Candlemas / Groundhog Day
Sermon preached by
An introduction to the day
In modern life many people may not be aware that on February 2nd we celebrate an ancient feast, common to the Church of both East and West, which used to have a great significance in the rural calendar. In fact I was hunting around the Internet for information about Candlemas yesterday and I was surprised that there was more information put on by witches than there was by Christian groups. Lots of witches celebrating a time of the year which naturally forms a transition period in winter - there is a sense in which thank God we are moving on into brighter and better days.
As Candlemas traditions evolved, many people embraced the legend that if the sun shone on the second day of February, an animal would see its shadow and there would be at least six more weeks of winter. Bears or badgers are watched in some European countries, but the German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania found an abundance of groundhogs and late in the 19th century a few residents in Punxsutawney began celebrating the groundhog as weather prophet.
You may know the rhyme
If Candlemas day be sunny and bright,
Winter again will show its might.
If Candlemas day be cloudy and grey,
Winter soon will pass away. (Fox version)
If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas day be shower and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again. (Traditional)
But this time of year should not be a pagan festival it is a Christian feast which we celebrate and it can be traced to at least 543. The Feast of Lighted candles is mentioned by Bede and St. Eligius, who was bishop of Noyon from 640 to 648. The feast quickly became popular, the day is set aside to commemorate the presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus has been circumcised, marking him as a member of God's chosen people, through whom world salvation was to be achieved.
The background to the passage from Luke today is seen in the Book of Leviticus Chapter 12:1. This taught that
- On the eight day after the birth of a boy, he was to be circumcised
- Then the woman was to wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding
Here is the reading from Leviticus 12:1 if you find it helpful
The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.
"'When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.
"'These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.'"
That is why
- Seven days after Christmas, January 1, is the feast of our Lord's circumcision
- Thirty three days after that, February 2 is the feast of his being offered in the Temple.
When the days of her purification for a son or daughter were over the woman was to bring to the priest a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. If she was unable to afford a lamb, she was to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.
From the offering of a pair of birds by Mary, we may suppose that Joseph and Mary were not very wealthy. Nevertheless as faithful Jews they did their religious duty and observed the Law of Moses when it came to such things as childbirth, circumcision, and other rituals.
Today we might ask what it is inside human nature which makes us think that God finds the human children which he has created so abhorrent that he would take comfort from the killing of two little birds? Well things have not been helped by years of teaching which have drawn upon passages such as this from one of the most appalling books of the Old Testament-Leviticus. Leviticus tells us that almost everything a woman experiences in the natural process simply of being a woman renders her unclean. Leviticus is full of teaching which tells us that various people are either temporarily or permanently horrible to God for different reasons. And here is the great irony of the law which exposes Leviticus as placing us under a curse, the birth of this holy Child made his virgin mother become ritually unclean under the Law.
Thankfully, whilst Jesus is brought up a Jew, he is the Messiah and he brings in a new age. This is where Christianity and Judaism are different. The Jews still live under the curse of the law, but for Christians a new age has come. Christianity sees itself as the fulfillment of all that had been promised in the old law. The Messiah had come. Luke is careful to point out that Jesus had his roots in the Old Testament. But clearly in this passage we see that Jesus is not going to let things go unchallenged Jesus' parents are amazed by Simeon's predictions for the child. Their son, it turns out, will not just observe the law; he will be its fulfillment. That is why in passages such as Mark 7:1-23 we see Jesus attack the Levitical food and dietary laws and washing rituals.
Luke shows that the story of Jesus was confirmed by two prophets, Simeon and Anna, who spoke of Jesus under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
We have this marvellous story of Simeon to whom it had been revealed "that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord. Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the Law required, he took him into his arms and blessed God; and he said:
The Nunc Dimittis
Now Master, you are letting your servant go in peace as you promised; for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready in the sight of the nations; a light of revelation for the gentiles and glory for your people Israel."
Simeon says that God is setting him free as a slave is granted liberty. He is now free to die (for the Spirit's revelation to him is now fulfilled), and Israel is free of bondage. God has saved Israel, as he promised to "all peoples". God's salvation is for Gentiles as well as Israel.
But, Simeon finishes with some disturbing words. This marvellous salvation through Jesus had a dark side. Not everyone will take kindly to Jesus, there will be a falling as well as a arising of many in Israel. Jesus will be a sign that will be spoken against, he will cause a crisis in Israel. Decisions will have to be made for him or against him. The sword of Jesus will divide, discriminate, and judge the thoughts, attitudes, and relationships of all people. Mary the mother of Jesus will go through the same crisis, everyone must decide what to do with Jesus.
The novelist Anthony Burgess wrote a novel about the life of our Lord and at the same time the screenplay for one of the best films ever made on the subject, Zeferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. In both, the story of Simeon and his song is set at the moment of our Lord's circumcision. Simeon is portrayed not only as old but as blind as well. In the film we see Ralph Richardson waiting in the temple precincts. Suddenly, as the rabbi wields his knife on the baby Jesus, the old man makes his way by the sound of the baby's squeals and crying, lifts the tiny infant high in his trembling hands and says "Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word."
By portraying Symeon as blind, the film intensified our understanding that it is with the eyes of faith that every promise of God is seen to be fulfilled.
Simeon recognised something special in Jesus and he knew that he had indeed seen the Lord's Christ, and that young or old he could depart in peace, for the eyes of faith had seen God's salvation: perhaps not the salvation he was expecting, the vindication of a particular people: but something bigger and better, the salvation which God had prepared before the face of all people.
The spiritual significance - Why is it important
There are two words which are important
Age and Light
First of all age -
This is an episode of age, the old age of failure encountering the new age of hope?
Today we focus on Luke's portrayal: the meeting between the Child Jesus and the aged Simeon. Thus in the Greek-speaking world the feast was called HYPAPANTI (the encounter). In this juxtaposition of the Child and the old man. Simeon could be expressing his hope for someone with a new determination to do better But it is not just passing all of our hopes onto a new generation - we made a mess of it but were sure that you will do better - they won't, they will be just as bad as we were. At Candlemas the Church sees the encounter between the world without Christ and the world with a new beginning in Christ, between the fading age of the Old Covenant embodied in the curse of Leviticus and the new era of the Church of all nations. By the way I am using the word curse in reference to Leviticus, because that is the word which Paul used in Galatians
Gal 3:10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith." The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
This new age is totally different from the old one. In this new age the grace of God is shared among all people and not the special few. This was a teaching which the Jewish Christians were to find very difficult. They did not want Gentiles brought into the faith of Christ unless they became Jews too, like them. This is an understandable human problem, we do not like people who practice different culture than our own and we want them to conform to our way of doing things.
But the early church came to realise that Jesus had brought to an end the old age and now all people were to be acceptable to God, without becoming Jews.
Secondly Light -
Simeon calls Jesus "a light to enlighten the Gentiles". Accordingly this day was made into a feast of candles. The warm candlelight is meant to be a tangible reminder of that greater light which, for and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus.
In a sermon, the great theologian, Rudolf Bultmann asked, "Why is it that we light candles at and take joy in their splendour? ‘...the lights that we kindle are a symbol of the Light...’ (Rudolf Bultmann, "Christmas," in Existence and Faith: The Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, New York, World, 1968, pp. 278-282.)
Imagine a world before electric lights, when candles were the only source of illumination after dark. Rarely do we experience such darkness. Yet deep within us there is some sort of warm yearning for and joy in candlelight dinners, and candle lit weddings, and yes candles on Christmas Eve our busiest church service of the year.
Why do we light the candles? Because it is a dark world. Yes, it is dark, our world. Because we want and need light? "Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness," is sometimes the motto for those who do good in a darkened world. Is that what we are doing here? If that is why we're gathered, then we shall fail. It is surely better to light one candle than to curse the darkness, but the darkness is so great and your candle is so frail, even a thousand candles, all glowing together, are not enough to dispel the darkness. If the world is dependent, in its present darkness, upon my candle, our candles combined, the world is doomed to eternal dark.
Fortunately we celebrate today something which is not a light of our creation. This is not the bright, burning glow of human good will, human hope, and accomplishment. We light candles in recognition that a special light has come to us from outside our darkness, a gift, the child of Bethlehem, the light of the world. Because in Him we have seen light, we light candles, we come, drawn to his radiance, our lives illumined by his dawn among us. Why do we light the candles? Because the light shines in the darkness and the darkness, two thousand years later, thank God, has not overcome it.
So we go out from here today and we do not have candles to give you. We
have spent enough on candles this year at Christingle and Christmas. But
whilst we have no candles of wax, we shall be determined and prepared to
burn brightly ourselves in the midst of this dark world. We take a light,
but it is not our own light, no light of our own would be bright enough,
rather it is the light of Christ. The light which at the beginning of
creation shined in the darkness and which no darkness, no blindness, could
overcome, and this light was a light to lighten the gentiles, the nations,
all the nations and races and culture of people.