Today we celebrate the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, or Candlemas. It has a particular resonance for me, because Candlemas was the last Sunday that I spent in my parish in England before coming to the United States. I remember the very mixed feelings I had during that final service. On the one hand looking back with thanksgiving and celebration, but on the other, looking forward with a certain degree of trepidation.
And I think the feast of Candlemas has a similar liturgical function in the Christian year. On the one hand, we look back on this day, to the forty days of light and rejoicing which we have been celebrating during Christmas and Epiphany. But on the other hand, we are forced to look forward with some trepidation, to anticipate the events of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, his passion and his death.
This bitter-sweet character is articulated by Simeon, on the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the Temple to be presented to the Lord. As he takes the child into his arms, he utters that great peon of praise, ‘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.’ But then, with prophetic insight, he looks forward to what is yet to come, and says to Mary, ‘This child is destined to be a sign which many will reject, and you too shall be pierced to the heart.’
This hinge-like quality of this feast of Candlemas, looking back to Christmas, and forward to the Passion, is well symbolized by the candle. A candle speaks of light and warmth and comfort – but it is also a flame, burning, searing, purifying, and judging. The very life of faith it seems to me, is like walking by candlelight; and that is what makes it so daunting. Because the candle only lets you see the next step ahead, and not much further. It requires faith and trust. It requires putting our hand in the hand of God and then stepping forward. That can be frightening, because we can’t see very far ahead. We sometimes shrink back; but that is to refuse life.
At the beginning of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Evangelist points the pilgrim to the gate which leads to life. ‘Do you see yonder wicket gate?’, he asks. And pilgrim replies, ‘No.’ So Evangelist says: ‘Well, do you see yon shining light?’ ‘I think so,’ he answers. And Evangelist says, ‘Well, keep that light in your eye and go up directly thereto, so shalt thou see the gate.’
On this Candlemas we recommit ourselves to the life of faith; to utter with Newman those words, “Lead kindly light…’ to step forward in faith and trust, to follow the Light, to take the risk of following him who first called us to the Way, to the way which leads to life.
‘For it is in his light that we shall see light.’
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