Today is Candlemas and it’s a feast I’m very fond of – but then I like candles! I remember when I was a young child, we lived in the South of England, deep in the Sussex countryside, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed, carrying a candle, and then tuck up in bed, nice and cozy, looking round a once familiar bedroom – now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later as I came to faith, looking at a candle, holding a candle, staring at the flickering light of the candle helped me to pray. The flickering light spoke to me of the light of Christ: of warmth, comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles that we light in this church – all over the church and on the high altar today – help us celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas, when Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents to fulfill the required ceremonies of the law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name, “Jesus.” 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, and he was then presented to the Lord. At the same time, his mother Mary had, according to the law, to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings either of turtle doves and two pigeons.
It must’ve been an incredibly moving and perhaps intimidating experience for them all. The Temple itself was a huge building with great courtyards, always packed with throngs of people. Imagine Mary making her way through the noise and the bustle of the crowds, holding her precious child close to her with Joseph by their side. But as they went into the Temple building itself, again, packed with people, 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 God had 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 when Jesus was taken into the Temple, Simeon was also there, as usual, keeping vigil, waiting patiently looking at the crowds as they streamed through the doors into the temple with probably very tired eyes. Suddenly, he sees him. He sees this tiny child in Mary’s arms and he knows. What joy he must have felt! The long awaited promised moment had arrived.
He comes up to Mary, takes Jesus in his arms and speaks those 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. He sees the one who is the Light of the world and who will usher in the new covenant, but he also sees that this will be at a great and terrible cost. It will be sealed in his blood, the blood of Jesus at Calvary. Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined to be a sign which men will reject,” and perhaps staring into her eyes, he says, “And you too shall be pierced to the heart.”
So this feast of Candlemas which we celebrate today is like a great bittersweet hinge. A bittersweet hinge looking back and looking forward. It looks back to the 40 days of light and rejoicing, which we have been celebrating during this Christmas and Epiphanytide, but it also looks forward and anticipates the 40 days of Lent and the events of Jesus’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 own life something of both these sides of Candlemass. The flame of light and warmth, but also the flame that can burn and challenge and judge. 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 cannot see very far ahead in life. Following Jesus, walking by faith is so often more like walking around the house at night when there’s a power outage holding a tiny candle. At first it’s quite fun, but it soon gets frustrating because the candle only lights up a small area around it, just enough to take the next step forward, but most of the rest of the room is still plunged in darkness.
I think that’s really what my experience of God is like. My faith is real. It is as bright, as burning even sometimes as a candle and yet my faith does not give me all the answers why certain people have to suffer, why disasters happen, why good people often get a terrible deal. So much for me, when I think about these things, is still hidden in darkness. I know some Christians do talk as if they’ve got all the answers, but to me that simply doesn’t ring true.
I think we can say to someone who asks, “Why has this terrible thing happened to me?” We can say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand why this has happened to you.” But we can also say, “But I do have faith. I do try to walk by the light, which God has given me, and I do trust God even if I can’t actually see everything yet.” I think that honesty actually goes a long way in terms of authenticity.
With only limited light, it’s hard to make choices and decisions as well. I remember when I left England to come to the United States, I remember being barraged with questions, most of which I couldn’t answer. “Why are you going to monastery in America?” “How long are you going to stay?” “What about your family?” “What about your furniture?” And, “Can I have your CDs?” That one I could answer, but most of them I couldn’t actually answer. 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 after that you’ll have to wait and see. I discovered that great mystery that when we take that step that God seems to be inviting us to take, then and only then will God show us the next step on the journey. All through my life of faith, that has proved correct, in my experience.
I think the candle that we received at our baptism is the abiding sign for us of what a life of faith is meant to be. Sometimes it burns more brightly than others, but we never see very far ahead. But I think and believe that God wants it to be like that. However frustrating it may be, God wants it to be like that so that we take these important steps in life, in faith and trust. It can be frightening to step out and put our hand in the hand of God.
Maybe you know exactly what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re facing such a challenge and a choice right now. Sometimes we shrink back because we can’t see the whole way ahead. But to shrink back is to refuse life. The life that God came to give us. So perhaps today on this holy day, this day of Candlemass, perhaps 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 the next step and following God on the way that leads to life. Perhaps your prayer could be those wonderful words of John Henry Newman, “Lead, kindly light, amidst 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.” Amen.
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