A Sermon Preached by Leslie Spatt
So, here we are at Candlemas. It’s a curious sort of holy day, stuck in the middle of apparently nowhere in the Church’s year, the only holy day to have three titles. I say ‘three’ titles, but most congregations will probably only be familiar with two of them; not even necessarily the same group of two. I think using a title referring to candles and masses was probably very iffy when the Book of Common Prayer was finalised in 17th century protestant-leaning Anglicanism. so those using the Book of Common Prayer will know ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ and ‘The Purification of St Mary the Virgin’. Congregations now using Common Worship will know ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’ and ‘Candlemas’. The idea that women need purification is pretty distasteful these days. Why three different names, and why do we bother with it at all?
Candlemas seems to have little prominence in much parish life, a bit of a sidelined Cinderella sort of feast; date-specific for the 2nd February and frequently omitted if it doesn’t fall on an actual Sunday – though here at St Mary’s it’s usually transferred to a Sunday if it occurs midweek, in order to get an airing. It’s almost exactly in the middle between the first day of winter and the first day of spring. And it’s also one of the most ancient celebrations of the Church, found in sermons for the day as early as 312 CE. In the western church, Christmas Day was observed as the birth of Jesus since the early 4th century and because Candlemas had to be 40 days after the birth of Jesus, it was assigned to February 2nd. It was given the new title ‘Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary’ and thus is the oldest recorded festival in honour of Mary.
There are several different focus points to this festival, all of which contribute to why it’s considered one of the main holy days of the Church: the use of light, the recognition of Jesus as the promised Messiah, the story of Jesus brought to the Temple, and the ‘Purification of Mary’, the old name, also reflected in the Gospel Reading. The last two connect us with our Jewish heritage as being duties in the Law of Moses which were required of all parents having a new child. And St Paul reminds us that Jesus was totally Jewish, ‘born of a woman, born under the Law,’ so the Law had to be obeyed.
In the Law of Moses, as we’ve heard in the Gospel this morning, every male child was required to be presented in the Temple 40 days after its birth and a sacrifice offered. Then the woman was ritually cleansed so that she could rejoin regular society. Understanding a Jewish idea of what we call original sin is the key to grappling with the purification aspect. As wonderful as a new baby is, and knowing that God emphasises child bearing where humans are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, God also wanted it to be remembered that with every birth another sinner was brought into the world, and the woman was here symbolically responsible for that. But only symbolically.
Unfortunately, the old ‘stain’ of being ritually unclean for 40 days was carried forward into Christianity, re-interpreted and firmly attached to Christian women. The Jewish concept of a symbolic unclean-ness was ignored and the woman was thought to be personally responsible for carrying on the ‘sin’ resulting from sex. The custom of ‘churching’ a woman after childbirth arose from about the fifth century in both the Eastern and Western Church. They were not allowed to receive communion before they were ‘purified’, not even to enter the church where their child was being baptised. Fortunately, this has now generally been abandoned, and thank heavens for that. Where the ceremony of ‘churching’ is still used – and you will find it in the Book of Common Prayer – it’s been changed into a ritual of thanksgiving and of blessing the young mother.
And what do candles have to do with Mary, Jesus, and the Temple? February 2nd was traditionally the day when candles were blessed for use in churches and homes. It’s also a reference to Simeon’s calling Jesus ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. If we were in normal times, we would have lit candles for part of this service and ceremonially extinguish them at the end. This day is significant as the pivot between Christmas and Easter. It brings to an end the celebration of the incarnation in Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; we now look towards the darker time of Lent, our transformation through prayer and penitence, and the suffering and death of Christ in Holy Week and Easter.
Other than some ceremonial, what could Candlemas hold for us – its meaning? Well… Candlemas might have something important to say to us about our own need for purification. Not because we have any Law which requires this, not connected to original sin however you interpret that, or the human process of childbirth; and certainly not to women being ritually or even actually ‘unclean’ as some Christians would still have it. It is connected to new birth, for us as Christians in baptism. We are brought to the Temple – presented to the Church and the congregation to be ‘born’ into the family of faith, the Church – just as Jesus was presented in the Temple to become part of his own faith tradition.
And after baptism we are continually in need of purification because we continually sin, however much we try not to. As we come to the end of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons we can approach Lent as a particularly focussed time of looking at the way we act and any patterns of wrong doing we might have developed. Of taking on a habit of metanoia – poorly translated as ‘repentance’ but actually roughly meaning ‘change the way you are going.’
Candlemas might remind us that in Scripture Jesus calls himself the light of the world. Now, after his death and resurrection we are called to carry on his work and be lights ourselves. If you’ve been to a baptism service you might remember the sentence in the liturgy as ‘Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father.’ All throughout the Gospels Jesus is there, shining light on the meaning of what God the Father wants us to be, what we should be doing to change things in order to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus also shines light into the darker depths of our minds, our behaviour, our shadow aspects which we might not want anyone to see. Bring them out into the light, he says, I will help you to deal with them, maybe transform them into something positive.
Candlemas deserves to remain important in the Church’s year and has significant things to say in both scripture and ritual. At perhaps the bleakest time of the year, grey, cold, mizzly rain and damp (even though the days are getting a bit longer) it’s nice to have a bit more light both physically and spiritually. We can all certainly do with more of both!
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