Candlemas: Learning to carry your candle

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CandlemasFebruary 2nd is not just Groundhog Day, it is something much more important: the Feast of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple, also called Candlemas. This feast is celebrated on the 40th day after Christmas, and is a kind of backward glance at the season of Christ’s birth before moving on to the more adult experiences of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.

It is called Candlemas because when Jesus was brought to the Temple to be “presented” as the Torah commanded, a very old man named Simeon took the child in his arms and called him “a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people Israel”. As a result, it became customary to carry blessed candles on this day and hold a procession. The carrying of candles (but not the feast) was suppressed at the Reformation but some parishes continued to do it anyway.

When I was a boy (in the early 1950’s), the people of my home parish would have thought Candlemas itself much too “High Church”; but that didn’t mean they didn’t like candles. As a result, on the Sunday after the Epiphany we all came together for a special Evensong which the Rector dubbed “A Feast of Lights”. There was no procession but there were plenty of candles. And, as at Candlemas itself, people were told that, if they could get their hand-candle across their thresholds still lit, their house would be blessed for the year. This had some unintended consequences: first, the church had to be left open for several hours to allow for extra tries; second, it made for the possibility of multiple small children jammed into a backseat, each holding a hand candle! Still, as there were never any accidents, we can be sure that the cars if not the houses were blessed.

Our family never needed a car. Our house was located four houses to the south of the church and my grandmother’s house was four houses to the north. One year I finally managed to get a candle across our threshold; but I wanted to take one to my grandmother as well. My grandmother was blind, but I still wanted her to have the blessing. Then I had an idea. I took a lamp chimney from home and held it over another lit candle from the church. As a result the neighbours were treated to the sight of a seven-year-old boy marching up the street carrying a lighted candle under a lamb chimney, singing the song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis. My grandmother couldn’t see the light but I’m pretty sure she got the blessing.

But what is so fascinating about candles, anyway? Organizers of church services know generally that any service involving candles is almost bound to be popular—even among the uncommitted. Now, while the Bible assures us that Jesus is the Light of the World, it also tells us that when the Light came, even his own did not receive him. In other words, light is endlessly fascinating, but not always easily recognized. The Temple was full when Mary and Joseph came in with the baby Jesus, but only Simeon (and later Anna) recognized him for who he was.

Candles are lit for a variety of reasons: sometimes just to provide light; sometimes to remember something or someone in the past; sometimes to look toward the future. But the one thing they seems always to do is to point toward hope—candles point toward hope even when everything else seems hopeless. That is why the “True Light” that was coming into the world was both attractive and hard to see. Candlemas is a feast of hope, a reminder that we need to keep our minds and our lives fixed on the elusive light that came into the world at Christmas. At Candlemas we are called not just to carry candles, but to carry hope—a hope that other people can see.

My grandmother was a case in point. For the last ten years of her life she saw nothing at all: she saw me, but not my brother. And she certainly didn’t see the candle I brought her. Instead, she shed light wherever she went. At her funeral we sang the hymn, “The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won…” Years later, I was deacon at the Easter vigil, and naturally very busy. But during the offertory they happened to play that very hymn. I nearly broke into tears; because all of a sudden it hit me with crushing force that now she can see! She never saw anything again in her earthly life, but she helped everyone around her see hope.

Candlemas is traditionally the last day of Christmastide. It is a day to pick up your candle, (with or without lamp chimney), show hope, and become “a light to enlighten the nations”. Jesus did it. I think my grandmother did it. Millions of others have done it. You can do it. That’s what Candlemas is all about!

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