Candlemass

During this last week the world, or at least America and a few international onlookers, celebrated Groundhog Day. If you missed it, it all happened on Thursday – 2nd February.

Fifteen years ago Groundhog Day would have meant very little to most people, but the Columbia Pictures movie starring Bill Murray which is set on that very day has given it some level of notoriety. The film was released in 1993. I haven’t seen it for some years. As I was scanning through my memory last night trying to remember what is was about, I think that the main storyline in the film is about a man who wakes up every morning at the beginning of the day which has just ended. In the film he re-lives the same day every day. The day starts in exactly the same way, and over time he learns to live it better. Now obviously at the end of the film he finds someway out of this cycle that he is trapped in, but I can’t remember how or why that happens. At any rate, what I do know is that the day that he re-lives over and over again is Groundhog Day – the 2nd February, that is why the film has that title.

The legend of Groundhog Day is that on that day every year groundhogs come out of the holes in the ground which they have been in for their long winter sleep, in search of their shadows. If the groundhog sees its own shadow it goes back into its hole for another six weeks, but if it doesn’t see its shadow it stays out because it knows that the winter hibernation is over. T hat seems to me to be round the wrong way, because I would have thought that if that groundhog could see its shadow then the sun must be out, but anyway that is how the legend goes. It does not much make sense here in Australia in any case because we do not have groundhogs, and because we are in the middle of summer at this time of year, unlike countries in the northern hemisphere which are looking forward to the hope of spring.

The whole Groundhog Day superstition has grown out of a much older tradition surrounding the feast which we celebrate this morning. Because, as you have heard already, today we are celebrating Candlemass – which like groundhog day is also more properly celebrated on 2nd February. And the much older legend surrounding Candlemass has been the inspiration for groundhog day. As an old Scottish song puts it: “If Candlemass be fair and bright, come winter have another flight. If Candlemass brings clouds and rain, go winter and come not again.” In medieval times Candlemass was the day on which priests blessed special candles which were given to parishioners to burn in their homes, that’s what the title refers to. There is a church in Reading in the UK which burns over 100 candles on the altar during mass on Candlemasss to keep the tradition alive, our six aren’t very impressive in comparison! For the people of the past, who did not have our luxuries of electricity and gas, Candlemasss was a powerful festival of hope in the cold and the dark of winter. And it would have been a particularly powerful symbol of hope because by the beginning of February people living in the northern hemisphere have begun to see –albeit very slowly – the lengthening of days, and the first signs of spring. So there is a real hope that winter is coming to an end.

Candlemass has a number of different names. In our Anglican calendar we call it the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, other Christians have called it the Naming of Jesus, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Whichever name we use, the festival celebrates the event which he heard described in our Gospel reading a few minutes ago. That event, like a candle burning in the darkness, is a moment of hope for all who are involved in it.

Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus, have taken him to the Temple to be offered to God. They aren’t doing this because Jesus is different from any other baby, on the contrary they are doing it because he is a normal little baby. And Jewish religious law stated that the first born son must be offered to God. In other words Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to name him, and to give thanks for him, and to offer him for the service of God. Nick and Melissa, with their family and friends are here to do something similar this morning. They have come to give thanks for Amelia, and to offer her back to God as she becomes a member of the Church, the family of those who seek to serve God in a special way here on earth. If you are wondering why this event in the life of Jesus is remembered on 2nd February, it is because this offering of the first born son took place in Judaism forty days after birth. And so if Jesus was born on 25th December, he was offered in the Temple forty days later – you can check my arithmetic.

Joseph and Mary have come to offer a sacrifice in the Temple in recognition of the fact that they are offering their son for the service of God. A wealthy couple in those days would bring a lamb and a turtle-dove to be sacrificed; and poorer people would bring two turtle-doves, or if doves weren’t available (because they are migrating birds) pigeons would be offered in their place. To onlookers in the Temple on that day, this couple was just another provincial couple, who had come to Jerusalem to keep the Jewish religious law. But when the first Christians (who like Jesus were also Jews) heard about this encounter, where Jesus even as baby is seen in the Temple as the hope for all the nations, it was natural for them to think back to some of the prophecies of the Old Testament, of the Jewish scriptures which looked in hope for a day when such a person might be sent by God. And they remembered particularly the prophecy which we heard a little earlier from Malachi. “The Lord whom you seek,” says Malachi, “will suddenly come to his Temple.”

It is hard for us to remember that Jesus was not a Christian. Of course we know that he could not possibly have been because he could not be following himself, but when we hear about the Temple we need to remember that Mary and Joseph weren’t going to Church, as we have come here this morning. They were Jewish people worshipping in the Jewish religion. I think that that is so exciting! It means that those words which we heard from the letter to the Hebrews can be true. Jesus was not context-less, he was like us, a baby born into a family, with a name, and a home, and a language, and an ethnicity, and a history. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, “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… because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Jesus is a very Jewish name. In Hebrew it is very close indeed to the word for salvation. It is the same name as Joshua. And if we ever find ourselves forgetting Jesus’ Jewish-ness we need to return to this story to remind ourselves that he was very much a Jew, born into a Jewish family, offered to God within the provisions of Jewish law. Given a Jewish name, and almost certainly having a Jewish nose. Those Christians who call this festival the Naming of Jesus are focusing on something important. Amelia, who will be baptised this morning already has her names legally, but in a sense those names become “Christian names” at her baptism this morning. She named today in the presence of God – a powerful moment for her family, and a moment of great privilege for those of us who are able to witness these things happening. For Jesus this was the moment for his naming. For him to be called salvation. And this is a moment of deep significance in his life, because it is the fulfilment of what had been told to Mary by the Angel messenger. She was told that she would bear a son, and that she would call him Jesus – call him salvation – and in the Temple on this day he is named as the messenger had described so many months before.

Those of you who are here regularly know that I am a keen fan of the Vicar of Dibley, Luisa and I have most of the older episodes on DVD now. And there is a wonderful moment in one of those episodes when Geraldine the vicar is talking to a group of children and asking them about Jesus. Some of you will remember it. And she says to the group, “what’s so special about Jesus?” To which one eager boy responds, “I know Miss, his name is the only name which is also a swear word.” Do you know that the name of Jesus is spoken in every country of the world. Christian worship has so many different cultural flavours, and takes place in so many different languages, but if you know two words you can basically follow a little of what’s going on in a Christian service anywhere in the world. One of those words is “Amen” and the other is “Jesus.” Here in the Temple as a young baby, he is named by his parents “Jesus” – “salvation.”

His parents are not the only ones to name him on that day. As we heard a few moments ago, an old and righteous man named Simeon, knew that there was something different about this child. And Simeon took the baby in his arms when he saw him, and praising God, he said those words which have become known to us as the Nunc Dimittis. Do you remember that we used to say the Nunc Dimittis at Evensong in the old prayer book? “Now Lord, you let your servant go 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 the glory of your people Israel.” Here we are again, this symbol of light which has been constant in our reflections every week now during this Season of Epiphany. Its no wonder that the first Christians were called the Children of Light is it?

Simeon says, “now I can die in peace, I have seen in this baby the hope of salvation for all. For he is the light of the world. He is Jesus – he is salvation.” Just like those candles being lit in the darkness of winter-time as people wait for the hope of spring, Jesus shines out to Simeon as a light in the darkness; we as Christians are called to do the same.

In a few moments time I will say to Amelia, to Milly, “God has brought you out of darkness to live in his marvellous light, shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.” Because the hope which Simeon saw in Christ was not just for Simeon alone, and it isn’t just for those of us who are members of the Church. The salvation, the hope that things can be better, that what we have done in the past can be forgiven, and that what is to come can be fresh and new is the hope which we find in Christ for the whole world. Jjust as Jesus shone with that hope as he was offered to God by his parents in the Temple, so we are called to shine with that hope as well – like the candles of Candlemass, burning in the darkness of winter, reminding people that spring will come.

If we find it hard to have hope this morning, and so to be people of hope for others, we need look no further than at beautiful Milly who will be baptised. She reminds us that there is hope for the future, that new life is abundant in our world. She is for our community a symbol of hope that another generation will share in the task of shining with Christ’s light of hope in this local community. Which means that like Jesus’ parents we are here this morning to thank God for her, as we thank God for all who are baptised within this community.

All of us who have been baptised are children of God – Children of the Light. God calls us to be a candle-people. People who burn with the light of Christ in the darkness. People who burn with hope. And so I ask you this morning, what can you do this week to shine Christ’s light for others?