My guess is that most of us are fairly fed up with winter by now. The front page of the Sun newspaper on Friday carried a huge picture of St Medard, the patron saint of good weather, and invitation to join a campaign of prayer to him for deliverance from the rain. Apparently Sue Evans, the Lincolnshire vicar of a church dedicated to him had written a prayer which included the phrase “Dear Lord – we’ve had enough…” The accompanying headline read “Bring me Sun Shrine”.
I think we would all say “amen” to that prayer. Even if we have escaped the flooding that has caused such havoc to so many, by this stage in the winter most people are very keen for spring to come. The feast of Candlemas traditionally marks the moment when we start to see it on the horizon. It falls on one of the old Celtic “cross-quarter day” festivals. It is halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, and the Celts called it Imbolc, which means “in the belly” because it heralded the beginning of the lambing season. The customs and folklore associated with Candlemas try to forecast how long the winter has still to run. It’s Groundhog Day in North America, a development of a Northern European custom taken there by immigrants. If the groundhog – it is a bear or a badger in Europe – emerges from its hibernation at Candlemas and has no shadow because the skies are overcast, winter will soon be over. If there is a shadow, though, because the sun is shining, that’s a sign that winter will continue longer. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive but I suppose clear days in winter are often very cold, while rainy weather might herald a thaw.
There is an English rhyme that proclaims:
If Candlemas day be fair and bright
winter will have another fight
If Candlemas day brings cloud and rain
winter will not come again.
The folklore is a clue to how our ancestors felt about this time of year, and how most of us feel about it too. We’ve had enough – enough of the wet, enough of the cold, enough of the gloom.
For past generations that winter gloom would have been far more pervasive than it is for us, of course.
It is only in the last hundred years that electric light has been widespread in homes. Domestic gas lighting came in during the Victorian era, but for many, especially those who were poor or lived in rural areas, an oil lamp or even just a candle was as good as it got until the very recent past. Artificial light was a luxury to be used sparingly. You didn’t light candles unless you really needed to, especially in the daytime.
I wonder what it would have been like in church. It is easy to find out. All we need to do is switch off the lights, so let’s do that.
[We then switched the lights off !]
Even when the sun is shining it is quite dark in here. Our ancestors would have had candles on the altar, but that’s not much use to the rest of you. The chandelier dates from 1725 and there used to be oil lamps hanging from the beams too – you can still see the rings they were fastened to, but I shouldn’t think they were lit for daytime services, and they wouldn’t have shed much light. The Victorian stained glass windows, though pretty, cut out light as well, and I wonder whether there was a battle over whether to put them in.
It’s not impossible to see, but it is far darker than we are used to, and it gives us an idea of what our ancestors experienced as normal at this time of year. Coupled with short days and bad weather, it is no wonder that the festivals they celebrated in these winter months tended to involve light and fire. It had always been so. The pre-Christian inhabitants of these lands marked the seasons with Samhain bonfires in early November, then with the Yule log at the Winter Solstice, and finally with the feast of Imbolc now to greet the lengthening days with relief.
When Christianity arrived in Northern Europe it was natural to graft on new stories and meanings to these ancient celebrations. Whatever your faith, you need rituals and stories to get you through the dark times, to remind you that the sun will return.
So Samhain became All Saints and All Souls, when Christians remind themselves of those who have gone before them, whose lives have been shining lights and who now dwell in the eternal light of heaven. They are a reminder that we don’t go into the darkness alone, whether that is the darkness of winter or of sorrow, or of death. We are surrounded by the light of God, shining in this great crowd of witnesses.
Yule became Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, the light of the world, an act of God’s grace. It comes at the moment of deepest darkness and it reminds us that when we can do nothing, God is still at work.
And Imbolc became Candlemas, a feast which tells us that the darkness doesn’t last forever, that spring is “in the belly” of winter, hope “in the belly” of despair.
That message is there in the story we heard in the Gospel this morning, the story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, when the infant Jesus is acclaimed by Simeon and Anna forty days after his birth. He is “the light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” says Simeon. The work which God is doing in this child will be worth the suffering and the challenge his life will involve, because through him God’s light will shine for all. There may not be much to see yet, but this baby, apparently entirely indistinguishable from every other baby that had come through the Temple gates that day, is acclaimed by Simeon and Anna as the one who will change everything
And they were right. Whatever people believe about Jesus theologically, his life changed the course of history. Mary and Joseph couldn’t have imagined the scale of the impact he would turn out to have. Even Luke, as he writes this story around 80AD couldn’t have known it – the Church he knew was a loose network of small Christian communities dotted around the Mediterranean, an obscure little movement emerging from Judaism, which logically stood very little chance of surviving. Yet here it is, and here we are. Simeon and Anna saw that the tiny child who had been “in the belly” of Mary and who was now lying in her arms was a new beginning for us all.
Jesus may have seemed like a small candle in the darkness, a tiny sign, easily overlooked, just as we might cast our eyes over the world outside and just see the dull browns and greys of winter, and miss the emerging snowdrops, whose other common name is the Candlemas bell. But to those who were on the lookout, as Simeon and Anna were, it was clear. There was hope. There was light, no matter how dark the world seemed.
The physical darkness of winter may not be obvious to us as it was to our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need the messages of these winter festivals just as much as they did. Darkness can come in many forms, and all of us go through times when life seems like one long winter, when the darkness descends and we can’t see the way ahead. When that happens, the spiritual messages which we learn from observing the cycle of the year can be vital.
In our 24/7 society when light and heat are usually available at the flick of a switch, we are often isolated from the passing seasons. But there’s no switch to flick to banish the spiritual and emotional darkness that is bound to come into our lives at some point bringing anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness. When that sort of gloom falls on us, it is better by far to acknowledge it, and the feelings it evokes –– than to try to chase it away with a blaze of artificial cheerfulness. The Christian festivals we observe through the winter give us resources to do that through their stories and imagery. As we celebrate them again and again, their messages sink in slowly, to be drawn on when we really need them. They reassure us that darkness is nothing new – it is part of the cycle of life, just as winter is part of the cycle of the year - and that God has not abandoned us, but is in the darkness with us.
The message of Candlemas encourages us to be on the lookout, as Simeon and Anna were, for small signs of hope, to be aware of the light, even if it is faint, and to help it to grow. It tells us to nurture new life, however fragile, rather than writing it off as insignificant. We may wish we were basking in the full light of summer, but the first glimmers of spring can be even more important; noticing them helps us not to give up. Life begins with small things, like a baby in his mother’s arms. Light creeps back into the world minute by minute as the days lengthen. Our lives, and the life of the world often turns on a sixpence, that tiny moment when we decide to trust in some small sign of goodness and stick with it, to treasure and protect a tiny flame of hope in the gloom of despair.
That’s why at the end of the service we shall be lighting our small candles, symbols of the light of Christ. Rather bizarrely though, we light them only so that we can blow them out again. This might seem a bit pointless, but it’s not a gesture of despair. It is a declaration of trust, a statement of the faith that we have already been given what we need, by the grace of God. His presence and his love are at work in us, growing in our lives. We blow the candle out to affirm that the light we need is already ours, his gift, secure within us. It may be just a flickering flame at the moment but it is enough to make a difference, enough, alongside others, to light up the world.