Down with the rosemary, and so /Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all / Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find /Not one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be /Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.
Robert Herrick was writing in the 17th century. It sounds like a poem about Twelfth Night. But it's called ‘Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve’. In those days they kept the Christmas decorations up for 40 days. Then, on 2 February, they took them down and, in some rural parts of
least, burnt them: bonfires to light up dark nights in honour of Christ the
world’s true light. In the middle ages, Candlemas was an occasion for elaborate
ceremonies of blessing tapers and carrying them in procession to light up
churches and much partying. In Durham
Cathedral, a great row blew up in 1628, the puritans alleging that the high
church party had lit 60 candles on the holy table, while they claimed it was
only two. Durham has always enjoyed a
good argument about liturgy. There are
echoes of pre-Christian rituals here: Roman lighting candles to banish evil
spirits, or Celts kindling fires at this time of year to mark the end of winter
as the days grow perceptibly longer and snowdrops and crocuses signal that
spring will soon be here. England
Candlemas is the last official day of Christmas. Like the 40 days of resurrection from Easter to Ascension, these past 40 days of incarnation have kept before us the truth of the Word made flesh. At Candlemas we recall how Jesus is brought by his parents as an infant of 40 days to be presented in the temple and blessed by God. Simeon acclaims him as ‘a light to lighten the gentiles’: Light of the world, Light of all people, Light of life. And we who stand by, looking on as Simeon cradles this little human light in his arms, we too are ready to sing our own Nunc Dimittis. For we have seen all that is worth seeing: we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. We can depart in peace.
Those loving parents, and old Simeon and Anna, and the little tiny child – all of humanity is there. Rembrandt depicted this scene many times in his paintings and etchings. He returned to it again and again, fascinated by the interplay of themes: intimacy and vastness, childhood and old age, life's dawning and its eventide, promise and fulfilment, darkness and light. It is the scale of these pictures that is so memorable: the immense spaces of the temple, and at its centre, the tiny figures of the holy family, like a fragile colony of life precariously nurtured in a shadowy cave. You wonder about those lowering shades that seem to press in upon that tiny point of light. Will the light grow in that darkness and finally overcome it - or is the darkness about to close in upon the light, extinguish it, snuff out what has been carried at such cost in Mary's womb?
They are sublimely accurate, these paintings. They portray things as they are, the dark-and-light realities God takes on as he comes among us and shares our human condition. By now, we know that Christmas has not suddenly made the world all right again, though we longed and prayed for it, for peace on earth and goodwill to all people, ‘hoping it might be so’. The shadows and the darkness are real enough. The massacre of the innocents shows how fragile incarnation is. According to St Matthew, the infant Jesus had to cling precariously on to life in a world as mischievous and as violent and as murderous as we know it to be today. The Candlemas story foreshadows the child's destiny. ‘A sword will pierce your own soul too’ says Simeon to Mary. It is another annunciation that sets her pondering in her heart all over again as she feels Golgotha looming over the holy family, foresees another, crueller, presentation of Christ, when he will be handed over into the hands of wicked men to suffer death upon a cross. W. H. Auden has a poem ‘At the Manger Mary Sings’. He has Mary say to her child, with terrible foreboding yet infinite love: How soon will you start on the sorrowful way? Dream while you may.
So Candlemas has a poignancy as well as joy about it. We have said goodbye to the festive cheerfulness that warmed up the bleak midwinter. The crib will be put away for another year, its pieces disassembled into a forlorn plastic bag. Tomorrow it will be ordinary time again, and soon Lent and ashes: ‘dust you are and to dust you shall return’. Christians in the east call Candlemas ‘the meeting’, the strange meeting between old and new covenant, between Christmas and Lent, light and dark, nativity and cross. In the Candlemas ceremony in this liturgy we shall mark the end of Christmas by carrying candles in procession, and then – get ready for it - blowing them out. It is a deliberate, almost sacrilegious thing to do: to snuff out the very light of the infant Jesus. In Advent it was darkness to light; now in a way it is light to darkness: the human pattern so familiar in our world today as we watch nations and peoples being drawn inexorably into destructiveness and conflict; familiar to people with no home or livelihood or friends; familiar to anyone who has lost someone they loved; familiar to all of us in a thousand different ways. It is as if a shadow falls across what light we have. The cross is always present.
This time of year is paradoxical. It makes you wonder about the mystery of things, how ‘joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine’ as Blake says; how our light, glorious as it is, is as yet only partial; how spring tries to prize this world out of winter’s clasp, yet frost clings on to its soul. God forbid that at this precarious time in our history, the threats we face should hold us fast for ever. There is the ecstasy of the crib and the agony of the cross and these two belong together. But it is still true that the days are growing longer, and the sap is rising. The worst of winter may not yet be over, but February doesn’t last forever, thank God. Spring will come, and Lent’s lengthening light. Soon we shall climb towards Easter. Today we light candles of longing in dark places and even when they are put out, we keep the memory of a precious flame alive for when the day breaks, and shadows flee away, and Christ is the glory of the nations, and hope is emptied in delight.
2 February 2014, on the Feast of the Presentation, Southwell MinsterLuke 2: 22-40