TO BE A LIGHT
Every Candlemass, observed on February 2nd when we celebrate the presentation of Christ in the Temple together with the Purification of his blessed Mother, I read a particular sermon written many years ago by one of the Caroline Divines, Mark Frank, who died shortly after the restoration of the Church in England in 1662. This divine delivered his sermons in beautiful prose, and they are therefore a joy to read and to reflect upon. So I want to start this article with a quotation from this sermon, but the full version is available on the web.
It is Candlemas to-day, - so called from the lighting up of candles, offering them, consecrating them, and bearing them in procession; a custom from the time of Justinian the Emperor, at the latest about 1100 years ago; or as others say, Pope Gelasius, anno 496, or thereabouts; - to show that long expected Light of the Gentiles was now come, was now sprung up, and shined brighter than the sun at noon, and might be taken in our hands. Let the ceremony pass, reserve the substance; light up the two candles of faith and good works, light them with the fire of charity; bear we them burning in our hands, as Christ commands us; meet we him 'with our lamps burning;' consecrate we also them, all our works and actions, with our prayers; offer we them, all our works and actions, with our prayers; offer we them upon the altars of the God of our salvation, as S. Bernard speaks, as in procession, 'two and two,' in peace and unity together; the candle of faith will there show you him, and the candle of charity will light him down into your arms, that you may embrace him. We embrace where we love, we take into our arms whom we love; so that love Jesus and embrace Jesus - love Jesus and take Jesus - love Jesus and take him into our hands, and into our arms, and into our mouths, and into our hearts.
The tradition of carrying lighted tapers into church on this holy day is related to the Nunc Dimittis, the words of the aged Simeon as he held the infant Jesus in his arms on His presentation in the Temple. Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared before thy people; to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
In this recitation Simeon is also expressing his own heartfelt thanks of having beheld His Saviour before he departs this earthly life. Since then the song of Simeon has been sung as Christians are laid to rest to await the glorious resurrection of the body. So each Candlemass should be a reminder of our own departure from this earthly life with its challenge, have I actually seen and held Christ during this earthly pilgrimage, so I can "depart in peace"? This Candlemass let us make sure that our hearts are open to Him who is the Light of the world in order to eradicate those dark spots within us so that we can truly let our light shine brightly.
Candlemass falls forty days after Christmass, and in one sense completes this season, but in another sense it acts as a bridge linking Christmas and Easter. "The seed of the woman" is greater than the sin of Adam. Thus the beginning of man's redemption commences when "the Word became flesh", and God became one of us in order that we may become like Him. The very essence of the Incarnation (Christus natus est) is not only that we believe that Christ is both God and man, but it provides the possibility of eternal life.
Yet the Crib can never be separated from the Cross, which in turn can never be separated from the empty Tomb. Simeon on that first Candlemass foretold to the Blessed Mother of God that "a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also". This duly happened as she stood beholding her blessed Son dying on that wooden cross. "Faithful Cross! above all other,/One and only noble tree!/None in foliage, none in blossom./None in fruit thy peer may be;/Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,/Sweetest weight is hung on thee." "Sweetest weight" because it had absorbed all the sin and suffering of this world. Nevertheless her blessed Son had to conquer one more evil for man to be completely free - death. This triumph is manifested in a Paschal hymn: "How Judah's Lion burst his chains,/And crushed the serpent's head;/And brought with him, from death's domains,/ The long imprisoned dead."
So on this Candlemass, this year not long before Ash Wednesday, there is much for a Christian soul to reflect upon as he/she journeys towards the heavenly Jerusalem.
Light up now your candles at this evening service, for the glory of your morning sacrifice: it is Candlemas, become we all burning and shining lights, to do honour to this day, and the blessed armful of it. Let your souls shine bright with grace, your hands with good works; let God see it, and let man see it; so bless we God. Walk we 'as children of the light,' as so many walking lights; and offer we ourselves up like so many holy candles to the Father of Light. But be sure we light all our lights at this Babe's eyes, that lied so enfolded in our arms; and neither use nor acknowledge any other light for better than darkness, that proceeds from any other light for better than darkness, that proceeds from any other but this Eternal Light, upon whom all our best thoughts, and words, and works, must humbly now attend like so many petty sparks, or rays, or glimmerings, darted from and perpetually reflecting thankfully to that glorious Light; from this day beginning our blessing God, the only lightsome kind of life, till we come to the land of light, there to offer up continual praises, sing endless Benedicites and Alleujas, no longer according to the laws or customs upon earth, but after the manner of heaven, and in the choir of angels, with holy Simeon, and Anna, and Mary, and Joseph, all the saints in light and glory everlasting. Amen, amen.
2ND CANDLEMASS SERMON OF MARK FRANK