You are used to me and Joy, or other priests you have known, saying how the Christmas season within the church stretches on much longer than it does outside. It is almost exactly the opposite to the commercial one which appears to have been co-invented by Coca Cola and Selfridges; it goes on for weeks after the 25th of December rather than for weeks before. Today we have begun with a carol. On Twitter I have been reading Christmas poems almost every day this year. Others have felt the same because of our circumstances – wanting to keep the lights shining long after the Christmas tree has come down.
The church seasons were not created by a planning committee. They were the result of spontaneous and imaginative use of time, by anonymous inventors, to connect the stories of the church with the story of our lives. The church year breaks down the Christian mystery into moments. The whole is always there in the background.
Candlemas is a particularly good example of this. It is a great bridge between Christmas and Easter.
It is possible, by concentrating solely on the two big festivals, to see Christianity as a joyful religion which pays all its attention to the miraculous activity of God: the birth of a holy child at Christmas and his triumph over death and sin on Easter morning. When I hear people complain about ‘happy clappy’ Christianity, I don’t think style is the main issue. I think there is a genuine anxiety that a fixation on the up-beat masks an avoidance of the darkness within life. There is a danger of developing a one-note faith.
One of my colleagues observed that the traditional way to tell the difference between a tragedy and a comedy is that the former ends with death and great suffering but the latter ends with rejoicing and often a wedding. But in St John’s Gospel that order is reversed – as we recall from last week, it actually begins with a wedding, at Cana, and leads inextricably to the suffering of Calvary.
On the other hand, people who dislike Christianity often make the polar opposite accusation. ‘It is all about misery and self- denial; an endless game of guilt and crosses.’ They can justify this by pointing to some of the more gruesome aspects of medieval piety or even modern examples of misery religion lit, such as Oranges are not the only fruit.
The biblical story behind Candlemas is predominately a joyful one. But throughout St Luke’s Gospel there is always a seam of tragedy to come.
Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple to perform the rituals of thanksgiving required after a successful birth, and Simeon’s message is one of liberation. For Simeon, in this child his life has found fulfilment and he sees good news from God for the whole world.
Anna has devoted years to waiting in the Temple for this moment, and now it has come she can’t restrain herself from telling everyone.
But it is Simeon who in private words to Mary insists that her cause for joy now will be a cause of sorrow to come.
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed (and the real sting in the tail) and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
In the Greek these two consequences are more clearly intertwined. Mary’s agony will be on account of Jesus fulfilling his divine calling. Her hurt is coming because he will expose the inner thoughts of those who would rather keep them hidden!
As Luke’s Gospel unfolds, from this point on this undercurrent becomes more and more apparent. John the Baptist’s message of repentance might have been welcomed by those who acknowledged their own flaws, but was abhorrent to the powerful who did not think they could afford that particular luxury. When Jesus healed it was good news for those he had ministered to, but appalling news to those who thought such things should be done with due decorum and certainly not on the Sabbath. And of course Mary, who above all wanted her son to be safe (in both senses of the word), was going to have her heart torn in two. Just as we know we, like everyone else, cannot really be safe as long as we are alive.
Jesus’ childhood, life, crucifixion and resurrection are all linked together.
Candlemas, of course, got its name from the lighting of candles and the accompanying procession which became a tradition on this particular day. All to remind people of the good news, with its inescapable backdrop of bad news and ambiguity, proclaimed in Simeon’s and Anna’s speeches – in their joy that they had lived long enough to glimpse this amazing new beginning – this light for the revelation to the gentiles – cradled within Judaism but for the whole world.
As we can’t be in church together this year, perhaps we could kindle the light of a candle at home – either during the service or, if you can’t attend the live streaming, then at a time of your choosing. The appropriate prayer is printed in the newsletter.
We do this as a symbol of the light going out into the world, and the world’s need of that light – but also of our own need of it. We can’t gloss over the restrictions and the loss of this last year. All of us have reasons to rejoice but all of us have had our souls pierced since the last Candlemas.