But we see, however dimly, and that is the important insight. It belongs to the awareness of the limitations of our knowing that counters human presumption and arrogance. It is good to be reminded of this in the bleak midwinter.
A winter storm with snow and wind has given place to the not altogether unusual midwinter thaw. There is an almost spring-like feel to things in the return to School after the late January break. That spring-like feel is warranted from the perspective of the turn towards spring signaled by Candelmas observed on February 2nd. It marks the transition from light to life, from Christmas to Easter in the Christian understanding.
Literally forty days after Christmas, it points us to Jerusalem, to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter, which follows immediately upon the spring equinox.
It celebrates the intersection of what will become the Old and the New Testaments. It is at once a feast of Christ and of Mary. Its proper name for Eastern Orthodox Christians is hypapante, meaning meeting: the meeting of Old and New, of young and old, of men and women, of aged Simeon and old Anna, of the child with Mary and Joseph, of prophecy and fulfillment, of suffering and revelation. There is a wonderful complexity to the images of this feast, a blaze of light in the bleak midwinter signalling life and joy.
Yet the meeting of themes all happens in the temple in Jerusalem. “The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple,” as Malachi prophesies. “They found him in the temple,” as we heard in the story of the child Christ. Here at the age of forty days is Christ’s first journey to the temple in Jerusalem and, like the childhood journey it, too, is in accord with the customs of the Law, the ritual practices of ancient Israel. These are not simply superseded but transmuted or transformed. In a way, Candlemas, like the Conversion of St. Paul, highlights the vocation of Israel in the universality of its mission. It is signaled here in Simeon’s words, quoting Isaiah, but with a startling emphasis upon the infant Christ as the embodiment of those words: “a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel,” words which become the Church’s evening canticle, the Nunc Dimittis.
Light and life. But “we see,” Paul tells us in his great hymn to love, “through a glass darkly … now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” At the School, we often read this famous passage in the lead up to Winter Carnival and the Valentine’s Day celebrations. The theme of love takes on a far deeper meaning than what belongs to the romantic and the sentimental even as it shapes and informs them. Paul is talking about the divine love which perfects our human loves. He is talking about the love which endures in the face of great difficulties. “Never that which is shall die,” a fragment from a lost play from Euripides tells us. Timothy Findley uses that in the frontispiece of his novel, The Wars, to signal the idea of enduring love in spite of the follies, absurdities, carnage and meaninglessness of war.
Paul in his classic hymn emphasizes the idea of our growing up into an understanding of God’s love as the moving principle in our lives. In a way, education is about growing up in love and maturity through learning. Part of that learning is the awareness of the limitations of our knowing. “We see [but] through a glass darkly.” We don’t presume to have all the answers. We struggle to discover the questions but always in the context of a community where we learn, above all, to care for one another.
Candlemas, too, signals that theme of care and compassion. It points us to Christ’s sacrifice, itself the emblem of deep love, the love which seeks the good of our humanity and world in spite of ourselves. Such is the role of our churches and our School Chapel as the temples, the sacred spaces, that recall us to who we are.
The temple is the place of sacrifice. “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against,” Simeon says to Mary. Sacrifice as revelation extends to our humanity through Mary in his parenthetical remark; “(yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also;) that the thoughts of many hearts shall be revealed.” For sacrifice is also revelation, a making known of the desires of our hearts, a revelation of ourselves in the light of God.
The thin watery light of January gives way to the strengthening light of February in the midpoint turn towards the Spring equinox. In every way, “we see” but “through a glass darkly.” My hope and prayer is always that students become more aware of the growing light of understanding in themselves through their studies and through their engagement with one another in the ethical life of the School. It happens in the temple, in the holy places which remind us of the themes of sacrifice and revelation. Such things are the lessons of love.
“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/ I all alone beweep my outcast state,” Shakespeare’s sonnet (# 29) begins, “… and look upon myself and curse my fate,/ wishing me like to one more rich in hope,/ featured like him, like him with friends possessed, desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, /with what I most enjoy contented least.” He captures the age old angst of the soul in distress and despair but in the third quatrain, there is the turn. “Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,/ haply I think on thee,” on love. For “never that which is shall die,” we might say with Euripides, recalling, like Shakespeare, the ever enduring power of love: “for thy sweet love remembered, such wealth brings.” The love of God is mediated through our human loves and lives.
However dimly in the midwinter’s light we see, yet we see and so may learn. And that makes all the difference such that “then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy