Readings: Malachi 3: 1 – 5; Hebrews 2: 14 – 18; Luke 2: 22 – 40;
By Leslie Spatt
Do we need purification?
Candlemas is somewhat of a Cinderella feast of the Church, frequently left forgotten sitting by a rather cold fireplace at a funny time of the year. It pops up shortly after Christmas and Epiphany, usually a few weeks before Ash Wednesday – as in this year; and is 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. When the Book of Common Prayer was finalised in the 17th century protestant-leaning Church of England it was probably unwise to refer to “mass” 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 religious or any other purification is pretty distasteful these days. Why do we bother with it at all?
Candlemas is date-specific for the 2nd February and often not observed if it doesn’t fall on an actual Sunday – though here it’s 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. February 2nd was traditionally the day when candles were blessed for use in churches and homes. And it’s also one of the most ancient celebrations of the Church, found in sermons for the day as early as 312 CE and thus is the oldest recorded festival in honour of Mary.
Various theological themes contribute to why it’s considered one of the main holy days of the Church: the use of light, the story of Jesus brought to the Temple, 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, every male child was required to be presented in the Temple 40 days after its birth and a sacrifice offered, as we’ve heard in the Gospel this morning. The Jewish idea of original sin is significant when trying to untangle 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 wants it to be remembered that with every birth another sinner is brought into the world, and the woman is here symbolically responsible for that. But only symbolically.
When Christianity started to observe this important part of Jesus’ life under the Law, the Jewish concept of a symbolic unclean-ness was forgotten; and the misogynistic church declared that women were personally responsible for carrying on the “sin” resulting from sex, thus making them both ritually and physically unclean. The custom of “churching” a woman after childbirth, ceremonially cleaning her up from the taint of spilled blood and sex, arose from about the fifth century in both the Eastern and Western church. Women were not allowed to receive communion before they were ‘purified’, not even to enter the church where their child was being baptised.
And what do candles have to do with Mary, Jesus, the Temple, etc. It’s a way of illustrating Simeon’s reference to Jesus being a “light for revelation to the Gentiles”. At the end of the service today we’ll informally process to the font with our lit candles to emphasise the “light” aspect of Candlemas; and then extinguish all the candles at the end of the service. This day is significant as the pivot, the hinge 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, the suffering and death of Jesus in Holy Week and a return of the light in the Resurrection.
But what about the meaning of Candlemas for us? 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 either ritually or actually “unclean” as some Christians still believe. 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 our faith, just as Jesus was presented in the Temple to become part of his own faith tradition. Light and dark, the outward side and the shadow side, recognising that in order to become the fully human, fully alive people God wants us to be. we all continually need purification because we continually sin, however much we try not to.
We’re reminded that Jesus calls himself the light of the world. Simeon recognised that Jesus was to be the light for the Gentiles, meaning all non-Jews, as well as the people of Israel. The symbolism of light overcoming the darkness reflects the original creation of all things, reinforced in the first verses of John’s Gospel. 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 our shadows, which hide things we might not want anyone to see. Bring them out into the light, he says. Don’t be afraid, I will help you to deal with them, accept them, get rid of them or transform them into something positive.
As we come to the end of the joy and perhaps overindulgences of Christmas and Epiphany, we 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 meaning “change the way you are going.”
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, frequently grey, cold and damp (even though the days are getting a bit longer) it’s nice to have that final blaze of light to remind us what it’s like before we head off into Lent. Can we, like Simeon, recognise the light when we see it? Might we be the ones to bring that light of Jesus to others? Could we today renew our personal rededication to Jesus to shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father; to release those in darkness and suffering violence from the shadow of death? Let us not lose the light, but help it overcome the darkness and shine brighter. Amen.
Leslie Spatt 2017