According to yesterday’s newspapers, we can expect another month – at least – of stormy, wet weather. Given that today is sunny – in this part of the country anyway – this fits in with the folklore that if Feb 2nd is cloudy and dull, winter will be over soon but if it is bright and sunny, there will be more bad weather to come.
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.
In the United States, on February 2nd, they observe ‘Groundhog Day’. The theory is that if a groundhog comes out of his winter burrow on that day and sees his shadow, he will be frightened and go back underground; winter will continue for a few more weeks. If there is no shadow (i.e. it is a cloudy day), winter is indeed over and the groundhog will stay outside. Like many of our sayings about weather (‘red sky at night’) it is probably based on experience and may have an element of truth.
I wonder if you have seen the film ‘Groundhog Day’? The story is about a grumpy TV weather forecaster, Phil, who is sent to report on what a groundhog (also called Phil!) does on Feb 2nd. Having made his report, he is prevented from leaving the town by heavy snow. He is then caught in a time-loop in which the day repeats itself over and over again. His response varies from frustration to taking advantage of the situation – stealing, being rude because he never has to face the consequences – to desperately trying to escape by attempting suicide. Only when he uses his experience to save lives and to befriend people, to be a blessing to them, is the loop broken and time moves on – much to his relief.
Today, Feb 2nd, the church celebrates the event described in our gospel reading, the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem according to the Jewish custom of the time – to dedicate the first-born male child to God and to mark the return of the mother to normal society after the birth. The elderly Simeon greets Jesus as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God’s people’. Light has come into the world but there are also shadows of events still to come.
Why Candlemas? Well, it was the day of the year when all the candles, that were used in the church during the coming year, were brought into church and a blessing was said over them – so it was the Festival Day (or ‘mass’) of the Candles.
Candles used to be more important than they are now, and not only because there was no electric light. Some people thought they gave protection against plague and illness and famine. For Christians, they were (and still are) a reminder of something even more important. Before Jesus came to earth, it was as if everyone was ‘in the dark’. People often felt lost and lonely and afraid – and still do, of course. As if they were on their own, with no one to help them. Then came Jesus with his message that he is with his followers always ready to help and comfort them. He is a guiding light to them in the darkness. Christians often talk of Jesus as ‘the light of the World’ – and candles are lit during church services to remind us of this.
At the end of our service today we will light our individual candles, symbolising our response to our calling to take the light of Christ out into the world to combat the darkness and fear and loneliness that people feel. When Christians are baptised or confirmed they are frequently given a lighted candle and encouraged to ‘Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’ because they have passed from darkness to light, they have stepped into the light of Jesus, the light of the world. Of course, we may well still experience darkness and fear. Becoming a Christian does not provided immunity from such things but when we belong to the body of Christ, the church, we can hope that others will shine on us, will reflect the light of Christ, light a candle for us.
But our responsibility as the body of Christ – Christ’s hands and feet and voice in the world – goes further than this. As a church, we are called to continue Christ’s work of bringing light into the dark places of the world. Yes, we can ‘do our bit’ on our own, we can be ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’ but how much more effective we will be if we work together! Think of a birthday cake with candles. Ordinary sized cake with, say, 5 candles dotted around the side. Pretty, attractive. Now suppose you are celebrating a significant birthday as some of us are this year…. Ordinary sized cake but someone decides to decorate it with the appropriate number of candles and light them all. What happens??? Melt-down! A conflagration! Wow!
That’s how to get noticed, how to provoke a response, how to bring a shining light into dark places – places of fear, of deprivation, of injustice. How might we do that? And just as Jesus the light of the world was not all harmony and sweetness, we too may find that standing up for what we believe may prove uncomfortable for us and for others, a stumbling block, a sign that is opposed.
Today is a day when we look both backwards and forwards. It is the mid-point, in terms of the calendar, between the winter solstice and the official beginning of spring on March 21st. It is the point at which we put Christmas behind us and begin to look forward towards Lent and Easter. It has become the custom in recent years for the church to continue to celebrate Christmas, to keep Christmas decorations up until Candlemas. But now our focus shifts from celebrating the birth of Jesus to considering his suffering. On the other hand, the darkest time of the year is now behind us, the days are getting noticeably longer; the light is coming. We no longer need those artificial twinkling lights; the real light has come into the world. Simeon and Anna, in our gospel reading look both back with gratitude that the saviour of the world has come and forward to what has still to be accomplished by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seems a long time since Christmas but this is our last opportunity to look back at the infant Jesus. The special words spoken by Simeon and Anna tell us yet again that he is no ordinary baby. So many things have been giving us clues through the story of the nativity – a star, angels, the special gifts offered by the wise men and now all of that is put into words. This baby is the light of God’s salvation, a light for all the world.
But even as we look back at the baby, Simeon’s words to Mary make us look forward to the cross. He gives the first hint that the way to salvation is not going to be easy as he tells Mary that Jesus is going to challenge people and make her very sad.
So we too, in these churches of the Wilford peninsula can look back with gratitude for all God has done for us and the gifts he has given us. But we look forward too with varying degrees of excitement and trepidation as we set out on this journey to discover where God is calling this church and to carry His light out. I hope that we can say ‘For all that has been, thanks be to God; for all that shall be – Yes!’