Those of you who read my last reflection will not be surprised that I do not lament the passing of January, this year especially. Even today I am going to cheat and look ahead to Tuesday – February 2nd. I have referred previously to the Feast of Candlemas, also known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Presentation of the Lord and the Purification of St Mary the Virgin. Take your pick!
This is the last of the days which refer back to Christmas, and no one can justify keeping any Christmas decorations up after Tuesday! When I was a young boy a Polish couple lived not far from us. They came to the smallholding after the War with nothing, and in the words of R.S. Thomas:
pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind
It was a harsh life, even in the early 80s. But every year in late January my grandmother, mother and I would be invited to the farmhouse. My grandmother and mother were required to partake of their finest home brew (neither of them drove so that was fine!) and I would sit mesmerised – staring at their beautiful Christmas tree cut from their plantation. I didn’t quite understand why it was still up long after ours had been relegated unceremoniously to the bottom of the garden, but what made it extra special was the real candles which teetered precariously on the green bows and burned brightly in the dark parlour. One of those memories I will never forget.
The Poles, as they were very affectionately known in our close Welsh community, were Catholics and their tradition was to retain the Christmas tree until the Feast of Candlemas. The variety of names by which the day is known reflects its ancient origins within the Church and the different ways in which it has been understood over the years.
The events commemorated are found in the requirements of the Jewish Law, the Torah, which Mary and Joseph observed strictly it appears. It marks both the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (her being cleansed after becoming unclean at Jesus’ birth) and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth.
As to the purification of Mary we read in the Book of Leviticus:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed.”
And as to the presentation of Jesus we also read in Leviticus:
“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. … And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.”
The day was kept in Jerusalem from early times, however its universal observance originates from the year 542 when the Emperor Justinian ordered that it should be celebrated as a thanksgiving for the cessation of Plague. How differently we understand that this year than last. At that time it was called ‘The Meeting’ referring to the meeting with Simeon when Jesus is presented in the Temple.
As the name Candlemas suggests, and the Welsh name Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau, candles have played an important part in the ceremonies observed on this day. A procession into church with candles traditionally takes place on this day, an act of worship which symbolises going out to meet the Lord as he comes, the one who is the light to lighten the Gentiles.
Even though the days are lengthening, the hours of daylight remain short, and the symbolism of light remains powerful. Candles are burned for so many different reasons these days, only for their original purpose when the electricity fails. We light candles to create an atmosphere, to help us relax, as an act of commemoration or celebration. Candles are used in the Lodge, in our homes and in places of worship or remembrance.
Whenever we light a candle today in such circumstances it has a particular symbolism or meaning. Sometimes that meaning is shared with all present, and sometimes it is something totally personal to us. There is something mysterious in watching the flame of a candle, it is captivating and draws us in, our world, our focus reduces to that small, flickering flame, dancing in the light. While it is an artificial light there is something very organic about it, something primitive which takes us back to that original darkness and first light. It always surprises me how much warmth the small flame of a candle generates.
January may be as well as done, but there is still plenty of darkness, and the greatest comfort of February is that it is a short month! While not wishing our lives away, we crave for the light in so many ways, but for now the light of a candle can bring us much comfort, as we wait for that time when we can give thanksgiving for the end of the plague which continues to dominate our lives.
This hymn is a translation by Robert Bridges (1844-1930) of the ancient Greek hymn the Phos Hilaron which dates back to before the fourth Century. It is often sung at the Evening services, in the East at that part known as the lighting of the lamps, and the central item in the service:
O gladsome light, O grace
Of God the Father's face,
The eternal splendour wearing;
Celestial, holy, blest,
Our Saviour Jesus Christ,
Joyful in thine appearing.
Now, ere day fadeth quite,
We see the evening light,
Our wonted hymn outpouring;
Father of might unknown,
Thee, his incarnate Son,
And Holy Spirit adoring.
To thee of right belongs
All praise of holy songs,
O Son of God, Lifegiver;
Thee, therefore, O Most High,
The world doth glorify,
And shall exalt for ever.
You may like to offer this prayer as you light a candle:
may this candle be a light for you to enlighten me in my difficult decisions;
may it be a fire for you to purify me;
may it be a flame for you to build warmth into my heart .
As this candle burns
so I give you something of myself.