Sunday, January 31, 2021

'The Lord whom you seek shall suddenly come to his temple' - Candlemas

Last year in our reflection for Palm Sunday I shared the story of Egeria, a Spanish nun and educated woman of private means who joined a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 383 A.D. It is from her diary - Itinerarium Egeriae - that we know many things about the Jerusalem Church of the time, and in particular how it celebrated Holy Week and other liturgical festivals.


Egeria based herself in Jerusalem, and travelled around the Holy Land for about three years. Writing of Candlemass (then observed on 14th February, 40 days from Epiphany - 6th January - rather than 40 days from 25th December), and apparently before the ceremony of candles had become part of the feast, Egeria says:

‘On that day, there is a procession into the Anastasis [i.e. the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre], and all assemble there for the liturgy; everything is performed in the prescribed manner with the greatest solemnity, just as on Easter Sunday. All the priests give sermons, and the bishop, too; all preach on the Gospel text describing how on the fortieth day Joseph and Mary took the Lord to the Temple, and how Simeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, and what words they spoke on seeing the Lord, and of the offerings which his parents brought. After all these ceremonies, the Eucharist is then celebrated, and the dismissal given.’ 

We know for certain that by the middle of the 400’s the festival was being observed with lighted candles, the custom from which the name ‘Candlemas’ evolved. We also know that in 542 it was transferred to 2nd February so as to be 40 days from the Nativity of the Lord, 25th December (even though Armenian Orthodox and a few others stayed with the old date).


If we fast-forward to Anglo-Saxon times in England, we see that by then Candlemass had become one of the pivotal celebrations of the year, in the same category as Easter, Whitsunday and All Saints’ Day. The joy of blessing and carrying lit candles in procession, celebrating Christ, ‘a light to enlighten the nations’ is reflected in this passage from Ælfric (c. 955– c.1010), Abbot of Eynsham:

‘Be it known also to everyone that it is appointed in the custom of the church that on this day we should carry our lights to church, and let them be blessed there: and that we should go afterwards with that light among the houses of God, and sing the hymn which is appointed for that. Though some people cannot sing, they can nevertheless bear the light in their hands; for on this day was the true Light, Christ, borne to the temple, who redeemed us from darkness and will bring us to that eternal light, who lives and rules for ever without end.’

In medieval England Candlemass developed further into a festival shared between village, church and home. In fact, nowhere was the Feast celebrated with more gusto and devotion. After the coldest part of winter the light and warmth of candles lifted the spirits of parishioners, and spoke to them of Jesus the light of the world. 

At Candlemas people brought to their parish church, for blessing, all the candles they would use at home throughout the coming year, together with those carried in the procession, and the year’s supply of candles for use in the church. 

The people took their own blessed candles home. They would light them and place them in windows during storms, as they prayed to be kept safe from danger. They would also light and hold them as they stood around the bed of a loved one who was dying, especially while the last Sacraments were being administered. 

Powerful indeed were the links between the mid-winter celebration of the village, the liturgy of the parish church, and the spiritual life of the family.


In his study of English church life in the later middle ages Middle Ages and the Reformation, ‘The Stripping of the Altars’ (pp. 15-16), Eamon Duffy describes colourful Candlemas processions organized by lay guilds and devotional fraternities, involving the entire Christian community in mid-winter honouring the Light of the World. Duffy’s point is that processing around the village church with lighted candles, singing Psalm 47 and the Nunc Dimittis, all the faithful would participate in and incarnate

‘the Christmas paradoxes of the strength of the eternal God displayed in the fragility of the new-born child, of the appearance of the divine light in the darkness of human sin, of renewal and rebirth in the dead time of the year, and of the new life of Heaven manifested to Simeon’s, and the world’s, old age ... The imaginative power of all this for the laity is readily understood, for the texts of the ceremony are eloquent evocations of the universal symbolism of light, life, and renewal, themes which were carefully expounded in Candlemas sermons.’ 

(It is a sad fact that at the ‘Reformation’, candles for Candlemas, ashes for Ash Wednesday, and palms for Palm Sunday were abolished by law, to be eventually restored to the Church of England along with other ‘sacramentals’ only as a result of the Catholic Revival in the 19th century.)


Forty days after the birth of Jesus, today’s Mass is often regarded as rounding off the Christmas/ Epiphany cycle of the Church’s year. I notice that here in England more people are rediscovering Candlemas, even many who have drifted from the church’s life. Especially this year with all of its gloom, it is not uncommon to find people who have kept their Christmas decorations going until now.


In Australia, in the parish where I learned the Faith in my teens, and then later in my own parishes, at the start of Mass we had the blessing of candles, (including the boxes of candles to be used in the church over the next twelve months) and the procession. 

Later, when everyone had received Holy Communion, we would again experience the connection between Christmas, Candlemas, Calvary (‘the three C’s’ as we taught the children!) and Jesus the Light of the world, by singing slowly and quietly to him in the Blessed Sacrament on the Altar, 

       ‘O come, all ye faithful . . . 

        O come, let us adore him, 

  Christ the Lord.’ 

All that’s as it should be, because while the readings and prayers for Candlemas take us back to the birth of Jesus, they also beckon us forward to his suffering and death. 

This morning at Mass - as with so many areas of our life during this pandemic - the traditional Candlemas ceremonies had to be pruned back to avoid multi-handling of objects (i.e. candles!), but in our own way we acknowledged the meaning of the feast, by blessing candles and then blessing the people with those candles.  


For Jew and Gentile alike: 

The Gospel reading (Luke 2:22-39) tells of Mary and Joseph going to the temple with the baby Jesus, for their ritual purification ‘according to the Law,’ and for Jesus to be 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 (gentile) nations and to be the glory of his people Israel’. 

One of the themes in S. Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus came not just to fulfil God’s promises to Israel (although he certainly does that!). He came also to draw in the ‘outsiders’, and there are a lot of them in S. Luke’s Gospel. Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis proclaims this loudly and clearly. Jesus came to give his light to Jew and Gentile alike. 

Another elderly person, Anna, a prophetess, who had worshipped, prayed and fasted every day of her long widowhood in expectation of the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’, saw Jesus and began to tell the crowds in the hustle and bustle of the temple about him.

Today’s first reading from the prophet Malachi (quoted also in the Entrance Antiphon) contains the words: 

‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.’ (Malachi 3:1)

The Church has always seen Mary and Joseph presenting the Lord in the temple, and the encounter with Simeon and Anna, as fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy.

A real encounter 

Eastern Orthodox Christians call today’s feast ‘Hypapante’ (which means ‘the meeting’ or ‘the encounter’), seeing in the juxtaposition of the Child and the old man, the encounter of the fading age of the Old Covenant and that of the New, the era of Jesus and his Church. It is also a meeting of the themes of birth, sacrifice and death, as well as light and darkness.  

The shadow of the Cross cast over Mary 

So, it should not surprise us that in the midst of this joyful festival to hear old Simeon’s enigmatic remark to Our Lady - ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul, too’ -, reminding us of her participation in the suffering of Jesus for our redemption. This was not just as Mary stood at the foot of the cross. It was there in different ways throughout her life, especially as she experienced her ‘alone-ness’ from Jesus as he goes about ‘his Father’s business’. With this word about the sword piercing her soul on account of her Son, Candlemas truly does become a day that looks back to Christmas and forward to Calvary.


The only Lamb that really matters 

This is further echoed in a detail of the story in which there is more than a little irony. According to the Law of Moses, the poor, if they couldn’t afford a lamb to offer in sacrifice and thanksgiving, could bring a pair of turtle doves or even pigeons. We are told in the Gospel reading quite explicitly that Mary and Joseph brought ‘turtle doves or pigeons’. We know, however, that they did actually bring a Lamb - 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 their light and warmth pointing to Jesus, the light of the world.

Normally at Candlemas each of us is given a candle 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. Although today we were not literally given candles, let us nonetheless resolve to live and walk in the light of Christ, and to help others experience that same wonderful light in their lives.


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