Presentation of the Lord
Words by CHRISTOPHER COLVEN
Fra Angelico, The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (1440) Wikimedia/Public Domain
According to the original account of the creation offered in the Book of Genesis it was on the first day that having seen there was darkness over the deep God said: “let there be light, and there was light”. From the very beginning a contrast has been written into human experience.
“God saw that light was good and God divided light from darkness. God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night’”. When, after the long centuries of Israel’s preparation, Jesus appears as Messiah, he says of himself: “I am the light of the world: anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark; he will have the light of life” (John 8:12). In writing to the Corinthians, Saint Paul had his own take on the significance of Jesus as bringer of light: “it is the same God that said: ‘let there be light shining out of darkness’ who has shone in our minds to radiate the light of the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ”.
The central liturgical action of the Christian year emphasises the contrast between darkness and light. At the beginning of the Paschal Vigil fire is kindled and the Easter candle blessed and lit. It is then carried through the darkened church to the shout “Lumen Christi”, “Christ our Light”, as gradually the candles of the faithful take their light from the central light. The symbolism is powerful (as it is meant to be): a church which has experienced the night now opens itself to receive a new dawning of light. The Paschal Vigil is the time for the initiation of new Christians and as these adults take their place within the community of the redeemed each one is handed a lighted candle with the words: “You have been enlightened by Christ. Walk always as a child of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your heart. When the Lord come, may you go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom”.
Rembrandt, Simeons song of praise (1631) Wikimedia/Public Domain
All this is by way of background to the annual celebration of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, better-known simply as “Candlemass”. When Mary and Joseph take the Child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfil the rituals required by the Old Covenant a priest meets them “an upright and devout man … the Holy Spirit rested on him”. It had been revealed to this Simeon that is eyes would not close in death before he had seen the Christ, and as he holds Jesus, he knows that this is the promised moment. He can now die in peace: “my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see, a light to enlighten the pagans and the glory of your people Israel”. Here is someone literally on fire with the love of God: everything he has ever accepted in faith comes together in one glorious moment of affirmation – “its perfection is beyond all words” (Saint Clement).
The use of candles in our worship is practical (there was no electric light through most of the Christian era!) but their significance clearly has a deeper sign-value and reminds us of the light which emanates from Christ himself. “As the eternal radiance of God, the divine Son is himself eternally light, without beginning or end” (Aidan Nichols OP). The Nicene Creed sums up this truth when it talks of Jesus as “Light from Light”. It is always a moving experience to enter a church to find votive candles burning at the shrines: each point of light an affirmation of the nature of Jesus as the Son of God while at the same time being a prayer lifting a need to the embrace of the Saviour and his saints.
Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the 7th century reminds us: “The Mother of God carried the true Light in her arms and offered him to those who were living in darkness: let us hasten to meet him, enlightened within by his brightness, and carrying in our hands a light which all can see: this is our mystery, so it is right for us to come together with lights in our hand to signify the light which has shone on us and to point to the brightness he has brought with him”.