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.