(re-posted from Where Do I Begin? – the blog of our own Emily Richardson – originally published 02/02/2015)
I think I’ve decided that Candlemas is my favourite festival of the Christian year. I only just realised this. I’ve only really recently become familiar with Candlemas itself, actually. When I was at university the second half of the academic year was named Candlemas semester. But that was just what it was: a name. I didn’t have the first idea of what it was. It was like Christmas but with added candles? Maybe? Like I say, I really had no idea.
Candlemas is another name for the Feast of the Presentation. It recollects the story in Luke 2 where Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple to be dedicated to the Lord. Apart from the Holy family, there are two other key players. Simeon, who we are quite familiar with because of his number one hit: “Nunc Dimittis”, and Anna, who is an old lady who lived in the Temple. As you do. There is a lot of talk about waiting, about expectation, about the light of the world and about the fulfilment of ancient promises.
In the church, it is traditionally the day when the candles are blessed for use throughout the coming year. It marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons and is the start of Ordinary Time. It is the day the crib comes down and the last traces of Christmas are put away for another year.
But I realised in the service yesterday that it contains elements of all the major events in the Christian year. It is like a liturgical year in microcosm.
First there is waiting. That takes us back to Advent. Simeon and Anna – and the whole of creation – have spent their whole lives waiting. The promise of light that we are longing for in the weeks leading to Christmas is something that is always not yet. There is always an aspect of waiting and of longing.
Then we have Christmas. God born to us. Christmas is present in the story in the ordinariness of a small child. God in flesh. Christmas is all about incarnation, and the Candlemas story has that right at its heart.
Then we have epiphany. The light come into the world. This is the object of Simeon’s song. At epiphany we remember the visit of the Magi – foreigners are let into the secret of the coming of the messiah. This is a new kind of king, sent for everyone. Especially outsiders. I was thinking about Anna and Simeon who, although are firmly within the story of Israel, are in a way outsiders. Two elderly, dareisay, eccentric people. Not people of particularly high regard. And yet they are the ones who see the light. They recieve the revelation. Just like the magi and the shepherds.
Simeon’s prophecy that the child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul too looks forward to the next season of the church. The period of Lent and Holy Week, when we focus on the passion of Jesus. Candlemas serves as a sort of halfway point. A pause, a resting place when we prepare for the shift in our focus from incarnation to redemption. What, until recently, to me felt like an insignificant holy day in the church’s year actually serves as a pivot in the liturgical calendar.
And, of course, the hope and faith of people like Anna and Simeon and the change it brought to their life points us forward to Easter and the hope of resurrection. Anna “spoke about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” – this child is a sign of the new creation which is brought into being at Easter with the discovery of the empty tomb.
Finally, Candlemas transitions us from the twinkling lights of Christmas into the everyday-ness of Ordinary Time. At church yesterday we had a very moving ritual at the end of the service where we extinguished our (newly blessed) candles as a symbol of the end of Christmas. But it was not a bleak experience. We weren’t plunging ourselves into darkness, but rather pledging to be bearers of that light ourselves as we went out into the world. Simeon saw that the light of the world had come in the most unexpected disguise: a fragile and ordinary baby. What is remarkable about the event at the Temple was precisely that it was an unremarkable event. Children were brought to the Temple everyday – this was a usual occurrence – and yet, God uses this usual, ordinary happening to reveal his light to the world.
So, I have been converted. I am a fully fledged, Candlemas-loving girl. This one day points us in all directions throughout the Christian year and the richness that brings to the liturgy is something that I will savour for the coming weeks.