Lights to the world


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Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. As is so often the custom these days, we kept at in church on the nearest Sunday, two days early. As always, we finished the mass with a candlelit procession to the hymn Ye who own the faith of Jesus, finishing at the font which is at the main entrance of the church. We then have a short ceremony to end with, reminding us that Jesus, the Light for the world, calls us to go out into our world to show his light to others. Here is what I said:

Luke 2.22-40

If any day in the year could be said to have an identity crisis it must surely be February 2nd. I erroneously went and told the children at our school on Wednesday that it had three different titles. The curate I live with, when I was telling her about this afterwards, reminded me of two I’d missed out. Five different titles for one day! I’d be amazed if anyone could tell me all five!

The children were able to tell me one of them straight away! Yes – February 2nd is, of course, Groundhog Day! The belief, originating from central Europe and now widely celebrated in North America, is that the groundhog emerges from his burrow where he has been hibernating and pokes his head out to see what the weather is like. If it’s sunny and he can see his shadow he goes back to sleep because winter is coming back. If it’s windy and wet or snowy then winter is coming to an end, so he emerges because spring is round the corner. It’s the same tradition that is celebrated in the old English rhyme which also gives us the second of the five titles:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas Day be wind and rain,
Winter has gone and will not come again.

Though I much prefer this poem about the groundhog which I shared with our school children:

Groundhog in your hole so deep
Lift your head and take a peep
If your shadow makes you leap
Curl back up and go to sleep

Today we celebrate Candlemas – but it’s no good checking today’s weather against the rhyme.  Strictly speaking, today isn’t Candlemas at all as it’s not the 2nd yet, but we now keep the feast on the closest Sunday. You will have to wait until Tuesday to see what the weather is like and find out whether – if the old rhyme is right – winter is over or not.

So what is Candelmas? Jews at the time of Jesus, like most cultures, had their own particular laws and customs surrounding child-birth. In the time of Jesus and the Jewish Law with its rules on what was clean and unclean, it was thought that a mother needed cleansing after the birth of a child. If the child was a boy he was circumcised on the eighth day and then the woman was ceremonially unclean for another 33 days.  If the child was a girl she was unclean for 66 days.  Then, to complete this time of purification she offered a sacrifice for her purification – on the 40th day following the birth of a boy, which is why Mary and Joseph went to the Temple.

In fact, the feast of the Presentation of Jesus – that’s title number three – counting Christmas Day as day one, is kept 40 days after Christmas as it has been since the 4th century. For in the Christian Church this event in the life of the Holy Family was first celebrated regularly from about 350 AD in Jerusalem. Though, in the early days of keeping the feast it was on February 14th as the nativity was originally kept on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. The feast then became more widely celebrated from 542 AD when the emperor Justinian ordered its observance at Constantinople,  the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, as a thanksgiving for the end of a plague.

Its observance spread throughout the Eastern Church where it is called hyperpante or “The Meeting” – title number four –  referring to the meeting between Jesus and Simeon. Simeon, the personification of Ancient Israel and the Old Covenant and Jesus, the baby in his arms, the personification of the New Israel, the New Covenant. This is the point at which Ancient Israel welcomes its Messiah and then gives its Messiah to the world to be a light for all peoples.

The feast later spread to the West, but as a feast of Mary rather than of Jesus – hence its title of the Purification of the Virgin Mary in the Prayer Book which gives us title number five for the 2nd February. Now it’s almost always known liturgically as the Presentation of Jesus. But most people still know it as Candlemas. And that name comes from the ancient custom of processing with candles on the day, symbolising the entry of Christ into the Temple, and celebrating Christ as the Light of the World.

Luke tells us how a during the visit of the Holy Family to the Temple a just and devout man called Simeon took the child in his arms. They had different ideas about safeguarding then! No-one today would allow a strange man toi come and take their child from them! Simeon then blessed Jesus and said, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

The celebration of this feast serves to remind us that at the centre of our faith is an historical event, an event which took place in a particular location and can be given a date. Christianity is based on a particular man, in a particular place and at a particular time. And everything that the Church does must be based on this specific event – God becoming a human being in the person of Jesus. It is because in a definite time in history, God “visited and redeemed his people” in the person of Jesus Christ, that as Christians we accept the teaching of Christ given through the Scriptures and through his Church.

And this meeting between Simeon and Jesus in the Temple is a pivotal moment in the story of our redemption – for this is the moment at which the Jewish Messiah is proclaimed to be a Light – not for the Jewish people, but for all people.

God is the Lord of history who works providentially in all events and among all people. And nowhere in the Church’s celebration of Christmas do we see this more clearly than in this feast which marks the end of the Christmas season, as Simeon proclaims Jesus to be a light for all people. God has sent his Son to bring light where there was darkness.

The tradition of processing with candles on this day is a very old one. According to an anonymous Franciscan friar, writing in a book called Meditations on the Life of Christ in the third century, it’s because when Mary received the child back from Simeon and Anna she, Joseph, and Anne her mother, walked around the altar in the Temple in a procession singing prophetic verses. That, I suspect, is probably not true, but who knows. At any rate, processing with candles has been a central part of this feast right from early days.

Before the days of electric light, when candlelight was all important, all the candles to be used in worship for the next year would be blessed. And it’s the tradition that, like Easter, you take your candle from the procession home with you to bring you good luck during the coming year. You’re supposed to keep it lit all the way home. Best of luck with that! But do take it home and burn it there, thinking of Jesus the light bringing light into your home – don’t attempt to give it back to the sidesmen on the way out!

Sophronius, bishop of Jerusalem in the early 7th century, in a sermon preached on this feast day, emphasised this theme of light.

This is the mystery we celebrate today, that the Light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadow; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who were sitting in darkness. This is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to show both that the light has shone upon us and to signify the glory that is yet to come to us through him.
Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he has prepared for all the nations.

May the Light of Christ always shine upon us and through us into our world.