Monday, 1 February 2021

Candlemas: small signs

Audio version here

Luke 2 22-40

Today we keep the feast of Candlemas – the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, to give it its full title. Its actual date is February 2nd, but we observe it on the nearest Sunday. It’s the last day of the Christmas and Epiphany season, the time when we turn from focussing on Christ’s birth to thinking of his ministry, his death and his resurrection. Traditionally it is the time when the last of the Christmas decorations are taken down – we always keep our crib set up, in church and at home, until now and this year we’ve left the vicarage Christmas lights and tree up throughout January too, because, let’s face it, we need as much cheering up as we can manage at the moment! But now it’s time for them to go away, not because we don’t need light in our lives anymore but because, finally, we are starting to see light returning to the world around us and the first signs of spring. 

Candlemas falls on one of the four “cross quarter days” in the calendar, which come halfway between the solstices and equinoxes. They’re the moments when we notice one season just starting to give way to another, and they have been marked throughout recorded history, whatever faith people followed, in one way or another. The others coincide roughly with May Day, when spring blossoms into summer, Lammastide, at the beginning of August, an ancient feast celebrating the first fruits of the autumn harvest,  and Hallowe’en, when we can’t deny that the winter darkness is starting to take hold. We seem to have a deep human need to notice these moments when the seasons start, subtly, to shift, and this time, which we celebrate as Candlemas is no different. There are many weather forecasting traditions linked with it, aimed at predicting how much longer winter will go on. An old English rhyme says “"If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another fight. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter will not come again". In Germany, it was thought that if the badger came out and saw his shadow on February 2nd, there would be six weeks of winter ahead. German immigrants took that tradition to the USA, where the presumably more common groundhog was substituted – hence Groundhog Day. 

Cross quarter days are all about beginnings, the first, small signs of change. Not summer in all its glory, or winter in all its fury, not the fullness of spring or autumn, but the moment when, if you have your eyes open, you can start to see that the year is turning and that the next season will soon come. 

But you do have to have your eyes open. At this time of year there aren’t  “hosts of golden daffodils”, with their in your face unmistakeable bright yellow flowers, just tiny white snowdrops poking through the cold ground. One of the other common names for the snowdrop is the Candlemas Bell. You have to get down close to them to appreciate their beauty. They aren’t showy, or shouty, but they are a sure sign that winter won’t go on forever. 

The story which the Church tells at this time introduces us to two people who have trained themselves to open their eyes – and their hearts – to see the things that others might miss, the small signs of God’s life and light dawning on the world.  It’s the story we heard in our Gospel reading of the infant Jesus being brought to the Temple by Mary and Joseph forty days after his birth. 

Simeon and Anna probably saw hundreds of people every day going in and out of the Temple. They were both regulars there. In fact, Anna lived there full time, we are told, night and day, praying and fasting. Like so many others in Israel they were longing for God to act, to send his promised Messiah to them, and the Temple was an obvious place to wait and to hope. Yet Simeon and Anna seem to have been the only people to have spotted that Jesus was the one, a tiny, vulnerable, ordinary child of poor parents - too poor to be able to afford the sacrifice of a lamb prescribed in the book of Exodus. Maybe others were expecting a mighty military leader, entering the Temple at the head of an army in triumph. Maybe they were expecting him to be heralded by trumpeters or announced by golden letters written on the sky. Not like this, in a child who couldn’t even speak for himself yet.  

There was, apparently, nothing that would have singled Jesus, Mary and Joseph out, but when God prompted Simeon and Anna to notice them, they don’t seem to have questioned the likelihood of God’s choice. I suspect that was because in their long years of prayer and contemplation of the scriptures, they had come to understand that God had a habit of beginning small. They would have read in those scriptures about another vulnerable baby, left in a reed basket on the river Nile, rescued by an Egyptian princess who called him Moses. He grew up to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. They would have read about David, the little shepherd boy, overlooked and unnoticed, who’d grown up to become Israel’s greatest king. They would have grown used to the idea that God had often worked through those who seemed insignificant or unlikely. Elderly, childless couples like Abraham and Sarah, the ne’er do well trickster, Jacob, and Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, whose brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery. There was Ruth too, a widowed refugee from Moab, too, who had bravely come to a new country with her Israelite mother-in-law, who became David’s great-grandmother. The list goes on and on. God nearly always seemed to work through the last people you would expect, who most wouldn’t have given a second glance to. 

So, Simeon and Anna were ready when this little child was brought into the Temple. Their hearts were tuned to God. A tiny child of ordinary parents from a backwater town in Galilee? Why not? They had learned to expect to see God’s hope in small things, small people, so they could embrace that hope – Simeon did so literally, as he took Jesus into his hands - and they could proclaim that hope - long and loud, in Anna’s case - as they bore witness to what they’d seen. 

At the end of this service, if you’ve been able to light a candle safely, I’m going to invite you to blow it out, as we bid farewell to Christmas. It’s an odd little ritual – we’re more used to lighting candles than extinguishing them in prayer. It’s a reminder, though, that the light we most need isn’t out there; it’s within us. As we blow out our candles, we’re not saying that the light of Christ has gone out, but rather that it has gone in, that “the Lord whom we seek” has come to the temple of our hearts, to borrow the language of our Old Testament reading. We may feel that the light in us is just a small, tentative glow. We may not feel we are ablaze with glory, but even a small light can make all the difference in a dark place, just as the tiny, fragile snowdrop, the Candlemas bell, can give us hope that spring is on the way. 

So, on this feast of Candlemas let’s tune our hearts to God, so that we can learn to see his hope, however it comes to us. Let’s embrace that hope like Simeon, and proclaim it like Anna, so that those around us find it too. 


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