Candlemas

Sunday 12 February

The Reverend Canon Peter Moger

Today is the Feast of Candlemas – an important turning point in the Christian Year – the point at which we stop looking back to Christmas and begin to look forward to Lent, and to the temptation, passion and death of Jesus. But what is Candlemas about? Is it just a festival with a nice name – a chance for us to process with lots of candles? No, of course not. Like all festivals, it provides a focussed opportunity for us to encounter God – as a Christian community, and as individuals – and to reflect upon some of the most profound aspects of our faith.

1. Christ the Light of the World

The most obvious theme Candlemas points us towards is that of Christ the Light of the world. The trouble is that we can have a rather cosy view of the light of Christ. We like to have nice services with lots of candles, and it’s very dramatic and moving when a wonderful building like this is plunged into darkness, only to be lit by one candle after another. We warm to the idea of Christ – the Word of God – as a light for our path (as the psalmist says). But the light of which St John writes in the fourth gospel is more like that of the searchlight, or the sort of light a doctor uses when we have a sore throat. It’s the beam that brings to light what is hidden – that shows up the throat infection for what it is. St Paul wrote that ‘when the Lord comes he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness, and will disclose the purposes of the heart’. The light of Christ is far from cosy. It should make us squirm as in it, we see ourselves for what we really are – people who often prefer their own way to God’s.

So Candlemas offers us a chance to open up the dark areas of our lives (and which of us doesn’t have them) – to the light of Christ. To see them for what they are, and to ask God’s help to put right what is wrong.

2. The Purification of Mary

In the Book of Common Prayer, though, this festival is called, not Candlemas, but the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Under Jewish law, a mother had to offer sacrifice in the Temple after the birth of a child, in order to be counted clean. The book Leviticus (12.6-8) records that a woman should take a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove to the priest, who will make atonement for her. And this is precisely what Mary would have done when visiting the Temple shortly after the birth of Jesus.

I’ve already said at Candlemas, we start to look forward to the path that led Jesus to his death. His death, as we are remindedl in this Eucharist, was a sacrifice for the sin of the world. No longer a system of Temple sacrifices to deal with human sin. But, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it:

‘[Jesus] abolishes the first order to establish the second.
And … we have been sanctified through the offering
of his body once for all’ [Heb 12.10]

Through the death of Jesus, we are purified – our sin is forgiven – and the slate is wiped clean. And so, in reflecting on the purification of Mary, we are led to examine ourselves before God and to seek our purification – a purification rooted in the saving act of Jesus’ death on the cross.

This then leads us to ask whether we know ourselves forgiven - or whether we hold on to a notion that some things are beyond God’s forgiveness? The effect of letting God’s searchlight shine inside us is that we can discover things which we’ve never allowed God to deal with. A burden of guilt, perhaps – something we feel we can never forgive ourselves. Candlemas points us to the truth that God can and does forgive – the promise of purification.

3. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

But while the Prayer Book speaks of Candlemas largely as a festival of the Virgin Mary, the modern emphasis has been on the Gospel account of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  

For today’s Gospel, we have St Luke’s immensely moving account of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, and his recognition by Simeon and Anna. The story is well known and grows out of the requirement under the Jewish Law for every first-born male child to be recognised as ‘holy to the Lord’ and presented in the Temple.

We’ve already seen that at Candlemas we start to look forward. In the context of the Christian Year, this means looking forward to Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. But in the broader context of human life as a whole, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple prompts us to look forward to that point at the very end, when we shall all come to stand before God. The point at which (in St Paul’s words), we shall see no longer ‘in a mirror dimly, but… face to face’.

The thought of encountering God at such close quarters is quite terrifying. Yet we won’t do it alone. The Collect for Candlemas puts it rather well. In it, we pray that we may be presented to God ‘in Jesus Christ’. At the final reckoning, it isn’t the fallen human being who makes a mess of everything who stands before God’s throne, but the one who has encountered the light of Christ, who is purified by the blood of Christ, and who has been made a new creation ‘in Christ’.

Lord Jesus Christ,
light of the nations and glory of Israel:
make your home among us,
and present us pure and holy
to your heavenly Father,
your God and our God.