Standing with our feet in two worlds

Candlemas – 2017

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

Candlemas

         Candlemas

Loving God, light in our darkness; give us the courage to allow your light to reveal the darkness in our lives. Amen.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple – an event in Jesus’ life that is recorded only by Luke. As early as the fourth century, the Church Fathers considered that this was an event of such significance that it needed its own feast day. At that time, the Presentation was marked on the fourteenth of February – 40 days after the feast of the Nativity on the 6th of January. Four hundred years later, sometime after the celebration of Christmas had been moved back to December 25, the feast of the Presentation was moved to February 2 where it remains to this day.

It appears that around that time, in the 700s, influences from the pagan festival of Imbolc began to creep in to the Christian celebration. Imbolc is the word for ewe’s milk in old Irish. In Northern Europe Imbolc marked the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In a world in which winters were dark and bleak, the lengthening of days and the first signs of spring growth were a cause for celebration. They were proof yet again that the darkness had not triumphed over light and that the earth would once again bring forth life and growth. It was a time of promise and possibility. White candles were lit as a symbol of purifying fire and of the rays of the sun.

Imbolc took place at the same time as the feast of the Presentation – on February 1st or 2nd. It appears that the church absorbed the practice of lighting candles into its own practice. The liturgy incorporated a procession of candles followed by a blessing of the candles for use that year hence the alternate name for the feast – Candlemas.

Just as Imbolc marked a mid-point in the astronomic calendar, in the Christian practice, Candlemas signified a movement away from the wonder and joy of Christmas and Epiphany and a movement closer to the sobriety of Lent and thus to the shadow of the cross. The changing seasons and longer days encouraged spring cleaning and the preparation of the ground for sowing and in the church Candlemass signified a movement away from festivity and feasting towards self-reflection and fasting.

Today’s gospel clearly depicts the tensions of being caught between celebration and solemnity, joy and apprehension, between Christmas and Good Friday. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple, Simeon’s gratitude and relief was matched by Anna’s exuberance and excitement as they both responded in their own ways to the encounter with their long-awaited Saviour. The joy of the meeting was tempered by Simeon’s warning and sense of foreboding as he says to Mary: “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.”

Simeon might have identified Jesus as the one who was promised as “light to the gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel” but at the same time he cautioned that God’s promised salvation is not without cost.

Light, you see, is a mixed blessing. Light is threatening and benign, welcome and unwelcome. Light lifts the burden of darkness and enables us to see clearly. It allows us to walk without stumbling, but it has the potential to expose the dark corners and secret places of our lives – the cobwebs and dust that have built up over a long winter of neglect, the self-deception and arrogance that have been allowed to hide in the shadows, the inner thoughts that we would prefer to keep to ourselves.

When Simeon announced that Jesus was “the light to the Gentiles” he was fully aware that not everyone would welcome his presence among them. There would be many who would prefer to remain in the shadows rather than have their shallowness exposed and their self-deception revealed. He predicted that they would resent, resist and even oppose Jesus whose very presence would show them up for the charlatans that they were. The light of Jesus’ goodness and love would be greeted with delight by those who, like Simeon have looked forward to a time when God’s presence will be more fully known and who would feel the warmth and glow of that presence in Jesus. That same love and goodness, would serve to reveal the complacency, self-satisfaction and blindness of those who thought that neither the world nor themselves needed changing and who experienced the light as a scorching flame and a glaring beam that must be extinguished so that their lives could remain the same and their falsehoods unchallenged.

For those who recognise that the world lies in darkness, light is a welcome relief, but that same light is perceived dangerous and threatening by those who recognise that the light will shake and shatter their place in the world.

Today, as we celebrate Candlemas and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, we stand as it were with our feet in both worlds – between Jesus’ birth and the cross, between joy and sorrow, between the darkness and the light. As we follow the church calendar from Epiphany to Lent, we have time to consider whether we will allow our darkness to be exposed to the light or whether, content with the way things are and unwilling to accept that different could be better, we will turn our backs on the promise of change and renewal and consign ourselves to the shadows.

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