There’s a tradition, in Poland, that candles blessed at Candlemas are lit to ward off storms; the day also coincides with the death of winter and the rebirth of spring, and people will light candles to keep away the dark. That’s not such a big deal nowadays – I’m writing this under neon lights, after all – but back in the day, before electricity and lampposts, even the tiniest flame must have been a flickering symbol of hope.
Looked at that way, you can see why Candlemas became one of the big feasts of early Christianity. It commemorates Mary and Joseph presenting the month-old Jesus at the Temple, whereupon they have strange encounters with a couple of old folk. One of them, Simeon (although it doesn’t actually say that he was old…), sees Jesus and launches into a song of hope and prophecy, but once again, as we see throughout the stories of Jesus’s childhood, there’s a strand of darkness running through it.
Things start optimistically enough:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
This is a revelation – this tiny baby is the hope of the world, light breaking into darkness. The tiny flame is lit, and Mary and Joseph are moved by the old (?) man’s words. And why not? This is only 40 days after the Nativity, they’re probably still buzzing about how the Messiah has come, about how Heaven’s broken through into the grime and the pain of human life. It’s a message that resonates throughout history – the Lord has come, the Light of the World is here. Even today that’s my hope – the light in the dark, no matter how claustrophobic that dark seems to get.
Unfortunately Simeon doesn’t end there:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
The Light of the World might be here, but people are going to speak out against it, and when he’s only 33, his mother will have to watch him be crucified by corruption and empire. The light has dawned, Mary, but it’s gonna hurt, the pain’s going to pierce your soul and the world’s going to remember that heartache and write songs about it.
Faith isn’t easy. Sometimes being a disciple means standing against the world; sometimes being a disciple means standing about the ‘church’. Empires like to kill the prophets, snuffing out the light of hope if they deem that to be necessary. That’s why Christianity, at its purest, is cross-shaped.
But the Light of the World is also a fire, and the flame needs to burn, whether that’s a candle beating back the shadows, or the whole lot being razed to the ground so that something better and more holy can be born from the ashes. And that can be a painful process, and it’ll meet with resistance, but sometimes that’s the only way forward, the only way out of the dark.
So light a candle. Spark a flame. And carry the hope of the world into the night, confident that sometime soon the sun’s gonna rise.