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Friday, February 02, 2018

Candlemas: a holiday for soul-stretched parents, for winter-weary waiting, for neglected witnesses

I use an app that follows the Church Calendar for daily Bible reading, so occasionally come upon a holiday that surprises me.  Today we celebrate Candlemas, which falls 40 days after Christmas and so marks the day that Joseph and Mary brought their baby Jesus to the temple (story in Luke 2).  Their visit fulfilled two traditions:  one, that the firstborn son belonged to God in a special way and had to be redeemed by a sacrifice in memory of God's rescue of the entire nation of Israel when they were slaves in Egypt (Exodus 13), and two, that a woman who had given birth was now declared ritually pure again (Leviticus 12, and remarkably congruent with the typical 6-week post-partum check up we practice now).

In this story we see the humanity, and the poverty, of Jesus and his family.  They could not afford the lamb sacrifice, so brought two turtle doves.  There would be many people performing the same rituals every day.  But the Spirit prompted a prophet named Simeon to go to the temple that day and meet this family as they entered, holding the baby up and calling him salvation, a light, glory, hope.  Privately then, he turns to Jesus' mother and soberly prepares her.  Being a light to the world is a heavy burden to bear.  Many will speak against this child, even in our own soul you will feel the piercing of the sword.

What a picture of parent-hood.  The delightful promise a baby represents.  That pure potential, that perfect joy, that world-changing life at its start.  But the lurking shadow of heart-aches to come, of mystery, separation, danger we are unable to prevent, watching helplessly from afar.

The day coincides with the exact mid-point between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox, an ancient marker, halfway out of the darkest night for the northern half of the globe.  That's why countries have traditions about badgers or groundhogs peeking out to see their shadow and predict just how nasty the next six weeks will be, and that's why the name of the holiday reflects a tradition of bringing candles to the church for blessing.  Christmas has come, resurrection lies ahead, but we're still a flickering candle in the dark.

I also love the subversive equality of this day, a widow, a very old woman, gets to hold the King in the Temple and bear witness.  Truth depended upon two eye witnesses, and as will happen at the resurrection, women get a key voice in the new Kingdom.  At the presentation in the Temple and at the tomb in the garden, so few actually saw the import of this baby and man.  So few probably listened or remembered.  For most, as in the painting, there was chaos and noise and confusion.  But two people recognized the import and they still bear witness to the truth.

Malcom Guite writes of the day in a sonnet from "Sounding the Seasons".

They came, as called, according to the Law.
Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,
They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,
For God was coming with them to his temple.
Amidst the outer court's commercial bustle
They'd waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,
Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,
Had made a killing on two young doves.
They come at last with us to Candlemas
And keep the day the prophecies came true;
We share with them, amidst our busyness,
The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.
For Candlemas still keeps his kindled light;
Against the dark our Saviour's face is bright.

A day to capture the paradox of parental glory and pain.  A day to recognize the cultural connection of the real baby Jesus to the ancient traditions of exodus and rescue.  A day to foreshadow that this family who could not afford a lamb, had birthed the Lamb whose sacrifice would ultimately rescue from the slavery of evil.  A day to light a candle that testified that darkness cannot overcome light.  A day to ponder just how often we miss the important story:  what baby amongst the dozens I touched today goes unrecognized for a life that will bless many, what purposes might God be working for good in the massive crowds protesting here in Kenya?

1 comment:

christine.harter said...

every time you write it is a blessing, Jennifer