Vol I No. 7

A Sermon for Candlemas

by William J. Martin
Hans_Holbein_d._Ä._001A Light to Lighten the Gentiles,
and the Glory of thy people Israel.
(St. Luke ii. 32)


Today we celebrate the Feast of The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, which is also known as The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, and also as Candlemas.It is called The Purification after the Jewish ritual custom proscribed in the Twelfth Book of Leviticus, where the mother of a male child is commanded to undergo forty days of cleansing from the blood of childbirth and then to offer herself and her child at the temple with an offering. Her purification is accompanied by the presentation of her child. The ritual itself is a consecration of both the mother and child’s lives to God, and the offering is sign of thanksgiving and gratitude for safe delivery of the child and the continued health of the mother. Were the parents rich enough, they would offer a lamb. Were they too poor, they would offer two turtledoves or two pigeons, as Joseph and Mary did. That the Feast is also called Candlemas originates with Simeon’s prophesy that the Christ Child would be a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of [God’s] people Israel. (Ibid, 32) Later Church tradition has this day as the Feast on which beeswax candles were blessed for use both in churches and in private homes throughout the year. In the old days, Candlemas Term denoted the second trimester in Scottish universities and secondary schools.

Now what I would like to focus on today is the designation of our Feast as Candlemas. And I would like to do this because I think that it fits nicely in with our Epiphany Season of light. In the past few weeks, we have been focusing on Christ the Light, or on the Light that has begun to illuminate our minds and warm our hearts to the mission and meaning of Jesus Christ. What we have seen is that Christ the Light is more often than not that spiritual brilliance and radiance that comes to transform and redeem human nature in such a way that He confuses and confounds before He adjusts and assimilates man’s vision to His meaning. What do I mean? Well think about our Epiphany Gospel lections. In them we found that the Blessed Virgin Mary was left quite confused about the meaning and nature of her young son’s life. She thought that she had lost Jesus in the temple, only to discover that it was she who was truly lost spiritually, since if she had had the eyes or vision with which to see who and what He was about, she would not have despaired. Also, later, when she provoked Him to use His power to overcome the depletion of wedding wine, she was reminded that both she and He were destined to face a far more urgent need in His future, when happiness would be no less at stake, but when its acquisition would be obtained not by signs and wonders but through merciful sacrifice. In both cases, the Blessed Virgin’s vision and sight were not yet capable of seeing the heavenly Light that informed and defined her earthly Son’s mission.

And we should not be surprised by this. The Blessed Virgin was Jesus’ earthly mother –the mother of his sacred humanity. In so far as she saw what she saw when she saw it, she was a good mother moved and defined by her own earthly light. In this, she was not unlike any of us. She, like us, followedNature’s light. And Nature’s light is threefold. First, it is the light of the Sun that brings about new life, conserves and preserves it, and moves it to its appointed ends. Through the energy and power of the Sun the world as we know it lives, and moves, and has its being. Second, it is the light of the Sun that sheds its rays on all of creation, so that all of creation is made visible. Third, it is the light of man’s intellect, by which he comes to encounter the universe, explore and plumb its length, breadth, depth, and height, in order that he may name, arrange, retain, and even remold and refashion it into the service of his existence. Nature’s light is, of course, a gift from God, though we do tend, I think, to forget its giftedness, and so take it for granted. At any rate, this is the light which moves most men, and, no doubt, defined and informed Mary’s relation to her son Jesus at the outset.

But there is another Light which stands above Nature’s light. And this is the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 9) Of course thisLight is Christ, or the everlastingly-begotten Word of God. This is the Light that not only makes and creates, but informs and defines all things. This is the Light that then joins Himself to human nature in Jesus Christ in order to elicit and grow another Light –the Light of faith in the hearts and minds of those who will follow Him. Of course this Light of faith is not obtained or possessed easily. The Blessed Virgin, more than others I think, knew this most acutely and painfully. Faith is a gift that grows only with suffering through the trial and error of realizing that it does not yet grasp or understand the true Light. The Light of faith demands an obedience and willingness to follow in the path of a revelation and disclosure of God’s will and way that seem so contrarily set against man’s limited expectations. And the Light of faith must always be willing to grow and expand on the basis of what Christ says and does in relation to others. One of the hardest truths that the Blessed Virgin had to accept was that her unique role did not entitle the Light of faith in her to an immediate and self-evident knowledge or understanding of her Son Jesus. She was His earthly mother. God was His heavenly Father.

So it was the case that the Blessed Virgin would learn to follow her Son in faith and learn the Light of His truth from his encounters with others.Her own enlightenment and illumination began with news brought to her by an unusual other –the Angel Gabriel, who told her of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Ghost. In the Light of [her] faith she heard of the prophecy of her Son’s everlasting kingship, only to be challenged and disrupted by what Nature’s light disclosed as obscure, seemingly insignificant, and far from regal. Then she learned of the Angels’ glorious response to it…out of the mouths of poor and common shepherds. To be sure there was the Light of [others’] faith but through what Nature’s light would judge incredible. Imagine how confused this poor Virgin Mother must have been! Nature’s light taught her that the other Light seemed to be shining in the most unlikely of places and through the strangest of mediums! How would this prophecy of glory and perfection emerge from conditions of such hardship and suffering? But through it all, by the Light of faith, she followed, and pondered all these things in her heart. (Ibid, ii. 19) 

And today we find more of what must have been, at the very least, still more confusing. She and Joseph take the babe to the temple for her own ritual Purification and His Presentation. And so here, thinking that she was doing only what every other Jewish mother had been commanded to do by Jewish Law after the birth of her male-child, her faith encounters a response to the event that she could not have expected. There she and Joseph find old Simeon and Anna. St. Luke tells us that Simeon was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Ghost was upon him.  And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Ibid, 25, 26) Simeon proceeds to sing the canticle that we know as the Nunc Dimitis.

                    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;
                                a light to lighten the Gentiles,
                    and the glory of thy people Israel. (Ibid, 29-32)

Simeon directly links or connects Jesus’ birth with the salvation of the world; Mary and Joseph marvel at his prophecy. But it does not end here. Simeon addresses Mary and tells her that, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Ibid, 34, 35) The Light of faith will lead Mary, through Jesus, to a future of fall and rising, of death and new birth. The process of faith’s journey into Christ the Light will demand that the Light still shine, even in the face of that darkness which will pierce and rend both Christ’s side and Mary’s soul.

The Feast of Candlemas reminds us that our faith must never hesitate or waiver in the face of confusion, perplexity, or suffering, as it journeys into Christ the Light, who comes to reveal the truth of God’s plan and purpose for us all. The Light of faith demands patience, watching, and waiting. Today the Blessed Virgin meets the model of what her own life will be in the witness of Simeon and Anna. Both spent their lives in the temple guided by the Light of faith, patiently praying, keeping vigil, looking for the things that were coming from God with earnest expectation and hope. What was rewarded to them as the prize of their faith and hope was a vision of the Saviour. They would not live to see and understand the finer and more detailed demands that this life –the Light of the world, would elicit from His followers. But Mary would come to see and understand those demands slowly and painfully. But first, the Lord places before her the Light of faith in the lives of Anna and Simeon. And through their faith, Mary is being purified of all earthly expectations –the usual end of Nature’s light, that the Light of her faith might follow and find, see and understand the spiritual meaning of her Son, Christ the Light.

So today, dear friends, let us be determined to walk by the Light of faith. Today’s Purification and Presentation in the Temple should provoke us to cultivate and grow that Light, and so to present ourselves to God with pure and clean hearts. (Collect) Let us, with Mary as the model of our purification, be patient, ever watching and waiting, and even suffering as the Light of faith discovers God’s knowledge and love in Christ the Light.  From there, let us pray that the illumination and enlightenment of Christ the Light will emblazon and enkindle our zeal and passion to follow Him wheresoever He bids us go and to obey Him in whatever He asks us to do. That His Light might become that knowledge which will compel our desire to embrace His saving love. And in the end, with Simeon, let us be prepared always to depart this life, having seen Christ the Light, who will blend illumination with future glory, and enlightenment with lasting joy, and knowledge with love because [our] eyes have seen thy salvation; which thou hast prepared before the face of all people. Amen.