Presentation of the Lord

Being the fortieth day since Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Church today recalls his Presentation in the Temple, the occasion on which his parents made the sacrifice required by Jewish law at the birth of a first son.  Traditionally, it is also the day on which the Church blesses candles, bearers of light and symbols of dedication. Hence the word Candlemas is another word for this feast day. Perhaps it is an opportunity then to reflect on the significance of the humble candle, and the most extraordinary recognition all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish its simple, flickering fragile light.

The lighting of candles seems a natural thing for us to do when we wish to express deeper meanings in life. For example, when someone dies, we often feel drawn to light a candle.  Particularly at times of great tragedy in which there are many deaths, the lighting of candles to commemorate peoples’ lives is a part of our ritual to remember them.  We think of candle lit processions as a way of marking a tragedy. Nowadays people in a stadium are asked to turn on the torch of their phone to do something similar. A light has the power to evoke in our imaginations a whole life.  It has long been a practice and a tradition in our Church to light a candle before a statue or an icon and to use that candle as a focus of our prayer for someone in need.  Before our beautiful image of Mary, we have the wonderful practice of lighting a candle for a particular need.  The glowing candle becomes a symbol of our prayer.  Many of us, no doubt, light a candle when we wish to be more still in our life, when we wish to pray in silence, alone. Candles feature prominently in the Church’s liturgy.  We see them on the altar at each Mass; we light them at any number of religious celebrations; they give a spirit of festivity to our gatherings.

Each year at Easter, the greatest of all Christian feasts, we light one particular candle which has for us the most important significance:  the Paschal Candle, the main symbol of the risen Christ dispelling all darkness.  Towards the end of every ceremony of baptism the priest takes a light from this Easter Candle and gives it to the newly baptised person, or to their godparents, saying, “You have been enlightened by Christ.  Walk always as children of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts.”  The baptismal candle is a sign of the flame of faith in the heart of the baptised person. 

By virtue of our baptism, each of us here carries that flame in our hearts:  a flame which needs protecting and fanning just us any flame provided by a candle itself.  And just as the prophet Simeon, in today’s gospel, holds the child Jesus in his arms and recognises something of the wonder of God’s mystery and plan, we, too, hold the light which has been given to us at baptism with as much awe and reverence and care.  We recognise in our own life, the divine flame which burns there.  One of the ancient writers, Gregory of Nyssa used to refer to the heart aflame with love and desire becoming a living torch of fire.  It is a powerful image of the power of our witness in the world, and of what we are called to be – always bearers of light.

Each of us are called by our baptism to be a living candle in our world.  We are called to be light in the darkness; to be a sign of hope in a time of uncertainty and despair; to be a sign of festivity in a time of gloom. This does not mean that we live and act in a way that does not take seriously what is happening. It means that we are those who look to shed light rather than to deepen the darkness. We have seen this demonstrated so brilliantly over this summer in the way that people have banded together to help those who have lost so much. The generosity of our own parish to the Bushfire Appeal last weekend is an extraordinary light in the darkness of the destruction of the season but it is an extension, as we know, of the myriad moments of community and compassion of the last month. We know their power to assure us, to remind us of something that is good, true and beautiful yes even in the face of loss and tragedy. Yet, how quickly these get lost in some of the reactions to the spread of the coronavirus about which we have heard in only the last week: reactions of fear and suspicion – and even racism – in the face of anxiety. These reactions only serve to create more shadows. 

We have always to ask in the face of any situation with which we are confronted, “Are we spreading light or are we deepening the darkness?” And the answer will always be known in the outcome of our actions or in the conclusion of our thoughts: if the outcome or conclusion is fear, anxiety, suspicion or exclusion then the light we have been given to bear by our baptism has been snuffed out.

This last week as you know marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, that place of unspeakable darkness. It has also been the occasion to remember the light of human love that the darkness could not overpower. I am struck particularly by the example of Etty Hillesum who died there in 1943 in her early twenties. “In the face of unimaginable provocation, Hillesum refused to hate.”[1] As she wrote, “I try to look things straight in the eye, even the worst crimes, to discover the small, naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man’s senseless deeds.” There in that barbarous place, she penned in her journal, “The misery here is quite terrible, and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then, time and again, it soars straight from the heart . . . the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and one day we shall be building a whole new world. Against every new outrage and every fresh horror, we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness, drawing strength from within ourselves.” As the writer Patrick Woodhouse comments, Etty Hillesum “did not survive the evil of the Holocaust, but in an important sense she triumphed over it. On a postcard pushed through the slats of her cattle car, she wrote, ‘We left the camp singing.’”[2] Her witness redeems Auschwitz. Hillesum was Jewish. Yet, she teaches us what bearing the light of Christ is all about. Do our thoughts and actions shed light? Or do they increase the darkness?

As we reflect on the simple candle as an image of our Christian life, we also recognise that the flame is generated only as it feeds off the candle.  The candle sacrifices itself so there may be light and hope and festivity.  Candles die in order to give light. The candle gives of itself in order that there may be light.  Therefore, like the candle, we too are called to give of something so that there may be light for others.  There is a cost to faith, and the cost is our own selves.  It demands the involvement of our whole self, and not just part of our selves.  If the candle were to say, “This much and no more,” the flame would simply die.  So it is with us. The whole of ourselves has to be involved in the project of discipleship and faith, if our lives are to become bearers of Christ’s light in the world. Without the involvement of the whole candle, the flame cannot burn as it could.  Without the whole of ourselves involved, the flame of faith cannot burn in our own hearts as it could.

On this day, then, perhaps each of us might actually light a candle. Let this candle evoke in our imaginations a whole life:  the life of Jesus alive in our hearts, our own life of faith and witness, and a life which is most dear to us – for all three are so closely united.  In that single flame which we watch in all our uncertainty, may the peace of genuine hope be truly ours.

[1] Patrick Woodhouse, “A Light in the Dark,” The Tablet (1 February 2020), 6.

[2] Woodhouse, “A Light in the Dark,” 7.

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