Be Our Light in the Darkness: A Sermon for Candlemas (and Groundhog’s Day)
Year C, The Presentation of our Lord, 3 February 2019
Trinity Church on the Green
“Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel.”
This is now my second winter season with you here at Trinity. nd I realized something back in December, that some would say is utterly obvious: it gets quite dark here in the winter in New England!
But yes, this was an Ah-HA moment for me, and it explains why every day since the solstice, beginning around 4:00 in the afternoon, I have the strong urge to go home, crawl under the covers and eat snacks. I find the early winter dark more tiring than ever before in my life. I imagine this is so, because up until moving here to New Haven, I always lived within or just outside of New York City limits. I realized while visiting at my mom’s house back at Christmas, that there is so much light pollution in the New York Metropolitan Area, that it truly never gets darkest dark, not even in the outer boroughs.
Now, darkness can be wonderful. I am a theatre person, I love a dark theatre! One of the greatest joys of being a stage manager is getting to call or even execute the final lighting cue of a show, which is usually a blackout, causing everything to plunge into darkness for a brief moment. And darkness in warmer weather has an inviting appeal: a dark beach invites a bonfire, with s’mores, or to view the stars in dark country skies. But darkness in the northeast winter has a different feel – it can tire us out, and drag us along, even living in such a relatively well lit city as New Haven. I’ve thought about what it must have been like to be living in a world before heat and electricity: the winter must have been such a difficult and scary time for so many. With maybe only the light of a candle, Christians would pray evening and night prayers, with the hope that God would protect them throughout the night. They would recite the words I began with, the Nunc Dimitis, or Song of Simeon – that Jesus is the light to enlighten all nations.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation, which is also known as Candlemas. It is observed 40 days after Christmas, when Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple. The words of the Prophet Malachi in our first reading are fulfilled: “Now I am sending my messenger— he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; The messenger of the covenant whom you desire—see, he is coming! says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:1) These two poor parents present their firstborn son, along with their humble sacrifice of two turtledoves, or perhaps, two pigeons.
In the darkness of winter, The Feast of the Presentation is another feast of light in Epiphany, celebrating as the Prophet Simeon proclaims, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” The actual feast day was yesterday, and it is not a coincidence that it is the same day as Groundhog’s Day! In 542, the Emperor Justinian introduced the feast to the entire Eastern Roman empire in thanksgiving for the end to a great pestilence afflicting the city of Constantinople. Perhaps this is when Pope Gregory I brought the feast to Rome. Inspired by Simeon’s words in our Gospel passage, by the 11th century, the custom had developed in the West of blessing candles on the Feast of the Presentation. Candles would be lit, and processions would form through darkened churches as the Song of Simeon would be sung. At Christ Church here in New Haven, they also observed Candlemas with a bonfire, burning all the Christmas Greens. For many Christians, Candlemas marks the actual end of the Christmas season, which means that one indeed may leave their Christmas lights and decorations up until February 2nd if they so wish!
Candlemas is also halfway from the Winter Solstice to the Spring Equinox, and it became linked to weather predictions about the end of winter, quite possibly because of an old English poem, that goes like this:
If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain, Go winter, and come not again.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Groundhog’s Day is actually adapted from the observance of Candlemas, or The Feast of the Presentation. The Pennsylvania Dutch, who were from German speaking parts of Europe, would have been familiar with the Lutheran Church’s observance of Candlemas. The Germans also had a tradition of marking Candlemas as “Badger Day:” if the weather on Candlemas was sunny, and a badger emerged to see a shadow, it predicted the prolonging of winter. Once in America, the Pennsylvania Dutch changed out the badger for the groundhog, and thus started that tradition.
I think it is worth noting that there are other feasts of light at the beginning of February. Imbolc, a traditional Celtic Festival, is celebrated on February 1st. It marks the beginning of spring, and has been Christianized as the Feast of St. Brigid. I imagine there are probably also other feasts and regional customs of looking toward the light of spring at this time of the year, that you may know of from your own communal or ancestral traditions.
So, today we celebrate Jesus as the light of the world: a light to enlighten our cold, winter darkness. Following the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple, and have a holy encounter with Simeon and Anna. Both Simeon and Anna have lived long and likely tough lives, waiting and waiting and waiting to see the Messiah. Both Simeon and Anna get to see and profess and praise the greatness of this young child, Jesus. But not only does Simeon profess that he has seen his salvation, but he also tells Mary that her share would include a sorrow pierced heart. Pope John Paul II likened Simeon’s words to Mary as a second Annunciation, “for they tell her of the actual… situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow.” While this announcement on the one hand confirms her faith in the accomplishment of God’s promises of salvation, it also reveals to her the suffering and sorrow that is to come. (1) If the Feast of the Presentation is the end of the Christmas Season, it is because suddenly, things start to get real: it will be Lent and Good Friday before we know it. Jesus’ ministry and journey to the cross is beginning.
So, if the winter is bogging us down, I invite us all to light a candle this week. Watch the flickering of the flame. Feel the warmth of the light. As followers of Jesus, we are to reflect and refract the light of Christ so that others may absorb is rays. May we find ways to care for those who are especially cold, undomiciled, and feeling forgotten or sick this winter. May we all renew our commitment to bringing the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ to everyone we meet, as it is for all of us, and for all God’s people.
1 Ellen von Hubyn – https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/why-the-feast-of-the-presentation-is-more-important-than-you-think/2203/