Candlemas Malachi 3.1 ....the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, February 2, 2014 - 9:30am

 

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer there is much that we still use and value. Evensong and Holy Communion in particular remain a frequent staple in many parishes. It is not unknown still to find Mattins at 11 O’Clock in old-fashioned churches, and one is often called upon to conduct weddings and funerals according to the older rite.  However, some services to be found within the pages of the beaten old volume that I inherited from my grandmother rarely see the light of day. A Commination, or denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against impenitent Sinners, although appointed for the first day in Lent, is a form of service that seems never to have been in vogue,…I wonder why.  Into the same category falls The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called The Churching of Women, though I suspect it has fallen into disuse for rather less sound reasons.

 

When, at Theological College, I naively proposed, after a friend of mine gave birth to her child, that we should seek to resurrect this custom, and I was set upon by an angry mob, because ‘Churching’, it seemed, had acquired a bad reputation because of the taint it seemed give to Childbirth- implying that a woman was somehow unclean until churched.  Later, in my North Yorkshire parish, I would meet older ladies who had suffered from the imposed isolation enforced upon them until their churching, and I came to understand why it had become such a touchy subject.

 

And yet still it seems sad that communities have used it this way, for if we examine this humble little service, covering only a page and a half of my little Prayer Book, we find nothing but a wonderful, and very positive affirmation of the gift that has been received through childbirth and an expression of the hearty gratitude we feel as a community, not only for the gift of a child but for a safe and successful birth.

 

Today complications in labour remain a risk in spite of advances in medical practice and pain relief, but at the time of writing, in the 17th century, it could frequently be a life or death struggle, in which survival was far from assured.  What better response than for a woman to kneel before God and give thanks both for her own life, and for the new life that has blossomed from it?

 

All of this comes to mind as I consider afresh the festival of Candlemas, known variously as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, rich as it is with several strands of symbolism, not to say irony.

 

Christ, as firstborn, is brought to the temple in line with the commandment from Exodus:

‘Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast is mine’ (Ex 13.2)

 

This text is commonly held to demonstrate the beginnings of an early priesthood among the Israelites, and we can take it as Christ’s consecration to his priestly role…the Lord comes to his temple.  Perhaps more simply, Jesus’ good Jewish parents recognise the source of all good things and offer back to God the first of his Gifts.  For us, the firstborn of a new creation comes to consecrate the world afresh by the shedding of his own blood.

 

Similarly, Mary makes the purity offering of two turtledoves or pigeons, prescribed by Leviticus to render her ritually clean by Jewish law, and thus able to play her part in the life of the temple.  Yet there is, I would suggest, an intentional irony here that the one who has been called to bear within her the Word of God; to be Theotokos, the dwelling place of God, must offer sacrifice at the very temple her son will challenge by his existence.

 

Lastly Simeon’s poignant prophecy of ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, which has come down to us as Nunc Dimmitis, and is the origin of the blessing of candles at Candlemas, marks out Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed with all its accompanying auguries of Revelation and Judgement, and with the added promise that this light will extend beyond the limits of the Jewish people to encompass all. A light which shone in the darkness, and was not received by its own.

 

Brought together in one festival are the strands of Consecration, Purity, and Light, each of them meeting in the new life of this little infant.

 

Reading them backwards, as it were, in the light of Christ’s life and ministry, his death and resurrection we find that this, His first encounter with the Temple, is laden with significance.  Here he is consecrated to the Lord’s service to be both priest and offering on the cross. Here he enters the temple whose curtain will be rent apart at his death. Here he is proclaimed as a light for all peoples, raising some from obscurity, and exposing the hypocrisies of others. 

 

Like the prelude to an opera, Candlemas foreshadows all that will unfold in the gospel to follow. It stands at the tipping point of the year between Christmas and Easter, between Christ's birth and his passion and resurrection.

 

In just the same way as women of times past presenting themselves for churching, Mary brings her child into the temple with thanksgiving, but carrying with her, as all parents do, her hopes and anxieties for the future. As if in answer, she is met with this prophecy from Simeon, predicting great things certainly, but also the very personal sorrow that is in store for her:

                                                'A sword will pierce your own soul, too.'

 

Here in the Temple she offers up her firstborn son, consecrating Him to the purposes of God, and submitting as she did when first she heard the message of the angel.

As thoughts of Christmas recede, and the season of Lent draws closer, today is an occasion for us to do likewise.  To gather at God's holy altar, and offer up to Him the best of all we have, in George Herbert's words 'the cream of all our hearts' in a sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving, trusting that, whatever pains and troubles may lie ahead, nothing will be able to separate us from the surpassing love of God in Jesus Christ. Open wide our hearts and mouths, and the Lord will truly enter into his temple.