Today is Candlemas and it is a feast I am very fond of. But then, I really like candles. I remember as a young child, we lived in the country, and we were always having power-cuts. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed carrying a candle, and then, tucked up in bed cosy, looking around a once familiar bedroom, now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later, as I came to faith, looking at a candle helped me to pray: the flickering flame spoke of the light of Christ, of warmth and comfort and the mystery of God.
The candles we carry today celebrate the event that took place 40 days after Christmas when Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the required ceremonies of the Jewish Law. He had already been circumcised on the 8 th day and received his name. But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy – in other words, as belonging to the Lord – and his parents had, as it were, to buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary. He was the presented to the Lord.
At the same time his mother Mary had to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings – two turtledoves or two pigeons.
It must have been a moving moment. The Temple was a huge building, with great courtyards always packed with people. Imagine Mary making her way through the noise and bustle of the crowds, holding her precious child close to her, with Joseph by her side.
But as they went into the Temple building itself, something quite extraordinary happened. There was a very old and holy man called Simeon, who spent his days praying to God in the Temple . During his prayers, God had spoken to him, and said that before he died, he would actually see the Messiah, the one for whom the whole Jewish nation had been waiting and praying.
What an amazing scene it must have been: crowds of people, but among the crowds, old Simeon, looking with tired eyes, suddenly sees Him: he sees the child Jesus, and he knows . What joy he must have felt – the long awaited moment of encounter with his Lord. He comes up to Mary, and takes Jesus in his arms and blesses God, and speaks those wonderful words, which we sang during the candlelight procession. “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised: For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see. A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel .”
Yet, with prophetic insight, Simeon sees more than this. Jesus is the light of the world and will usher in the new covenant, but at a great and terrible price: it will be sealed in his blood at Calvary . Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined to be a sign which men reject, and you, too, shall be pierced to the heart.”
This Feast of Candlemas is like a great bitter-sweet hinge, looking back and forward. It looks back to the forty days of light and rejoicing which we have celebrated during Christmas and Epiphany, and it brings that period to a close. But it also looks forward, and anticipates the forty days of Lent and the events of Christ's passion and death.
The candle which speaks of light and warmth and comfort is also a flame, burning, searing, purifying and judging.
If you are like me, you will know in your own lives something of both these sides of Candlemas: the light, the joy, the comfort of knowing and loving him who is the light of the world – but also the struggle of obeying him who urges us to take up our cross and follow him.
One of the things I find most difficult as a Christian is that we can't see very far ahead. Walking by faith is a bit like walking around the house at night with just a candle. At first it's quite fun – but it soon gets frustrating. The candle only lights up a small area around it – just enough to go forward – but most of the room is still in darkness. And that's really what my experience of God is. My faith is real, as bright, as burning as ever, sometimes, as a candle: and yet it doesn't give me all the answers. . . why certain people have to suffer: why disaster happens: why good people get a terrible deal – so much is still in shadows.
Some Christians do talk as if they've got all the answers – but to me that just doesn't ring true. I think we can say to someone who asks “Why has this terrible thing happened to me?” I don't know: I don't understand why . . . But I do have faith: I try to walk by the light God has given me – and I do trust him, even if I can't see everything yet.
And so making choices/decisions is hard. When I left my country to come to the monastery in the United States , I was barraged with questions – most of which I couldn't answer! How long will you stay? Why go to America ? What about your family – your furniture, your books/CDs. . . I don't know. All I really knew is that, as far as I could see – and that wasn't very far, this is what God wanted me to do on the next stage of my journey.
I wonder where you are on your own personal journey of faith? The Feast of Candlemas, when we both look back to Christmas and forward to the Passion and Cross is a good time for each of us to take stock. To look back on our lives and see where we have been. . . our life so far: the steps we have taken, the choices we have made. And then to look forward in hope and in trust. To listen to the voice of God calling us onward. We probably won't be able to see very far ahead, but I think God likes it that way, so that we take these important steps in life in faith and trust. It can be frightening to step out and put your hand in the hand of God: sometimes we shrink back because we can't see the whole way ahead – but that is to refuse life.
Maybe each of us, when we get home, can light a candle, and pray with it. Watch the flickering flame spreading the light of Christ, the warmth and comfort of God. But also of the flame which burns and purifies and judges – the light of truth.
Above all, remember that candles are there to light the way. Ask God to give you the courage and faith to risk taking that step, and following him on to the way that leads to life. These words written by Cardinal Newman have always been helpful to me:
“Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark, and I am far from home, lead thou me on! Keep thou my feet: I do not ask to see the distant scene: one step enough for me.”