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Candlemas – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Luke 2:22-40

Today is Candlemas and it is a feast I am very fond of. But then, I really like candles. I remember as a young child, we lived in the country, and we were always having power-cuts. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed carrying a candle, and then, tucked up in bed cosy, looking around a once familiar bedroom, now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.

Later, as I came to faith, looking at a candle helped me to pray: the flickering flame spoke of the light of Christ, of warmth and comfort and the mystery of God.

The candles we carry today celebrate the event that took place 40 days after Christmas when Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the required ceremonies of the Jewish Law. He had already been circumcised on the 8 th day and received his name. But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy – in other words, as belonging to the Lord – and his parents had, as it were, to buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary. He was the presented to the Lord.

At the same time his mother Mary had to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings – two turtledoves or two pigeons.

It must have been a moving moment. The Temple was a huge building, with great courtyards always packed with people. Imagine Mary making her way through the noise and bustle of the crowds, holding her precious child close to her, with Joseph by her side.

But as they went into the Temple building itself, something quite extraordinary happened. There was a very old and holy man called Simeon, who spent his days praying to God in the Temple . During his prayers, God had spoken to him, and said that before he died, he would actually see the Messiah, the one for whom the whole Jewish nation had been waiting and praying.

What an amazing scene it must have been: crowds of people, but among the crowds, old Simeon, looking with tired eyes, suddenly sees Him: he sees the child Jesus, and he knows . What joy he must have felt – the long awaited moment of encounter with his Lord. He comes up to Mary, and takes Jesus in his arms and blesses God, and speaks those wonderful words, which we sang during the candlelight procession. “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised: For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see. A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel .”

Yet, with prophetic insight, Simeon sees more than this. Jesus is the light of the world and will usher in the new covenant, but at a great and terrible price: it will be sealed in his blood at Calvary . Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined to be a sign which men reject, and you, too, shall be pierced to the heart.”

This Feast of Candlemas is like a great bitter-sweet hinge, looking back and forward. It looks back to the forty days of light and rejoicing which we have celebrated during Christmas and Epiphany, and it brings that period to a close. But it also looks forward, and anticipates the forty days of Lent and the events of Christ’s passion and death.

The candle which speaks of light and warmth and comfort is also a flame, burning, searing, purifying and judging.

If you are like me, you will know in your own lives something of both these sides of Candlemas: the light, the joy, the comfort of knowing and loving him who is the light of the world – but also the struggle of obeying him who urges us to take up our cross and follow him.

One of the things I find most difficult as a Christian is that we can’t see very far ahead. Walking by faith is a bit like walking around the house at night with just a candle. At first it’s quite fun – but it soon gets frustrating. The candle only lights up a small area around it – just enough to go forward – but most of the room is still in darkness. And that’s really what my experience of God is. My faith is real, as bright, as burning as ever, sometimes, as a candle: and yet it doesn’t give me all the answers. . . why certain people have to suffer: why disaster happens: why good people get a terrible deal – so much is still in shadows.

Some Christians do talk as if they’ve got all the answers – but to me that just doesn’t ring true. I think we can say to someone who asks “Why has this terrible thing happened to me?” I don’t know: I don’t understand why . . . But I do have faith: I try to walk by the light God has given me – and I do trust him, even if I can’t see everything yet.

And so making choices/decisions is hard. When I left my country to come to the monastery in the United States , I was barraged with questions – most of which I couldn’t answer! How long will you stay? Why go to America ? What about your family – your furniture, your books/CDs. . . I don’t know. All I really knew is that, as far as I could see – and that wasn’t very far, this is what God wanted me to do on the next stage of my journey.

I wonder where you are on your own personal journey of faith? The Feast of Candlemas, when we both look back to Christmas and forward to the Passion and Cross is a good time for each of us to take stock. To look back on our lives and see where we have been. . . our life so far: the steps we have taken, the choices we have made. And then to look forward in hope and in trust. To listen to the voice of God calling us onward. We probably won’t be able to see very far ahead, but I think God likes it that way, so that we take these important steps in life in faith and trust. It can be frightening to step out and put your hand in the hand of God: sometimes we shrink back because we can’t see the whole way ahead – but that is to refuse life.

Maybe each of us, when we get home, can light a candle, and pray with it. Watch the flickering flame spreading the light of Christ, the warmth and comfort of God. But also of the flame which burns and purifies and judges – the light of truth.

Above all, remember that candles are there to light the way. Ask God to give you the courage and faith to risk taking that step, and following him on to the way that leads to life. These words written by Cardinal Newman have always been helpful to me:

“Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark, and I am far from home, lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet: I do not ask to see the distant scene: one step enough for me.”

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8 Comments

  1. Charles Morgan on October 9, 2013 at 21:54

    The timing of this is extraordinary. I am preparing to make my first retreat later this month. What a powerful metaphor and the hymn quoted is one of my favorites. The reason is clearer to me now

  2. Ladypamela on October 9, 2013 at 15:37

    Our Father is always faithful. I called to Him in my distress for an answer- and today there it is, and I smile and continue on this journey. Thank you for being a vessel of honor. ladypamela

  3. Janice Schuyler on October 9, 2013 at 09:02

    Geoffrey’s reflection led me into my own, another sign that he is a good preacher and writer. Years ago I read The Road Less Traveled. Peck writes of the shadow, not necessary our evil side, but our undeveloped side. He encouraged us to do this. When we see impatience, arrogance, thoughtlessness in someone, to say to ourselves, “That’s in me too.” It made me more accepting of others. Then I started saying “That’s in me too,” when I saw kindness, gentleness, etc. in someone else. This helped me move from some darkness about myself to a fuller understanding of myself and my connection with all people.

  4. George Wiley on October 9, 2013 at 07:49

    “Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom, lead Thou me on….”

  5. DLa Rue on June 23, 2013 at 12:39

    Sometimes it’s the inward journey, sometimes the outward, sometimes both.

    Just figured out a neat little trick my psyche’s been playing on me (called “repress success” or “Talent-Burying 101”)–old game in a new form.

    I need to journey towards the ability to give up whatever safety that approach seems to promise and replace habits formed in its counterfeit cover with better ones that allow for camping out in the open more often.

    The promising sound of birds at the dawn is one encouragement, as Farjeon’s hymn suggests.

  6. Polly Chatfield on June 20, 2013 at 09:58

    Thank you, Geoffrey, for that beautiful way of seeing candle-light – as an image of the extent of what God grants us to see. We try to penetrate, or stave off, the darkness with great beams or masses of electric light; but these offer no metaphor for the way God guides us, a little at a time, so that we are shielded from knowing more than we can bear.

  7. Barry Grecu on September 13, 2012 at 08:55

    Thank you for such an encouraging word! My wife and I are preparing for a move overseas from the USA to Scotland. Letting go and embracing a future that requires we take one small step at a time is overwhelming at times to say the least. And yet, your Candlemas message has reminded us both that we can’t see the future completely but choose to continue to walk in faith that this is our next step on the journey. Lead kindly light…

  8. Jean Ann on September 10, 2012 at 06:03

    Such a timely post as I prepare for a retreat later this month! I am doing some profound soul searching, not sure where it will lead. Trying to be brave and lean on angels and be led by Jesus. Tough going. Thank you for this encouragement.

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