Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 24:7-10, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40
Well here we are, us Episcopalians, digging into our more liturgically catholic roots to enact and participate in a ritual that goes back to at least the 11th Century and some historians have suggested it dates back to the 4th or 5th Century. I am, of course, talking about Candlemas. Or the blessing of candles.
Why, one might ask, do we go to the fuss?
The blessing of Candles is secondary to the centrality of the occasion which is formally called the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple or simply the Presentation.
It is a feast rich in meaning with several different interwoven themes- presentation, purification, meeting, light. In a way it is a moment for us that glances back to the Christmas and the Incarnation on the one hand, and looks ahead to Lent and the cross on the other.
This feast commemorates the purification of Mary after giving birth of Jesus. According to the law in the Book of Leviticus, in the Old Testament, 40 days after the birth of a boy, the mother was to go to the temple to be declared ritually pure once again. But this is also the presentation of Christ in the Temple as well. It also says that the first born male would also be presented to God. Historically, the feast was kept locally in Jerusalem as early as the year 350. In Eastern Christianity, this feast was also known as “the Meeting,” referring to that of Christ with Simeon. It would continue to be kept widely in the West.
The blessing and lighting of candles is a key part of this liturgy. Before we made a switch to oil filled candles, beeswax candles were blessed, distributed, and lit and carried in procession while the Nunc Dimittis- Lord you now have set your servant free. This symbolizes the entrance of Christ, the True Light into Temple.
“See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come into my temple.
These are the words of the prophet Malachi who says that the messenger is described as a refiners fire or a fuller’s soap. A fuller is one who washes wools or fabrics. The book of Malachi was written in the late 4th century BC to a society that was filled with sorcerers, perjurers, corrupt employers and landowners. No surprise there. God is responding to the objection that God is unable to deal with the evil doers and make things right. Instead God declaers there will be a messenger who will come to the temple with the purpose of cleansing it and warning the people. The reading of Malachi is deceptive. IN actuality, this is strong stuff. Eventually, Jesus will fulfill this prophecy when we cleanses the temple and over turns the money changers tables- chasing them out with a whip of cords.
But today’s Gospel is Jesus’ first entry into the temple. He is but 40 days old, and as a tiny infant, he is carried in to the temple in Mary’s arms. There are three rituals that take place, The purification of Mary, the redemption of the first born, and the presentation of the child in service to God. And then there is Simeon. When the holy family arrives, Simeon comes out. This is the moment he has waited for all his life. He is an old man now and was told that he would not die until he met the Messiah. He bursts into joyous song, in the words known to the us as the Nunc Dimittis. The Song is sung in the evening at Vespers and Compline- the traditional words are hauntingly beautiful:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;
To be a Light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
As a Light to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel, Simeon boldly declares that Jesus is the light of the world as well as the glory of his own people of faith.
Also in this scene is Anna- the prophet- She ALSO praises God. It is a wonderful picture of wisdom of old age paying homage to youth in infancy. Together they represent a transition of the time of the Old Testament to new era.
Ok, So where are we?
On this great feast of Candlemas we recall how Jesus was presented to God in the Temple, the most holy of all the sacred places of his religious faith. Today and every time we gather we are called to present ourselves anew to God in worship – Our Lord’s presentation in the Temple sets us up for our own kind of presentation. If you look carefully in the language and the parts of the Eucharist, we ask God not only to transform the bread and wine into a Sacrament of Grace, but we also ask God to transform US as well. We ask for God’s blessing, we ask for God to purify our hearts and make us a new creation. In worship we put the past and its failings behind us, and turn our focus toward the living God who loves us and who calls us to a holy life a life of grace and transformation. It is a life that follows the path Jesus called us to when he plucked us from our fishing nets and mundane existence to discover the adventure that now awaits us.
Candlemas is a service that is also about the blessing of light- Jesus who is the Light of the World
is, in our hearts, the light of hope.
God calls us to share in the light of Christ – to bring help and comfort to others by that message of hope and light, and to re-awaken our dedication to God in the renewal of our daily lives. So as we bless our candles as it were one last look back at Christmas, giving thanks for the great gift of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, let us also look ahead – the way ahead may be uncertain and even filled with difficulties and challenges for many, but it is the adventure to which we are called. With Christ as our guide, we can be assured of his presence with us and his strength to sustain us, as we follow in his way even to the cross and beyond to newness of life. Amen
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.