Today, which we are keeping as the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, brings to a conclusion our celebrations of Christmas. It is also the day when traditionally we celebrate Christ as the Light of the world with a procession with candles.
The thing about liturgy is that it uses things like candles, movement, processions, music, singing, speaking, colour, smell, taste, touch, sound and silence all together to help us discover in our midst the reality and the mystery of God. That’s how it should be, of course. For we are not somehow spirits without a body who can worship and pray in a kind of pure spiritual way, but we are a most wonderful amalgam – a psycho-somatic whole – which is unable to do anything without using our bodies. This is true of worship just as much as it is true of any other activity and so it is right that we use our bodies in our worship too. It’s also why we kneel, stand, genuflect, make the sign of the cross and very occasionally even prostrate ourselves on the floor!
In the old days, the idea of the Candlemas procession was a walk round the church before the Eucharist began with our lighted candles. That was all right, but it lost some of the symbolism. Which is why it is now suggested in some liturgical books that the procession should now happen at the end of the Eucharist – as we have it today. Though I am afraid that I couldn’t find sufficient candles for us to do it properly. Just to keep the picture before us, I have a lighted candle here.
The symbolism of having the ceremony at the end of the Eucharist is that our non-concluding celebration of Christ’s birth – which a spiritual re-birth of Christ in our lives – gives us a light which we have a duty and responsibility to carry out into the world: A light to enlighten the Gentiles – a light to shine to the glory of God.
Candles are a good symbol for that light of Christ. Because first, to give light they must give themselves. It might be unfashionable these days when people are so concerned to avoid the phenomenon of ‘burnout’ to think that we can spread the light of Christ simply by giving ourselves, without thought of the consequences, in loving service of God and our neighbour. But that is the way of Christ.
Second, candles are good symbols of the Light of Christ we are to carry in our lives because the candle flame is very precarious. It doesn’t take very much to blow it out, to smother it. In fragile human lives like ours, it is easy, all too easy, to allow things to assume such importance that the light of Christ which should burn brightly within us, may be in danger of becoming a smoky flame or simply extinguished. If we had our procession outside the church, we should find the candles blowing out all the time. But then another level of the symbolism would kick in. Because there would be others around us from whom we might relight our flame. Being part of the Body of Christ, the Church, means that there is always someone around who will help us to carry our light – newly kindled – into the world.
And there is another level of symbolism here, too. One candle on its own produces its unique light. Add some more – each with their own unique light – and the effect is more noticeable. A single member of Christ’s Body the Church on their own can make a big difference in terms of light in a dark world. United together, nurturing one another, making sure that each person’s unique light is cared for and looked after, then the whole body can bring much light. Even though it is always going to be a fragile, ‘easily-extinguished’ kind of light. It doesn’t take much to blow out a candle!
Which is something we need to be aware of. Human beings like ourselves have much more in common with candles than we do with flaming torches which are difficult to put out. We are inclined to flicker in our fragility, and we need to look out for one another, be sensitive to one another and do our best to ensure that we help and encourage one another to give the very best light from our lives to the dark world around us.
Which brings us to another aspect of today’s liturgical celebration. It comes as the end of the Christmas celebration each year, the great festival of light. And always that means that Lent is just around the corner. The event that we commemorate today – Christ’s Presentation in the Temple by Mary and Joseph is very much a double-edged mystery – full of joy and sorrow. Simeon’s words are full of joy and hope, but there is the mystery too of suffering on the horizon. Mary is promised that a sword will pass through her soul too.
Yes, we all seek enlightenment in our lives – we look for the light of Christ to inform our actions, our whole being. But there is a cost to this. And that cost is a sharing in the cross. Always, just around the corner after Candlemas is the opportunity which Lent brings. An opportunity for us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Dying to self we are raised to new life in Christ. Today’s festival reminds us that Lent is nearly here upon us with the opportunities that gives us to concentrate a little more on the things of the spirit. To help us look after our own candle flame, and those of the people around us, as we turn once again in repentance to God, and to renewed self-giving service of those around us.
So today, I hope that we can all begin to think carefully about the coming season of Lent and how best to use it, and if I can help you in any way with that please let me know.
Today’s Gospel ends with words which are singularly appropriate for us at this moment in the Church’s year. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him. (Luke 2:40) The effervescent joy and emotion of the Christmas season now reaches its climax. Our yearly celebration of the mystery of Christ’s birth comes to an end. Born anew in our hearts, he is now, by the power of the Spirit, to grow within us, bringing wisdom and God’s favour.