Candlemas 2013 by The Reverend Charles Royden
Candlemas is one of those great church festivals where the liturgical calendar dovetails brilliantly into the yearly calendar. Forty days from the birth of Jesus, in accordance with the Levitical commands, he is presented in the temple and Mary his mother receives her purification. It is on this occasion when Simeon recognises Jesus as the Light which God has prepared for the world. Salvation will now be seen to be for all people and not just something confined to the Jews. This is the start of a magnificent new age and no wonder that Simeon in the words we know as the Nunc Dimittis declares that now he is preared to die in peace. He has seen it all, there is nothing which can top being face to face with the Saviour of all the world !
So at Candlemas we light candles and celebrate the fact that darkness is banished in the presence of God's one true light. The world has seen that God keeps his promises and even though Simeon predicts that the road ahead will be difficult, nevertheless salvation is now present and God is recognised in the midst of the people. For Simeon this was a message of fulfillment of all that he had hoped and longed for. Even though the immediate road ahead was still dark, there was a clear light at the end of the tunnel.
That is how this time of the year is for us in the progression of the seasons. Candlemas is a time when we are now halfway through winter, we are at mid point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The winter is not over yet, not nearly, and for that reason we play games like Groundhog Day, which remind us that winter might still have a fight in her. Yet nevertheless the power of winter has been broken because time is running out, soon the days will be getting longer and longer and the sun will rise higher in the sky, spreading warmth and light. There could be no better time in the year to remind ourselves that the power of sin has been broken and God has drawn near to his people to dispel fear and death.
The theme of Candlemas is therefore light and we light candles and bless them and remind ourselves that Jesus is truly the light of all the world. As I thought about this theme I brought to mind the amazing painting by William Holman Hunt, Jesus the Light of the World. In this painting Hunt is allegorical, in that parts of the painting have a meaning, a theological message. The painting is like a visual sermon and it is said that Hunt himself was encouraged in his own faith journey through it.
This is art - and therefore there are all sorts of things which could be seen in this painting and it is perfectly reasonable that some of them might be things which Hunt intended and some which you see for yourself which the artist might never had expected.
There are some things which are more obvious than others.
Clearly the door is closed and Jesus is on one side of it, we are to imagine somebody on the other side that Jesus is waiting for, waiting to meet. Not in an angry way, he holds no stick or sword to attack, rather Jesus holds a light to guide the way. The door is not just closed it has been closed for some time and so much so that weeds have grown into the door. The person on the other side has been 'shut up' for some time. There is an air of neglect, almost as if Jesus has been ignored or forgotten. The image is typcial of many minds today, so preoccupied with the rush and grind of daily life, so caught up in the cares of living, that Jesus is left outside. The irony is that it is Jesus who has the light to guide, the kingly authority to make sense of the world beyond. There are fruits lying on the ground, there is a dawn approaching in the sky behind Jesus, there is therefore a sadness to the painting, the potential for a wasted opportunity. How could we leave the one who is the 'Light of the World' on the doorstep !!
I wonder if you can see the bat flying in the picture? Look hard and if you can't see it there is an enlarged version shown here. The bat is a nocturnal creature, most of us don't like bats, they are surely still a symbol of darkness. They carry disease and they leave excrement all over our churches! I am sure that when the painting was first displayed people would have liked them less. But there is no need for concern, Jesus is so much bigger than the small bat and he carries with him the large lantern with the top showing moons and stars, displaying Jesus authority over all creation. We bring to mind the Psalm, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.' The authority of Jesus is also clear from the crown of gold on his head, not just an ordinary crown, but one which shares the head of Jesus with a crown of thorns, transformed by blossom.
It is said that Hunt started the painting when he wasonly 21 and it took him until he was 29 before he finished it. This was because as a Pre-Raphaelite he had great attention to detail and he wanted to get things absolutely right. He never felt right about the dawn sky until he saw the perfect dawn outside Bethlehem. The dawn sky is almost a warning, bringing to mind the words of the Apostle Paul "The night is far spent, the day is at hand."
So what is the need for warning, what is the reason for concern? One of the most significant features of the painting is that it has no handle on the door, it cannot be opened by Jesus. Jesus wants to enter, that is clear from his hand knocking on the wood, calling the person inside. There is a new day coming, there is just a hint of urgency, come on open up before it is too late, there is no time to waste! Fruit has fallen from the tree and it is just lying on the ground, if only there was a window the person inside would be able to see it there lying on the ground just going to waste because they can't be bothered to open the door. Hunt called the picture 'The Light of the World,' no wonder that Hunt had as the text for the painting the words of Revelation 3
'Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me.'
The painting is beautiful and inspiring, but it is also provocative. It causes us to question our own willingness to be open to the call of our Lord. How many people are too preoccupied, too rushed to make time to answer that knocking? We all are challenged as to what extent we like to hide behind a closed door. Are we all sometimes happier to hide rather than willingly to go outside with him and serve?
Candlemas is a great time to see Jesus the Light of the World. It is also a time to be mindful of how we can all serve God and be lights in his world.