his story in the context of Candlemas.

 

With Luke as our guide, we can follow[13] Mary and Joseph as they, in their turn, ‘enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.[14] Cradling the infant Jesus in her arms, Mary and Joseph have come to the temple in Jerusalem with one purpose in mind: to fulfil the Law. We should never forget that Jesus was raised in a humble, devout Jewish household in strict accordance with the Laws of Moses; we cannot isolate Him from either His context or His cultural heritage: ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law.’[15] We know that on the eighth day[16] after His birth, Jesus had been circumcised, receiving ‘the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’[17] Now, on the fortieth day, Mary has come to the Court of Women for Presentation and Purification, again in accordance with the Law.

 

Presentation[18] of the first-born son is deeply rooted in Jewish history, stretching back to the original Passover in Egypt when God stayed the hand of the angel of death. The first-born sons of the Children of Israel were spared, and God claimed them for His own.[19]  First-born sons of the tribe of Aaron were destined to remain in God’s priestly service as Levites; all other first-born were presented but were then redeemed, having been blessed by the priest. Luke makes no mention here of any redemption price; indeed he barely mentions Mary’s Purification, commenting only that she later offers up the two turtle doves[20] required by the Law,[21] because what happens next changes everything.

 

An elderly man steps forward, his face suffused with joy, and takes the infant Jesus from Mary’s arms. Luke tells us his name – Simeon – but we hear nothing of his lineage or his family. What we do know is that Simeon is ‘righteous and devout,’[22] a man of faith and hope who looked for the consolation of Israel.’[23] We also know that ‘the Holy Spirit (not only) rested on him (but had reassured him) that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.’[24] And today is the day! Prompted by the Holy Spirit he rushes through the crowded streets of Jerusalem to the Temple. He’s waited a lifetime for this moment. Now, tenderly cradling the infant Messiah in his arms, he lifts his face to heaven and sings God’s praises:

 

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation,[25] which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’[26] After a lifetime’s patient vigil Simeon’s faith and trust in God have finally been rewarded – he is holding ‘the light of the world’[27] in his arms, an eternal universal light that will no longer be exclusive to Israel, but will shine on everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Simeon’s words echo Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’[28] They also reflect the message the angel gave to the shepherds on Christmas night: ‘do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.’[29]

In the stunned silence that follows (Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were amazed at his words) Simeon calls down God’s blessing on the holy family. He then turns to Mary, quietly, with words of discord, darkness and suffering: ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’[30]  This is the dual nature of Simeon’s prophecy: here in the Temple in Jerusalem he can see beyond this day of joyful celebration. Inspired by the Holy Spirit he warns Mary that the Son of God has not come down to earth to throw off the yoke of Roman bondage; nor will He purify the Jewish nation and restore the political kingdom of Israel. The kingdom of God will be a kingdom like none other; it will have no borders, it will welcome both Jew and Gentile; it will raise up the lowly and bring down the powerful; it will, in effect, confront the vainglorious, self-seeking kingdom of the world and this confrontation will inevitably lead to conflict and suffering.

 

Simeon is no stranger to suffering – indeed, suffering under Roman rule has become a way of life for the Children of Israel. Simeon can see that the time will come when the Messiah will confront this suffering – not by force of arms, but by sharing it himself. Our Redeemer will be ‘despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’[31] This is the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul; in time she will learn that love and grief are but two sides of the same coin.

 

At this point Luke takes our focus away from Mary, turning instead to Anna, an 84 year old prophet[32] who practically lives in the Court of Women, worshipping there ‘with fasting and prayer night and day’.[33] She approaches the Holy Family and she, like Simeon, recognises the Messiah. Unlike Simeon (who is content now to see his life draw to a close) Anna can’t wait to set about spreading the good news. Just like the disciples who will come after her, she is driven by the need to bear witness, to spread the good news. We have no record of her words; why, then, did Luke bring Anna into his narrative? It could be that, with Anna standing alongside Simeon, Luke has the two credible witnesses necessary, under the law,[34] to validate the significance of this day’s events in the Temple in Jerusalem.

 

At the end of our gospel reading today, Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph ‘finished everything required by the law of the Lord’[35] before setting off for their home in Nazareth, where the Messiah ‘grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favour of God was upon Him.’[36]

 

So – what can we take with us as we leave St Mary’s on this day of Candlemas? St Luke manages to pack a great deal into a relatively short passage: he speaks of obedience, faith, trust and patience; courage, perseverance, devotion and respect. All these shine out from his account of Presentation, Purification and, prophecy: Mary and Joseph’s obedience and respect for the Laws of Moses; their devout faith and trust in God the Father as they raise God the Son; Simeon’s long-suffering patience and faithful vigil, his trust in the Lord and his courage in revealing to Mary that a sword will pierce her soul; Anna’s devotion to her calling, dedicating her life to prayer and fasting in the Temple; and the respect shown by Mary and Joseph to two elderly strangers. But above all, today, Luke speaks of salvation, revelation, light and glory.

Week by week, when we stand for the Creed, we say the words ‘we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ … God from God, Light from Light’. Today, everyday, we can be like Simeon and Anna that day in the Temple – by the grace of God we, too, can rejoice in one Lord, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. When Jesus said ‘I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life,’[37] He was speaking to his disciples – we are his disciples. Here in St Mary’s, week by week, we light altar candles, together with the candle by the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary to focus on this precious gift – the everlasting ‘light of life.’ In a moment of private prayer we can ‘light a penny candle’ in the quiet of the Lady Chapel. Year by year, we mark each week of Advent with a prayerfully lighted candle, and at Easter our Paschal candle burns throughout the season.[38]   Away from St Mary’s, with the grace of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not only can we dwell in that eternal light of life by lighting a candle as we pray, we can share that light with our families, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Every good deed, [39] no matter how small, reflects that light, every kind word, every smile becomes that light. When Paul blessed our candles today he prayed: ‘blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe. You make our darkness to be light, for with you is the well of life, and in your light shall we see light.’[40] So, now we pray, God our Saviour, help us to follow the light and live the truth. In you, we have been born again as sons and daughters of light. With the grace of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, help us to be your witnesses before all the world. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord.’ Prayer used in (Compline) Common Worship p.97

[2] Psalm 100:4.

[3] Isaiah 9: 2 [Isaiah’s words served originally as an oracle for the coronation of a Judean king]

[4] Robert Herrick’s “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve” includes the lines: ‘Down with the rosemary, and so down with the bays and mistletoe; down with the holly, ivy, all, wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall.’

[5] In the United States of America Candlemas is also Groundhog Day.

[6] Stephen was born in St Theresa’s Catholic Nursing Home in Wimbledon and attended his first church service, sound asleep in my arms; he was only four and a half hours old when we were wheeled down to the chapel, lit by dozens of candles, for a Service of Thanksgiving and Praise.

[7] Either Imbolc (a Gaelic festival) or Lupercalia (a Roman feast day).

[8] Many traditions and superstitions surrounded Candlemas: any traces of berries or holly that remained in the house after 2nd February would bring death among the congregation before another year was out; anyone who heard funeral bells tolling on Candlemas would soon hear of the death of a close friend or relative – each toll of the bell represented a day that would pass before the unfortunate news was heard; sailors refused to set sail on Candlemas Day, fearing their voyage would end in disaster; it was unlucky to bring snowdrops (Candlemas Bells) into the house before the 2nd of February.

[9] In Catholic tradition the wax used for church candles (formed from the juice of flowers by the bees) is considered as the emblem of virginity and signifies the virginal flesh of the Divine infant. The wick, within the wax, represents Christ’s soul and the flame represents His divinity.

[10] Candlemas has always been one of the three major Church blessings of the liturgical year; the other two are the blessing of the palms and the blessing of the ashes.

[11] St John 1: 5

[12] The Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) – Anglican Order of Service [Evening Prayer] Common Worship p.77

11 The Holy family would probably have walked the 5 or so miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

[14] Psalm 100:4. [Mary and Joseph would have entered through the Nicanor Gate, at the eastern end of the Court of Women]

[15] Galatians 4: 4-5. Scholars have dated Paul’s letter to the Galatians as early as 55 AD.

[16] The Jewish ceremony of circumcision (‘bris’) on the eighth day after birth represents placing the sign of the Covenant upon each male child who becomes part of the nation. [Genesis 17: 11 and Leviticus 12: 3]. The rabbi pronounces a benediction before the circumcision and the ceremony closed with a prayer over a cup of wine.

[17] Luke 2: 21. ‘Jesus’ [Yeshua in Hebrew] means salvation.

[18] The ceremony consisted of the formal presentation of the child to the priest, accompanied by two short benedictions – the first one for the law of redemption, the other for the gift of a first-born son. For the first-born of non-Levites a redemption price of five shekels was paid; the redemption price was a way of supporting the priesthood in their service to God. [Numbers 3:46-47].

[19] Numbers 3: 11-13 [‘The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the first-born that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, for all the first-born are mine; when I killed all the first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the first-born in Israel … they shall be mine. I am the Lord,’] God had visited a series of plagues on Egypt when the Pharoah stubbornly refused to “let my people go”. The last plague brought death to the first-born of all who lived in Egypt.

[20] An alternative offering (the standard sacrifice required a young lamb). The offering of two turtle doves was all they could afford.

[21] Leviticus 12: 2, 6, 8. ‘If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days … her time of blood purification shall be (a further) thirty-three days …when the days of her purification are completed … she shall bring to the priest … a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering … if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves … one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.’

[22] Luke 2: 25

[23] Luke 2: 25 Consolation: (in Greek – paraklesis) is comfort, call to one’s side, help, encourage. [The Holy Spirit in St John’s Gospel is referred to as the Paraklete]. Simeon is eagerly looking forward to the time when Jerusalem will be comforted by God – this comfort/consolation would be brought about by God’s Son, the Messiah.

[24] Luke 2: 25, 26

[25] Yeshua (Jesus) translates as ‘salvation’.

[26] Luke 2: 29-32. [The prophet Isaiah first developed the concept of the Messiah and Israel being “a light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49 speaks of God’s words to Israel: “you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified …(and) I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (verses 3 and 6)

[27] John 8: 12 ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’

[28] Isaiah 49: 6 [See also Psalm 98: 2-3 and three additional key references in Isaiah: 42: 6-8, 52: 10 and 60: 1-3]

[29] Luke 2: 10

[30] Luke 2: 34, 35

[31] Isaiah 53: 3 (King James Version)

[32] Luke’s description of Anna (unlike his earlier reference to Simeon) is full of detail: she is of the tribe of Asher, the daughter of Phanuel, of “great age”, and had been widowed after only seven years of marriage.

[33] Luke 2: 37

[34] Deuteronomy 19:15

[35] Luke 2: 39

[36] Luke 2: 40

[37] John 8: 12

[38] The Paschal candle is also lit during the year at baptism and funeral services. The baptism service itself includes the gift of a candle to each family in the hope that the candle will be lit each year on the anniversary of the child’s baptism.

[39] ‘How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.’ (Portia) The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1. [William Shakespeare]

[40] St Mary’s Order of Service, Candlemas page 6

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