If Candlemas Day be fair and bright …

Luke 2.22-40

Many of us love a good quiz. So I’m starting this morning with  a quiz question for you. This Tuesday is February 2nd. It’s a special day, and it has five different titles – how many can you name?

Well, while you try and think of all the different titles for February 2nd, and I’ll be amazed if anyone can get all five, I’ll start to work my way through them. Tick them off as we go through the sermon.

Let me give you a clue to the first two titles. It’s a day when we think about the weather. Yes – February 2nd is, of course, Groundhog Day! That’s title number one. 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: 

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, in the Church, 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 are now allowed to 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 rhymes are right – winter is over or not.

So, what is Candlemas? 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 was required to offer 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. And their firstborn Son was presented in the Temple to God.

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.

It 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” – that’s title number four. 

It refers to the meeting between Jesus and Simeon. Simeon, who is the personification of Ancient Israel and the Old Covenant and Jesus, the baby in his arms, who is 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 Western church, but as a feast of Mary rather than of Jesus, because Mary needed to go to the Temple to be purified. Hence its title in the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Purification of Mary the Blessed Virgin. And that gives us title number five for the 2nd February. 

How many did you get? Here they are again:

  • Groundhog Day
  • Candlemas
  • The Presentation of Jesus
  • The Meeting
  • The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Well, now February 2nd is known liturgically as the Presentation of Jesus. But most people in the Church 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. 

So, to our gospel reading. Luke tells us how a during the visit of the Holy Family to the Temple a just and devout man called Simeon takes the child in his arms blessed him and says,

“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.”

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus – the Word made flesh. We rejoice that God, in the person of Jesus, has come into our world. The Messiah that had been promised to God’s people for so long is now born as one of us. The story of our redemption unfolds. And yet Christmas is not all the story. 

For 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 long awaited Messiah is proclaimed to be a Light – not just for God’s chosen people the Jews, but for all people. Nowhere in the Church’s celebrations throughout 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 the nations.

God has sent his Son to bring light where there was darkness. A light for all people, in all ages, in all places, no matter who they are. A light for each of us, a light for every one of us. A light for me, a light for you.

Jesus – the light who shines in the darkness and who guides us on our journey in the darkness that so often seems to surround us. Jesus brings light to show us the way ahead. And his light is for all. And usually at St John’s, like many churches around the world, we mark this day with a procession around the church with candles.

And that 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 fourteenth century, it’s because when Mary received the child Jesus 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 may or may not be true – who knows? At any rate, going in procession as it was believed that Mary and Joseph had done, with lighted candles to represent Jesus the light of the world, has been a central part of this feast right from early days. And a tradition which in normal times we keep at St John’s in common with Christians around the world as we celebrate the light of Jesus in our lives.

Saint Sophronius was a bishop of Jerusalem in the early 7th century. We have some of his sermons still, and In a sermon he preached on this feast day, he emphasised this theme of light. He said:

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.

I wonder if any of my sermons will still be read 14 centuries from now? I doubt it somehow, unless Facebook is still going strong!

Well, we may not be able to join in the procession with lighted candles today, but why not on Tuesday – the day of the feast of Candlemas itself – light a candle and say a prayer as we thank God for the light that Jesus gives us. And together we can make sure that not only Candlemas Day is fair and bright, but the whole year ahead is bright, lit by the Light of Jesus.

May the Light of Christ always shine upon us, and in us, and out from us into our world.