CANDLEMAS is one of the loveliest festivals of the Christian year; but as it only comes round on a Sunday every six years, comparatively few Catholics experience it. We have an account of it being celebrated in Jerusalem from the earliest centuries of the Church; what the old man Simeon says about the baby in his arms being ‘a light to enlighten the pagans’ quickly inspired Christians to mark his words by carrying lighted hand candles in procession before going into church (the equivalent of the Temple in Jerusalem). The historian Eamon Duffy in his classic work The Stripping of the Altars describes how the feast day was particularly important in the Middle Ages in England and the rest of northern Europe because of cold winter conditions at the beginning of February – candles were a source of much needed light and warmth. People didn’t simply receive candles in church; they brought domestic candles to be blessed by the priest and would use them during the year in their homes to put in their windows during thunderstorms and to give to people to hold if they were praying around the bed of a dying family member. In England Candlemas ceremonies (like so much else) were abolished at the Reformation in the 16th century so this tradition receded from public life until the nineteenth century. In spite of anxieties, owing to the incident involving a lighted candle at a carol service in our neighbouring parish of Addiscombe before Christmas, we repeat this ancient ceremony before all Masses this weekend, walking with love to meet our Lord in his holy place. Traditionally Candlemas marked the end of the Christmas season which is why here (and elsewhere) we keep the crib in place until today.
When Simeon used these words a lot in his world must have seemed rather dark. The Temple itself was controlled by a corrupt priesthood in hock to the Herodian quisling monarchy and the occupying Romans; there was a lot about Temple worship and the Temple ‘establishment’ which the great prophets of the Old Testament would have forcefully denounced. When we feel we are in periods of darkness and gloom, it is important that we are able too to greet the Lord Jesus as our true light, to keep us from the sin of despair, and many of us will feel this over this week-end.
In the talk we had on Catholic Social Teaching on Wednesday evening I alluded to an important book which Pope Francis has found very helpful in his pastoral ministry as a priest and bishop in Argentina – Triumph through Failure – A Theology of the Cross (1984) by the Jesuit theologian John Navone. In the book Fr Navone reminds us that as Christians we don’t share in conventional success ideology. The crucifixion of Our Lord turns the values of the world upside down: by any conventional yardstick the ministry of Jesus, particularly as it is presented in the gospel of Mark, ended in failure, with him having few followers, deserted by them, arrested and tried on trumped-up charges and brutally executed as a common criminal, without human rights or dignity, outside the walls of the Holy City. Simeon foresees this failure in the gospel account when he says that the child in his arms will be ‘a sign that is rejected.’ The reality of the Cross will always be a challenge; indeed it is pointed to by Simeon in the gospel account today when he says to Our Lady ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too’. Fr Navone shows us that because of the Cross we can use failure to good effect on the path to resurrection and new life: not by pretending that the failure isn’t real, nor by accepting evil and ‘moving on’, but finding new opportunities to witness to truth and light.
When Pope Francis was elected in 2013 it became clear that Fr Navone’s book had been influential on him, so the book was re-printed and the author (who had never met the pope) added a new postscript in which he wrote at one point: ‘As the father of lies, Satan the Adversary reigns where persons and nations live for self-glorification in a state of self-idolatry, persons whose very lives secrete a life-lie.’ (p.182) The way of the cross, the way of failure in the eyes of the world, stands in opposition to the way of Satan, the way of people and nations who glorify them-selves, who indulge in self-worship; this is all about lies and falsehood. The truth of Catholic teaching, which should guide us in the whole of our lives, shows us, and our nation, a better way to live. The Church teaches unequivocally that nations should work together in solidarity, that our sovereignty and independence is never unqualified or absolute, that countries should not be selfish or self-seeking. That message is part of how we seek to offer guidance in the search for truth in the world, and the mes-sage continues to be true after this weekend; as we saw on Wednesday part of how we need to impart this message is a call to repentance.