Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Meeting: When Law encounters Spirit

Candlemas is a minor feast in Anglicanism, and usually commemorates the coming of Christ as the light of the world, a theme vividly prominent in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus himself announces: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

The ‘light’ that Jesus brings is both the gift of salvation, rescue from spiritual darkness, and the ability to ‘see’ the difference between good and evil — spiritual wisdom and discernment. Following the light carries a resonance of moral choice. In Jesus, truth and salvation may have come into the world, but it is a ‘light’ that can be denied and ignored.

It wasn’t until the 1890s that the Church of England made it legal to place two candles on the altar during services, and, a few years later, made it unlawful to carry candles in procession! Of course, both rulings were widely disregarded and the earlier Roman practice of using candles was generally adopted.

Even earlier, Candlemas was celebrated as the feast commemorating three ancient ceremonies: the purification of the mother, the redemption of the firstborn and the dedication of a child. Luke has all three ceremonies taking place at the same time in order to emphasise Jesus’s significance and his legitimacy as the longed-for Messiah.

The feast commemorating this understanding of Candlemas was practised by the early church in Jerusalem from about 350, and its practice spread when Emperor Justinian decreed at Constantinople in 542 that the feast be observed. In the East, Candlemas was simply called ‘The Meeting’, marking the encounter between Jesus and Simeon.

By presenting Jesus at the Temple, offering a sacrifice, and by submitting to the ritual purification for mothers after giving birth, Mary and Joseph were fulfilling their obligations under Jewish law. Simeon, who was known to be a devout and careful observer of the law, was convinced that he would not die until he had seen the promised Messiah. That day, as Luke describes it, Simeon was inspired by the Holy Spirit to go to the Temple.

In the midst of the archaic ceremonies of ritual sacrifice and the ritual purification of Mary, in the heart of the great seat of Jewish identity and authority, Simeon looks at Jesus and bursts out with a song of praise and thanksgiving to God, using words all the hearers would instantly have recognised as coming from the great prophet Isaiah, who had foretold a saviour who would bring honour and glory to the people of Israel and who would be a light to the Gentiles.

That encounter between the aged Simeon and the infant Jesus was a moment when time stood still, when all the panoply of the Law met the promise of the Spirit, when a lifelong faithful observer of the Law came face to face with the freedom and fulfilment of the future: the Light had truly come into the world.

Christina Rees

Posted by Christina Rees on Thursday, 30 January 2014 at 5:00pm GMT | TrackBack
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The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is designated a Principal Feast in Common Worship. The reason is that, like Janus, it looks two ways: back though the Epiphany season to Christmas, the feast is the culmination of the incarnation; forward to Lent and Holy Week, the feast expresses the sentiments Simeon expressed to our Lady.

Not all users of candles were inspired by 'earlier Roman practice'. Many invoked a particular reading of 'Sarum' practice, much disparaged as 'British Museum religion' and promoted by Percy Dearmer.

Posted by: Liam Beadle on Thursday, 30 January 2014 at 7:11pm GMT

In English-speaking Canada, it's largely celebrated as Groundhog Day.

In Acadian tradition, Candlemas is known as Chandeleur. A few days before it, someone would dress up in ribbons, and carry a long cane, and lead a group of people from house to house in search of food donations for the coming party. (The Cajuns inherited the custom, doing this at Mardi Gras to make a gumbo.) When you gave food, the group would perform a dance called the "Escaouette." This going from house to house was called "running the Candlemas" ("courir la Chandeleur".) On Candlemas Day, after the Church celebration with a procession of lighted candles, in the evening, in a place such as a Church or community hall, there would be a communal supper made with the donated food, then singing and dancing. The Candlemas supper and dance still continue, even if most people don't make it to Church earlier that day.

Posted by: Randal Oulton on Thursday, 30 January 2014 at 8:35pm GMT

First off, many many thanks to Randal Oulton for his comment. It makes the heart I inherited from my Michaud ancestors sing with joy, à la chandeleur l'hiver cesse, ...j'espére. Presentation is the date upon which I joined the Anglican Communion in 1975 when I was 21. The Hebrew scripture for the day from Malachi remains a light in times of darkness. Its not so much about candles as it is about justice; Where is the God of Justice, one might add, in the church?

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Friday, 31 January 2014 at 1:21am GMT

Thank you, Christina. A very good outline of what the Church has to celebrate at Candelmass. This is why the Church must always be a force for light and not darkness; and why the Gospel is always Good News and not bad.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Friday, 31 January 2014 at 10:19am GMT
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