Thursday 21 January 2016

Love Shine a Light: Candlemas

Love Shine a Light in every Corner. Time for another religious post. This is a post about one of those little-known and neglected festivals - Candlemas - that could do so much to help brighten our year, especially in times like the present, which are both literally and metaphorically dark. I hope that I can help those who are sceptical or dismissive of religion a chance to see that following and  commemorating the life of Jesus of Nazareth can give a form and pattern to our secular lives and provide opportunities for constructive reflection.

Did you know it's still Christmas? Well, to be accurate, it's still Epiphany, which is a season lasting from January 6th until February 2nd - Candlemas Day.

Candlemas is a rather forgotten festival, marking the last day of the Christmas Season, and traditionally the day on which a Christmas Crib is put away, having been left in place when all the other decorations came down on 12th night. In our house, the two cribs stay defiantly in place until February 2nd.

Candlemas Day commemorates the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, six weeks after his birth, as told in the gospel of St Luke.

Holbein's Presentation of Christ
Presentation of a child was - still is - a standard rite of passage for a Jewish child, but the story is told of an old man in the Temple, Simeon, who on seeing the infant Jesus brought for Presentation, declared that he had "seen the Light of the World",  and could now die happy. His words give us the Nunc Dimitis, a familiar part of the traditional Evensong.

"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: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel"

It's easy to see how this recognition of Jesus as the "Light of the World" developed into Candlemas: a festival of light in the depths of winter is an appealing idea that long pre-dates Christianity, so the Church took it over in the same way that Christmas and Easter were "christianised" versions of earlier festivals. What's surprising is that neither the Church nor the exploitative commercial world has ever made much of Candlemas in the way that happens with Christmas, Easter and various Saints days.

I think that's a shame. If ever there was a time of year when we need a nice little extra festival, it's surely the end of January/start of February. It's famously a depressing time of the year, with "Blue Monday" in mid-January  officially designated the most depressing day of the year. So surely, we should jump at the chance to have a little celebration at this gloomy time of the year. A bit of light in the darkness, just as Jesus was, and is, a shining light of goodness in an often dark and evil world.

In recent years, the church has adopted Christingle as a festival of light, but rather unwisely Christingle gets crammed into Advent and so gets rather caught up in the pre-Christmas busy-ness. Caught between the church's unwillingness to sing carols and celebrate during the restrained and dignified season of Advent, and a desire to anticipate the coming of the Light of the World, Christingle seems to my traditionalist mind  to be rather an incongruous intrusion in Advent.

So how about we start celebrating Candlemas a bit more? A nice, low-key affirmation of light in the darkness of February, with perhaps a wholesome winter casserole at a  candlelit table. How about a drink to celebrate the end of dry January? And as for music, well the playlist, both sacred and secular, is wonderful: Love Shine a light, Shine, Candle in the Wind, If I can Dream, Blinded by the Light, Ray of Light, any Nunc Dimitis, Lead Kindly Light, Christ is the World's true Light - even Shine Jesus Shine if you really must. There's a playlist at the bottom of this post.

It's not an original idea to mark Candlemas. It's a day steeped in folklore, derived from the idea that the end of winter may, or may not, be in sight. The Americans call it Groundhog Day - when this animal emerges from its burrow after hibernation and goes back in if it sees its own shadow - and this recognises the not unreasonable idea that if the weather is sunny and settled at the start of February,  there is every chance that winter will re-appear before Spring finally gets going. The same idea is present in an old English rhyme:

"If Candlemas Day be bright and fair,
then half the winter's to come or mair;

If Candlemas Day be dark and foul, 
then half the winter was over at Yule"

So let's celebrate Candlemas. Whether as a Christian wishing to acclaim Jesus as a shining light in an often evil world, like a candle in a darkened room, or just as a welcome relief from the doom and gloom of January and a chance to keep those Easter eggs at bay, it's worth a go.

Close the curtains, dim the lights, pour yourself a nice glass of red, light a candle or two, and enjoy the winter whilst looking forward to summer. Here's a Candlemas Spotify Playlist:

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