The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2021
Celebrating Candlemas (2 February)
Of David. A Psalm.
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory.
Malachi 3: 1-5
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
Hebrews 2: 14-end
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Luke 2: 22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
Some thoughts on Candlemas
DOWN with rosemary and bayes,
Down with the mistleto,
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box, for show.
Thus Robert Herrick, telling you to take down your Christmas decorations, not on Twelfth Night, but at Candlemas. So, if you haven't done it yet, you've got till Tuesday.
Candlemas is 2 February, forty days after Christmas, just as Easter is 40 fasting days after Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day is 40 days after Easter. In Orthodox and Eastern churches Advent starts on 15 November, which is, not surprisingly, 40 days before Christmas.
Noah's flood lasted forty days and forty nights; the people of Nineveh repented with forty days of fasting when Jonah preached the destruction of the city; Moses and the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years; the Prophet Ezekiel had to lie on his right side for forty days; the Prophet Elijah fasted and prayed on Mount Horeb for forty days; Goliath taunted Israel for forty days; and Moses fasted forty days and forty nights while on Mt. Sinai. In the New Testament we find Jesus fasting and praying for forty days and forty nights in the desert. And today's Gospel reminds is that Hebrew babies were taken to the Temple (and their mothers purified) forty days after birth. The word 'forty' occurs 145 times in the Authorised version (KJV) of the Bible.
So, what's so special about 40?
Originally, nothing. The biblical expression ‘40 days and 40 nights’ just means ‘a long time’ – just as ‘a thousand years’ means ‘longer than you can imagine’. Over the centuries, however, forty has become a number that, when used in terms of time, represents a period of probation, trial, and chastisement – like Lent or (originally) Advent.
Or so they say. But Christmas originally lasted for forty days, not of fasting but of feasting. And the same applies to Easter. Equally odd, really, is that the forty days of feasting should end with a big feast. But it seems pleasant and right that our Christian year should contain two long fasts and two long feasts.
Candlemas was celebrated very early in the history of the Church. Here's a passage from the pilgrimage of Egeria (381–384), where she confirmed that the celebrations took place in honour of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
XXVI. But certainly the Feast of the Purification is celebrated here with the greatest honour. On this day there is a procession to the Anastasis; all go in procession, and all things are done in order with great joy, just as at Easter. All the priests preach, and also the bishop, always treating of that passage of the Gospel where, on the fortieth day, Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple, and Simeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Famuhel, saw Him, and of the words which they said when they saw the Lord, and of the offerings which the parents presented. And when all things have been celebrated in order as is customary, the sacrament is administered, and so the people are dismissed.
It appears, aptly enough in our present circumstances, that Candlemas became important around the time of the Plague of Justinian in 541, before slowly spreading West, the first recorded pandemic of the Christian era. And that, I think, gives us a clue to the nature of the feast.
The fortieth day after Jesus’ birth is important for two reasons, not one; it is the feast of the Presentation in the Temple, and it is also the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.
Because childbirth is a messy business, a woman in Mosaic law is considered unclean for seven days, and forbidden to enter the temple or touch anything holy for another thirty-three days. At the end of that period, she was ‘purified’ by a special rite. If you look in the Book of Common Prayer, in fact, you will still find ‘The Churching of Women’. Of course, being C of E, it's a very toned-down affair, just a couple of psalms and a prayer of thanks; but it's the direct descendant of those old purification rites.
So what has all this to do with life in the Plague of Justinian – or in the days of Covid-19?
The pandemic in Justinian's time was something that should make us thankful for lockdown. It was the first manifestation of Bubonic Plague, started in Roman Egypt in 541, spread around the Mediterranean Sea until 544, and persisted in Northern Europe and the Arabian Peninsula until 549. The Emperor Justinian caught it and survived; but in Constantinople one person in every five died. That's what a pandemic can do if nobody knows how to stop it. Later variants were even more deadly.
In those circumstances, is it surprising that greater emphasis should be put on a festival of purification? We are told that we know neither the day nor the hour; how much more so when a killer of that strength stalks the streets! In all the great plagues of history, there have been two different reactions. People either held Plague parties, determined that, if they were to die soon, they’d at least have a jolly good time first; or they accepted that death might be at hand and strove to make themselves pure for the last judgment.
It's not much different in 2021, is it? Most of us sit patiently at home, careful not to spread disease, while a few whoop it up at secret raves or protest in the streets and smash things. Some of us keep two metres apart in shops and on our walks; others don’t appear to know or care what two metres even looks like. It was ever thus; but I think that the proportion of sensible people to rowdy (or just plain dumb) has changed over the years, and that the rowdy are now a very small minority.
So pat yourself on the back, and then remember that, sensible and law-abiding though you may be, you are by no means perfect; which is why I have chosen to put the Collects for Candlemas here:
Almighty and ever-living God, clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple,
in substance of our flesh:
grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Lord Jesus Christ, light of the nations and glory of Israel:
make your home among us, and present us pure and holy
to your heavenly Father, your God, and our God.
1. By the middle of the 5th century the custom of observing the festival with lighted candles had been introduced, and the name Candlemas developed from this custom. In the Western church, Pope Sergius I (687–701) instituted the festival in Rome.
2. It is often remarked that we know very little of Jesus’ early life. This is because the Bible includes only a couple of anecdotes; the Presentation when he was 40 days old, and at the age of 12, his disputing with the elders in the temple. This, however, is not because stories of Jesus’ childhood do not exist. There are many such stories dating from the earliest times, but the vast majority of them are unbelievable, over-fanciful, ridiculous or completely out of character.
There are two ‘Infancy gospels’ for example, already current in the second century, from the longer of which I extract these chapter headings:
Jesus, when in his cradle, informed his mother that he was the Son of God
Mary hangs his swaddling clothes to dry; a man possessed of devils puts one on his head, and the devils leave him
A leprous girl is cured by the water in which he had been washed
A young man who had been bewitched and turned into a mule is cured by Christ being put on his back
A woman presents Mary with a handsome carpet, and her son is cured,
Joseph (I like this one) is not a very good carpenter; but whenever he makes something crooked or the wrong size, Jesus miraculously puts it right
A schoolmaster, going to whip Jesus, his hand withers and he dies
A boy runs into Jesus, who curses him, and he dies
There are 22 chapters in the first Infancy Gospel, and I think you can gather from the above why that book never made it into the Bible.
My favourite one, though, is the story that Jesus made little birds out of clay, which walked around and flew. This legend was turned by Hilaire Belloc into one of my favourite prayers:
When Jesus Christ was four years old,
The angels brought Him toys of gold,
Which no man ever had bought or sold.
And yet with these He would not play.
He made Him small fowl out of clay,
And blessed them till they flew away:
Tu creasti Domine.
Jesus Christ, Thou child so wise,
Bless mine hands and fill mine eyes,
And bring my soul to Paradise.