Thursday, February 2, 2017

Candlemass - a kaleidoscope of symbols

The beautiful chapel of the Presentation of the Lord 
at our Lady's Shrine in Lourdes, France.

Forty days after the birth of Jesus, today's Mass is often regarded as rounding off the Christmas/ Epiphany season. The readings and prayers take us back to the birth of the Lord, and they beckon us forward to his suffering and death. 

The Gospel reading (Luke 2:22-39) tells of Mary and Joseph going to the temple with the baby Jesus, that they might be purified “according to the Law,” and Jesus consecrated to the Lord. The old man Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit, discerns Jesus to be God’s Messiah, “the light to enlighten the nations”. It is for this reason that the blessing and lighting of candles has long been associated with this day. Anna, the old prophetess, who had prayed and fasted every day in expectation of the "redemption of Jerusalem", saw Jesus and began to tell everyone about him.

In Anglo-Saxon times it was “. . . appointed in the ecclesiastical observances that we on this day bear our lights to church and let them be there blessed; and that we should go afterward with the light among Godʼs houses and sing the hymn that is thereto appointed. Though some men cannot sing they can, nevertheless, bear the light in their hands; for on this day was Christ, the true light, borne to the temple, Who redeemed us from darkness and bringeth us to the eternal light.” - The Ritual Reason Why, by C. Walker (1886) page 197.

In the midst of today’s joyful festival, we hear old Simeon’s enigmatic remark to our Lady - “a sword shall pierce your own soul, too” -, reminding us of her participation in all that Jesus suffered for our redemption.

Greek Orthodox Christians call today’s feast “Hypapante” (the encounter), seeing in the juxtaposition of the Child and the old man the encounter of the fading age of the Old Covenant and the new era of Jesus and his Church. 

There is more than a touch of irony in the fact that the poor, if they couldn’t afford a lamb to offer in sacrifice and thanksgiving, could bring turtle doves or even pigeons. Mary and Joseph were poor, and although - according to today’s Gospel reading - they brought turtle doves or pigeons, we know that they actually brought the only Lamb that has ever really mattered: Jesus, Mary’s little Lamb, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. 

Today is our feast of candles, with the warmth of their light pointing to Jesus, the light of the world.

Each of us is given a candle today as a reminder that having received the light of Jesus, which at the very beginning of creation pierced the darkness and which no darkness can overpower, we are to shine in the darkness of our own time that others may find him and be set free to walk in his light.

* * * * * * * * * *
May we have leave to ask, illustrious Mother,
Why thou dost turtles bring
For thy Son’s offering,
And rather giv’st not one lamb for another? 
It seems that golden shower which th’other day
The forward faithful East
Poured at thy feet, made haste
Through some devout expence to find its way. 
O precious poverty, which canst appear
Richer to holy eyes
Than any golden prize,
And sweeter art than frankincense and myrrh! 
Come then, that silver, which thy turtles wear
Upon their wings, shall make
Precious thy gift, and speak
That Son of thine, like them, all pure and fair. 
But know that heaven will not be long in debt;
No, the Eternal Dove
Down from his nest above
Shall come, and on thy son’s dear head shall sit.
Heaven will not have Him ransomed, heaven’s law
Makes no exception
For lambs, and such a one
Is He: a fairer Lamb heaven never saw. 
He must be offered, or the world is lost:
The whole world’s ransom lies
In this great sacrifice;
And He will pay its debt, whate’er it cost. 
Nor shall these turtles unrepayed be,
These turtles which today
Thy love for Him did pay:
Thou ransom’dst Him, and He will ransom thee. 
A dear and full redemption will He give
Thee and the world: this Son,
And none but this alone
By His own death can make His Mother live.

– Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699)
Thérèse, M. I Sing of a Maiden: The Mary Book of Verse. 
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947.


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