Candlemas (Evensong)

Sermon for Candlemas (Evensong), Monday, February 1 2016, 7:30 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Sam 1:20-28a; Rom 8:14-21
leaflet for this service

It is a complicated feast we are celebrating today. The scriptural episode upon which it is based, though we won’t hear it read at this service, is the journey of Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, to perform the ritual dedication of a first-born son—and we’re shown the echo of this, of course, in the story of the dedication of Samuel — and the recognition of the child by the prophets Simeon and Anna. This also the end of the Christmas/Epiphany season; it is observed at, or at least very near, the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, another sort of hinge, which was celebrated long before the church existed, and which in the secular world has somehow now developed into Groundhog Day. And this feast, thanks to Simeon speaking of the child as light to lighten the Gentiles, was able to absorb pre-Christian celebrations of the returning light of spring which took place at this midpoint, and become itself a festival of light—Candlemas, when the candles to be used in the church over the next year are blessed.

So, the reading from the first book of Samuel is obviously connected to this feast—and yet also troubling, as an infant is handed over as an offering, tribute to God, payment, in fact, for a desired miracle. It is, to some degree, a picture of that hungry, angry God whom we create out of our own hungers and angers, the God who demands the things we think we would demand if we were God—sacrifice and obedience and other people’s children. The very things the powers of this world demand from us. There lurks, behind this story, the tyrant God who is simply a greater power than the other powers.

But the passage from Romans veers in quite a different direction; from offering to relationship. Nothing is given or taken; rather, we are embraced in a new relation to God, a new being, we are changed into ourselves. It is about identification with the God who is entirely self-offering love, about being transformed by and into that love, about the shape of our lives remade into greater life. And not only our lives, but the whole of creation, all entrapped, all longing for release, all leaning achingly into the light._ We are material creatures, creatures of mud and meat and glory. We are bodies, and we are also members of that body which contains all bodies, the body which replaces all other sacrifices, which stepped into the place of death and made it into a place of life, the _Logos which holds us.

And bodies, individual parts in that great body, exist in places, our bodies exist under material conditions. Our bodies learn to offer ourselves with and through the world of material stuff. We need places of offering, and the impulse to make those places beautiful and sacred is a good and holy one. And I think that is partly why, today, we bless candles, why that ceremony belongs here, for reasons more complex than only a brief mention of light by an aging prophet. Candles and incense, water and fire, colour and light, music and the movements of our bodies, what we have and what we are, the materiality, the physicality of our lives, are gathered up for this moment and held in the light of God.

And liturgy and ritual are a part of this, practices which help train us to be who we were created to be. We bless water and candles and resin and coal so that we can learn to bless and cherish and tend the whole world of matter, rather than simply exploiting it in our own immediate interests. We come, to paraphrase an obscure eleventh century monastic writer, so that we do not so much bear lamps as become them, lights for ourselves and for those around us. We come together to this place, in all our odd sorts and conditions. We come like that crowd in Jerusalem, the very old, the very young, the strange and confused, the poor and lonely, the hopeful prophets and those who cannot hope, so that we can learn to be community with those with whom we have nothing in common, those we did not choose but with whom God and the operations of chance have placed us, part of the unavoidable givens of our given lives.

We have no sacrifices but our lives. We come to stand before God and each other and offer ourselves, even when we have nothing to offer, when the self is a small hard knot of darkness and pain, when the only thing we can lift up is our failure, our selfishness, our exhaustion, our grief. Even then. We come because God will still receive us, and feed us, and offer God’s own self back to us, in exchange for our very smallest, hardest turn towards the light. If that is all we have, it is enough.

For we have seen light in the face of a vulnerable infant, and we have wax and string and small flames and our fragile human bodies. We move from Christmas towards Lent and Good Friday, believing that Easter lies beyond them. In liturgy and community and life, tradition and ritual, in all our assorted human reality, in the precints of the temple that is our world, we dedicate our candles and our selves.