Candlemas is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, astronomically speaking. Already you have noticed, perhaps, certain quantum leaps of light over the past few weeks. The days are a little longer and the nights a wee bit shorter. The ancient observations about the patterns of nature remain for us in our secular world in such things as Groundhog Day, (or ‘groundlemas’ as some wits say!). In the Celtic calendars, it marks one of the four ‘cross-quarter days’ of nature’s year.
Candlemas is an important turning point in the spiritual understanding. It marks the 40th day after Christ’s birth and commemorates two Jewish practises, nicely expressed in the Anglican Prayer Book’s double-barrelled title for this day (February 2): “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple commonly called The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin”. We should be glad of the simpler and more familiar name, Candlemas, a reference to the custom of blessing candles on this day! It is a feast of light in the ritual remembrance of Simeon’s words about Christ as “a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.” “A light to lighten the Gentiles” recalls the first and second servant song of Isaiah about the mission and vocation of Israel. The light and truth of God is for all people, an epiphany theme.
“How far that little candle throws his beams, so shines a good deed in a naughty world”, a wicked world, Portia says in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It is a commonplace observation but, like all clichés, quite true. As its name suggests, Candlemas is a mass of light, more than just the light of one small candle. It is a blaze of light pointing to the light, which is above every light, the metaphysical light of Christ. The light of God reveals the greater goodness of God beyond all knowing and being; light signalling goodness even in the darkness of our uncertain world.
Candlemas marks the transition from the Christmas cycle to the cycle of Lent and Easter, a kind of midpoint in the spiritual journey of our souls. It is about “looking east in winter”, to use an image by Diadochus (5th c.), and the title of a wonderful book by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury (2021). The cross-quarter days as married to certain holy days reveal an interesting conjunction of things natural and things spiritual in the crossovers between pagan and Christian themes. With Candlemas what is highlighted is the meeting of themes, a kind of coincidence of opposites. The Churches of Eastern Orthodoxy name Candlemas υπαπαντη, ‘hypapante’, which means meeting. There is the meeting of old Simeon and the infant Christ, the meeting of old Anna with the child, seeing and speaking of him to others, and the meeting of Mary and Joseph with the child in the Temple at Jerusalem, marvelling at the words of Simeon about the child. In such meetings, there is the meeting of God and Man, of male and female, of young and old, more universally considered, and, perhaps, by extension the meeting of cultures. The idea of meeting conveys the sense of what is learned together. Meeting together is about congregating, about coming together to teach and to learn.
‘The Meeting’ as found in Luke’s Gospel signals the meeting of the Old Covenant and the New, the meeting of Jew and Gentile. It is not about the triumph of one over the other but their necessary interrelation in and through which something is learned not only about God but about ourselves. At the heart of Candlemas are the words of Simeon: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against”. This anticipates Good Friday and Easter in the death and resurrection of Christ. In that proleptic sense, Candlemas enlightens us about our hearts and souls. “We shall look on him whom they [we] have pierced”, we hear on Good Friday. Here Simeon says to Mary “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also”, indicating that the purpose of this piercing enlightenment is “that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed”. Candlemas is soul-piercing and heart-enlightening for us about ourselves.
Not altogether unlike Plato’s dialogues, something is learned through our meeting together and gaining insight and understanding from one another in our interactions. Such is the life of a school. You gain more than simply knowledge about certain areas of intellectual inquiry; you also learn something about yourself and about the responsibilities which we have towards one another, ourselves, and our world. The light enlightens us about the nature of ourselves as persons regardless of particular claims to identities and categories. Such is the dignity of our humanity as found in the sacred places where God meets us. Such, too, is the primacy of the ethical in all things intellectual; light signalling goodness.
Candlemas marks the first time Jesus goes to Jerusalem. It complements the epiphany story of his being found in the Temple at the age of twelve. In both cases, the Temple is the place of meeting and of teaching and learning.
We have returned to in-class teaching. It is good to be back together again. I can only hope that it will not be long before we are back to Chapel, to that ‘temple place’ of spiritual learning here at King’s-Edgehill.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy