The feast we keep today properly happened on Friday. We’re observing it in church today because it’s an important one, worth talking about and celebrating when the biggest part of our community is here.
The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple is often just called “Candlemas” because, historically, it is the day when all of the candles to be used throughout the year are blessed. It’s the third in a trio of feasts that all mark important moments in the infancy of Jesus. There’s Christmas, when we celebrate the actual birth. Then Epiphany after 12 days of Christmastide when we celebrate the visit of the magi to the Holy Family. And then today, 40 days after Christmas, when we celebrate Mary and Joseph’s visit to the Temple with their son to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving for his birth.
You may be wondering why this feast is associated with the blessing of candles. In part it’s because the days are getting noticeably longer after the long dark of midwinter and it’s always good to celebrate the spreading of light. There’s also Simeon’s song which includes the line “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The spreading of light isn’t just the earlier mornings, it’s also the light of God’s revelation and truth spreading through the world. If one had to pick a day for blessing candles, today is a great choice.
February 2 is, most years, roughly half-way between Christmas and Good Friday during which time the truth of God’s work for us in Jesus Christ becomes known by more and more people. At first, on Christmas Day, what has happened is known to a very small crowd. Just the Holy Family, the stable animals, and a few shepherds. All Judeans who have probably heard about the prophecy of a Messiah, but every one of them has been given notice by an angel about what’s going on. (Joseph got his notice second-hand through Mary, but I think that counts well enough.) Miraculous revelations to people long waiting for this news.
Then, we consider Epiphany. Here the light of revelation has spread beyond the people of Israel into the Gentiles, but only to those who were paying attention and looking for signs of a change to the old order. Had the magi not been astrologers watching the stars for news, this might have passed them by like it did so many others. A miraculous revelation to those waiting and hoping for one.
Which brings us to today: Candlemas. Today is the feast where the light begins to spread far and wide, to all people with ears to hear. And it does so, as God almost always works, through a most unexpected channel.
Much of the preaching and writing about today’s feast focuses on the conversation between Mary, Joseph, and Simeon. The aged priest who holds salvation in his hands and confirms that the prophecy of his people has been fulfilled, exchanging it for a warning to Mary that this will be a hard life with many sorrows. There are many meditations on the image of an old man holding an infant who is, in fact, the God who holds the old man in his hand; the humility of God in taking on human flesh; the patient waiting of Simeon for God to appear in time with us; the prophecy to Mary which marks the switch from looking back at Jesus’s birth to looking forward to his death. These are all important ideas and well worth some of your time in prayer and reflection this week.
Even with all of that in mind, the person I am most moved by in the Candlemas story is the widow and prophet Anna. Luke gives us a timeline for Anna’s life: She is now 84 and has been doing nothing but fasting and praying in the Temple for about sixty years, since her husband’s death. Being a widow without a son is a dangerous and precarious situation in Anna’s world. She has no legal standing, cannot own property, cannot conduct business, and has nobody entitled to do these things on her behalf. Without a son or husband, much of her value in society—much of her personhood—disappears.
Likely with this precarity and danger in mind, Anna retreats to one of the few safe places: the Temple. Violence is forbidden here and everyone who passes through is there on business of their own, sure to ignore a poor widow in the corner, praying. So, with great faith, patience, and probably a lot of fear, Anna spends her decades in fasting and prayer. She is now old enough to, conceivably, be a great-great-grandmother but has spent all of that time without the security of family, praying to God, putting her faith in the security of the Temple.
But here, when she sees the Holy Family arrive and overhears what Simeon has to say, all of that fear and waiting is undone in a moment. Anna, who has not left the Temple in sixty years, praises God and goes out into the crowds telling anyone and everyone who will listen about the fulfillment of prophecy that she has seen. She has seen God’s promises kept. Anna’s joy and freedom from her fear—her understanding of her own salvation and her freedom from the power of sin and death—fill her and overflow out of her. The light of revelation, the good news of the Gospel, shines into her and she carries it with her into a world that was once too dark for her to face.
This is the promise you and I have made in our baptisms. We who have received the light of Christ promise to let it so shine before others that they may see and know and glorify God in heaven. We have promised to do as Anna did: To visit the places in this world outside the temple walls, carrying our faith and the good news of the Gospel with us; to go to the places that make us uncomfortable and fearful, where the image and likeness of God is denied in us and our neighbours; to travel even with those who pass through the valley of the shadow of death because we have been given light to brighten dark places and we know that on the other side is life everlasting
As we turn our hearts and minds from the stable and look toward the Cross, keep today’s candles close. They are reminders of the incredible work God has already done for Simeon and Anna, for you and I. They are aids for you to help others to see through the dark. They are signs of the glory of God which you carry with you.
On this Candlemas feast, be blessed and blessings.