Candlemas is one of those feasts that we would like to have go on almost indefinitely, so I think it is fine to treat it as a ‘movable feast’. Though tinged with just a tiny bit of regret, because it marks the end of the Christmas season, it embodies peace and hope for the future. It sits in the Church’s year like a ship leaving harbour, still just connected to Christmas and rather tremulously looking out to sea to the months that lie ahead – what is left of winter, and then early Spring and the beginning of Lent.
Candlemas is a time of transition from darkness to light, coinciding more or less with the Spring equinox when the days are just beginning to draw out and the night is beginning to recede. Only a couple of weeks ago, in the UK, it was dark by 4.30, now the darkness is held back until just after 5.
The picture that returns to me every year in connection with this feast day is one of moving from darkness to light, or rather of light emerging out of darkness. It’s not difficult to see why this is so. Just picture what it might have felt like to be Simeon or Anna. Both have waited a life-time to see God’s Messiah, as they were promised, but they may not have expected the moment to occur quite in the way it does. They have probably been looking for a descent of the Almighty from clouds ‘riven with angels’ wings’, as the Christmas carol describes them, rather than a young quite inconspicuous couple walking towards them through the darkened temple in the very early morning with their young baby. It is so early, in fact, that they may be wondering what they are doing there at that hour.
At what point, then, do Simeon and Anna realise that something quite out of the ordinary is going on, something they are not at all prepared for? This is, after all, an ordinary morning. Simeon and Anna are just two faithful people on the temple rota, going about their business in the way they have always done, just as so many church people do in our own churches and parishes and just as we have all been doing in our ordinary lives, until the covid pandemic brought our lives to a standstill.
This is why Candlemas is so special for us right now. It invites us to encounter Christ in the ordinariness of the present moment. The encounter that takes place between Simeon, Anna and the young couple is an intensely ‘now’ moment. In other words, what we are witnessing to as we think about this faithful couple and the fulfilment of God’s promise to them, is God’s faithfulness to us now and how, like Simeon and Anna, we are called to respond to God’s faithfulness from within the times we are living in. We are called to be present to Christ in times when everything seems to have stopped and there is still no clear sign of what the future will look like and whether we will be able to pick up our lives where we left off once the pandemic is over, assuming it is eventually defeated.
Here I am not advocating optimism, but rather inviting us to be fully present to the now moment and to stay with it, to be faithful to it, knowing that God does not abandon us and that he keeps his promises, especially his promise to always be with us. In this respect, God is most fully present to us in the seeming banality of things as they are right now. Depression and boredom render things and activities that were once interesting and worthwhile banal and pointless, a situation that gets worse the more tired of the restrictions imposed on us by Covid we become and the more uncertain we become about what the future holds for our country and for our Church in so many areas of its life.
This is a very good time to be thinking about the Church and its life in the future, since it is in this present moment that God chooses to manifest himself to two faithful church people in the temple building, as he might have chosen to do to one of us in one of our churches in a way that is perfectly ordinary and normal. I think the Covid experience, especially in regard to the restrictions it imposes on church worship, invites us to reflect on what it really means to be church now, during this covid pandemic, and, in doing so, to realise that Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child are walking towards us to meet us in every moment of it – in moments of boredom, of loneliness, when life seems to be slipping by with no change in sight, when we imagine what we might be doing or becoming were it not for this virus. But the feast of Candlemas also reminds us of what it is we are called to be, and to continually become, as Church. We are called to be people who rejoice together in God’s faithfulness to his promise to us in Jesus.
Remembering that we are doing this together is what matters. You might think that I am inviting some sort of exercise in collective positive thinking, that somehow we must get ourselves into a frame of mind where we believe all this when right now we are finding it very hard to do so. Simeon might have been in a similar frame of mind when he saw Jesus for the first time and then found himself holding him in his arms.
One of the things we miss most at the moment is being able to touch or hold another person. It is a situation which has been proven to be very bad for people’s mental health. But as people of prayer, there are things we can do to make this sensory and emotional deprivation a little bit easier. The Candlemas story, as it is told in Luke’s gospel, invites us to literally get into it in a sensory and emotional way. It is not hard to imagine, or remember, what it feels like to hold a small baby, to feel the warmth of her skin, the softness of her hair and to look into her eyes, eyes that are so often wide open in expectation of something surprising and good and that are full of trust. Imagine doing the same thing alongside Simeon and Anna. Feel the weight of the Christ child, look into his eyes and allow him to look into yours. Do not flinch from his gaze. Allow yourself to return his smile. You are not alone. God is faithful and all will be well.