Last Thursday, February 2, was the Feast of Candlemas and the Presentation of Our Lord. This feast falls 40 days after Christmas. (In some traditions, I learned recently, Christmas is actually 40 days long, and ends on Candlemas. So this year, we left our nativity on the mantle and the lighted garland in the front window all through January, only taking them down last week, on Candlemas.) In Jewish tradition, the firstborn son was to be taken to the Temple and presented to the Lord with an offering 40 days after his birth. Accordingly, that’s what Mary and Joseph did. You can read the story in Luke 2.
It’s one of my favorite stories, actually, because of Simeon and Anna, the two old, faithful, visionaries who recognize Jesus for who He is. Anna, if you recall, was an elderly prophetess, who spent day and night in the Temple, praying, fasting, and worshipping the Lord. When she sees Jesus, she knows exactly Who He is and gladly proclaims to everyone in earshot that the Messiah has finally come.
Simeon, though not called a prophet, was just as clear-sighted as Anna. God promised him that he would see the Messiah before he died, and when he sees Jesus, he knows this is the One. This little baby boy with the peasant parents who are too poor to afford a lamb for the offering…will save Israel. I love to imagine that scene: the aged Simeon coming to the Temple “in the Spirit” and scanning all the faces till he sees the child Jesus, and with a shock of recognition and resounding joy, he takes the baby in his arms and blesses God for His faithfulness to himself and to Israel and even to the Gentiles:
“Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace; your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation that you have prepared in the sight of all the peoples, a light of revelation for the Gentiles and of glory for your people Israel!”
Simeon’s prayer of joyful recognition of the Messiah is now the Canticle of Simeon (also called the Nunc dimittis), prayed every night at Compline in monasteries, churches, and homes the world over. Our eyes have been opened, and we have seen the Light, for you, O Lord, are faithful and true.
It is here that we see the connection between Candlemas and the Presentation of Jesus. Simeon proclaimed the child Jesus a light to all the peoples. Candlemas is a celebration of light; on this day, all the candles that will be used in the church in the coming year are blessed.
A month ago, on Epiphany, my family and I stood shivering on our doorstep as we blessed a piece of chalk, used it to mark the top of our front door with numbers and letters, and prayed a blessing over our house. It was an act of faith and hope, those numbers and letters, those prayers—a proclamation to ourselves both now and throughout the coming year that we will follow Jesus wherever He leads us. In a similar way, the blessing of the candles is an act of faith and hope, a joyful proclamation of the light hidden in each one. Perhaps over the course of the next year that hidden light will be released at just the right moment to kindle the flame of flagging hope or drive the dark of doubt away.
This year, for the first time, I had it together enough to procure our year’s supply of candles in January (we light one every night when we gather for dinner), so we held our own candle-blessing celebration. Lighting those candles can just be something we do every single night. Or they can be a reminder of the light of Christ in our midst, a reminder that Christ is the center of our home and the center of each of our lives, a reminder that ultimately He is the food upon which we feed. And so I prayed over all those candles, that God would use them to be what I intend them to be, pointers to His light and goodness, His presence and provision.
This playful interaction with the stories of Scripture is one of the (many) things I find so delightful about the church year. Liturgical time is not afraid to take liberties: Hey, during Jesus’ presentation Simeon mentions light, candles are a source of light, let’s use the celebration of the presentation as a chance to bless all the candles!
And why not? God is present in Scripture, in real life here and now, and also in imagination. The church year happily embraces the intersection of all three with faith that the eyes of our imaginations are at least as clear-sighted as the eyes of our heads and can in fact help us to see Scripture more clearly. Certainly, the church year has many times startled me out of my familiar ways of seeing so that I can be like Simeon, recognizing God wherever He appears, and rejoicing in His light.
Lent is coming soon—it begins on March 1. Traditionally Lent is a season of fasting to prepare for the darkness of the Triduum (the three days of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and burial). I’ll talk more about fasting next month, but for now, be thinking and praying about what God might be asking you to fast from/set aside for this season so that you can make room in your life to hear His still, small voice more clearly.
In Circle of Seasons, after I discuss each season is a section entitled “Living the Season.” As we walk these seasons together, which idea will you try—or have done before and will continue—this year? Leave a comment of how you are playing with the seasons and be entered to receive one of three copies of our spring book, Invitations From God by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun.
Next week we start Shiloh by Helena Sorensen(free!) and let me tell you, WOW. DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK.
What have you tried for this season in the church year? What do you want to try?