Today is Candlemas, and it’s a feast I’m very fond of. But then, I like candles! I remember as a young child, we lived in the country, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed carrying a candle, and then, tucked up in bed, nice and cozy, 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 light spoke of the light of Christ, of warmth and comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles in today’s procession, and on the altar, celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas when Jesus, the Light of the World, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the required ceremonies of the Law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name. But because he was the first born, he was regarded as “holy” – in other words, belonging to the Lord – and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary. He was then “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 very moving experience for them. 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 promised that before he died he would actually see the long awaited Messiah, the Light of the World, the one whom the whole Jewish nation had long awaited.
That day Simeon was there as always, keeping vigil, waiting patiently, looking at the crowds, with tired eyes – when suddenly, he sees him: he sees the child in Mary’s arms, and he knows. What joy he must have felt. The long awaited moment had arrived. He comes to Mary, takes Jesus in his arms and speaks these wonderful words, which we sing every night at Compline – “Lord, now let your servant depart 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 cost. It will be sealed in his blood at Calvary. Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined to be a sign which men will reject, and you, too, shall be pierced to the heart.”
This Feast of Candlemas, which we celebrate today, 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 season to a close. But it also looks forward now, and anticipates the forty days of Lent, and the events of Christ’s passion and crucifixion. The candle which speaks of light and warmth and comfort is also a searing flame, burning, purifying and judging.
If you are like me, you will know in your life something of both these sides of candles – the joy and wonder of coming to faith, of knowing and loving him who is the Light of the World – but also the struggle of saying yes to him who so often challenges 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. Following Jesus, 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 take the next step forward – but most of the room is still in darkness.
And I think that is really what my experience of God is like. My faith is real, as bright, as burning even, sometimes, as a candle. And yet it doesn’t give me all the answers…why certain people have to suffer: why disasters happen: why good people often get a terrible deal. So much is still in darkness. Some Christians do talk as if they’ve got all the answers – but to me that just doesn’t ring true. When someone asks, “Why has this terrible thing happened to me?” I think we can say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand why. But I do have faith: I do try to walk by the Light God has given me – and I do trust him, even if I can’t see everything yet.”
It’s hard to make choices and decisions. I remember when I left my country to come to the United States. I was barraged with questions, most of which I couldn’t answer. Why are you going to a monastery in America? How long will you stay? What about your family – your furniture? Can I have your CDs?
I couldn’t answer most of them. All I knew was as far as I could see, and that wasn’t very far. What I saw was that God wanted me to take this step. And I discovered that great mystery – that when we take that step, then and only then, will God show us the next step on the journey.
I think the candle we received at our baptism is the abiding sign for us of what our life of faith is meant to be like. Sometimes it burns more brightly than at others, but we never see very far ahead. But I think God wants it to be like that, so that we take those important steps in life in faith and trust. It can be frightening to step out and put your hand in the hand of God. Maybe you are facing such a challenge right now.
Sometimes we shrink back because we can’t see the whole way ahead – but that is to refuse life. Perhaps today, on this holy day – this day of Candlemas, reflect on the candles in your life which are there to light the way. Ask God to give you the courage and faith to risk taking that step, and following him on the way that leads to life. Perhaps your prayer could be these beautiful words of John Henry Newman:
“Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom, lead 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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