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Vicar's Musings for Candelmas

2 February, 2014

Peter Bryce, our Head Server at St Peter's, regularly sends me the monthly newsletter of St Cyprian's Clarence Gate, an Anglo-Catholic church in London. The monthly reflections from the Vicar, Fr Gerald Beauchamp, are beautifully written and, today being Candlemas, I would like to share his most recent one with you (see below). We are reminded in Fr Gerald's writing of the common roots of our Catholic tradition, and the equinoxal inclemency of the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year. As our own weather swings from scorching heat to dramatic thunderstorms, with the accompanying threat of bush fire, perhaps we too have special prayers we need to make at this time of year. Certainly we are connected today, through Candlemas, with the prayer of our sisters and brothers around the globe who yearn for the light of Christ to shine on our wounded, fragile, and beautiful world.

February opens with one of the most interesting if somewhat neglected feasts: the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas. It follows 40 days after Christmas and so takes literally the traditional time after childbirth that Jewish women would be purified and so return to society. Hence the older name found in the Prayer Book of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was observed early on by the church in Rome and is probably the oldest Marian feast in the church's calendar albeit one that now emphasises the presence of Christ instead of his mother.

Because the incident as recorded in Luke's Gospel includes Simeon's song that the child he sees is to be a "light to lighten the gentiles" it became the custom that candles manufactured during the long winter nights in the northern hemisphere were blessed as Spring began to break and the days became longer ... traditionally sailors never set out to sea on Candlemas for fear of gales. In Poland 2nd February is referred to as the Feast of Our Lady of Thunder Candles because blessed candles are taken to people's homes to ward off storms.

Lighting candles has undergone something of a renaissance in our culture. No longer do we rely on them at home apart from the occasional power cut and when I was young lighting candles in church (except for the having them on the altar) was thought to be something that only Roman Catholics did. But now whenever there is a disaster laying flowers and lighting candles has become the norm. To light a candle is a sign of hope — sometimes hoping against hope, even "a raging against the dying of the light." Candles are also used to mark celebrations. Candlelight with its atmospheric glow is seen as enhancing the occasion.

This is all for the good but we need to move beyond the symbolic to the real. It is easy for customs such as candle-lighting to become displacement activities. If candles are truly signs of hope and celebration then these qualities need to be reflected in the lives of those who light them. Genuine spirituality shines out of us. It doesn't just shine on us. As we move beyond Candlemas and look towards Holy Week and Easter we will experience in Christ all of the hopes and disasters that so easily befall us. Yet what lies ahead is an even greater light symbolised by the Paschal Candle lit on Easter Day.

The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster

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