Consumed by Love: The Flames of Candlemas

Giovanni Bellini, The Presentation in the Temple (1459)

Today is Candlemas, the 40thday after the Nativity. Its liturgical origins are obscure, but its blazing processions of candles in the winter dark not only made a glorious end to the extended Christmas celebrations of less hurried times, it also provided a brilliant preview of the resurrection fires of the Easter Vigil. Although it still may allow, for a few liturgically-minded procrastinators, a generous extension of the deadline for boxing up our holiday decorations, Candlemas is rarely observed in American homes and churches. Our minds are fixed on groundhogs and football, not the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.

Still, I would gladly join a candlelight procession to a holy place on this night, to beseech the Light of the World “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”

In the Eastern churches, Candlemas is called “The Meeting,” highlighting the moment when two old souls, Simeon and Anna, met the One for whom they had waited all their lives. Simeon had been told “by the Holy Spirit” that he would not see death before the coming of the Messiah. Every time he went to the Temple, he wondered, “Could this be the Promised Day?” Whatever he may have imagined––the House of God filled with smoke and shining angels, a mighty king arriving in noisy triumph––the long-expected day arrived like any other, without the slightest fanfare.

Simeon liked to go to the Temple early, when it was still blissfully quiet and uncrowded. He began his prayers as usual, but his attention wandered when the entrance of a young couple and their baby caught his eye. He could tell they were country people, the way they looked with such amazement at the vast interior. As they passed by him, he smiled kindly, then closed his eyes to resume his prayers.

But everything within him shouted, “Look! This is the time. Don’t miss it.” As soon as he opened his eyes again, he knew. He didn’t know how, but he knew. That child, cradled in the arms of a peasant girl, was the One!

“Please,” he said. “Please wait!” The couple stopped and turned to face him. Simeon held out his arms, and the girl, as though they had both rehearsed it a hundred times, handed him the baby without the least hesitation. And gazing into those infant eyes, seeing there the future of God’s hopes for all the world, Simeon began to murmur the prayer which the faithful have sung ever since at close of day:

Lord, now at last you release your servant
to depart in peace,
for my eyes have seen the Savior,
just as you have promised.

Then Anna, the old prophetess who had camped out in the Temple for many years, stepped out of the shadows to add her own confirming praises. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

The Nunc Dimittis of these two old saints, near the end of their lives, being granted the grace of completion on that Temple morning, is beautifully echoed in a passage from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter…

 

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

It is a custom at Candlemas to bless the candles for the rest of the year. In 2003, I happened to be in London’s Cathedral of St. Paul for a similar rite, when members of the Wax Chandlers Livery Company, in a practice dating back to the fifteenth century, brought long candles to be blessed for their service on the high altar.

The preacher on that occasion, Canon Martin Warner, took comfort in the fact that when his own brief candle should come to an end, another candle, the Paschal Candle of Easter, would burn over his coffin, declaring by its resurrection light that each of us is but wax “being consumed by the incredible flame of love that is God’s own self, melted not into oblivion but into the freedom of attaining our perfection and deepest longings.”

A candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing. Even so, the fire that consumes it bears Love’s name, and does Love’s work. Whatever is offered up shall receive its true being. Whatever is lost shall be found anew.

Fire of heaven, make us ready.

The light we may not see: Thoughts on dust and transfiguration

"Beauty": Olafur Eliasson (1993)

“Beauty”: Olafur Eliasson (1993)

Tomorrow is Candlemas, celebrating the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Jerusalem temple. In liturgical tradition it is the final feast day in the sequential narrative of Christ’s birth. A great procession of candles is its distinctive feature, but few churches observe this lovely ritual of light anymore. In the United States, the second day of February is better known for a groundhog and his shadow.

An old English carol, “Candlemas Eve,” describes the practice of replacing the Christmas greens in homes to bring the midwinter celebrations to a close:

Down with the rosemary and bay,
Down with the mistletoe,
Instead of holly now up-raise
The greener box for show.

The final verse will resonate with anyone who feels a little wistful when they take down the Christmas decorations.

Thus times do shift, thus times do shift,
Each thing its time doth hold;
New things succeed, new things succeed,
As former things grow old.

You can hear Kate Rusby’s lovely rendition of the carol here.

After Candlemas, the season of Incarnation is not quite done. In next Sunday’s Epiphany finale, the lectionary readings will see it out with a blaze of glory. In complementary stories from the two Testaments, the divine is made brilliantly manifest in a sensory manner. On the summit of Mt. Sinai, Moses enters the “cloud of unknowing” to speak with God. And at the top of Galilee’s Mt. Tabor, Jesus’ own divinity is seen to shine with a visible brilliance in his “Transfiguration.”

In a course I teach on “Jesus and the Movies,” one of the questions we consider is how both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus are represented cinematically. Is it something the actor shows with his face or his body language? Is it an action he performs, or the way he is lit, or a certain music cue played whenever his divinity comes to the fore? An affectionate conversation with his mother, a flash of irritation, or a playful water fight with his disciples at a village well show him as recognizably human. Miraculous power and a commanding presence suggest the divine, though it is often the lighting, the music, and the reactions of others – in other words, acts of interpretation rather than disinterested observation – which make this clear.

The ecumenical councils of the early church struggled for centuries with how to avoid emphasizing either the humanity or the divinity of Jesus at the expense of the other. The fifth-century formulation of “fully human and fully divine” did not exactly settle the question. It continues to be a paradox – a “possible impossible” – which rightly resists comfortable appropriation. It is especially difficult when there is so little consensus about the nature of either humanity or divinity. God is largely unthinkable for secular culture, and the last hundred years have confused and darkened our understanding of humanity. How then can we even state the paradox when we have lost the language for both of its terms?

From its very beginning, Christianity has had to wrestle with a disturbing question: If God is the power and the beauty and the glory, how can a disgraced, disfigured, and crucified human bear any resemblance to the divine? I like Reinhold Niebuhr’s approach. Instead of figuring out how to explain “Jesus is God,” better to say that “God is like Jesus.” Once God owns the vulnerability and the suffering of self-diffusing love, fully divine and fully human start to look much more alike.

But what about the way Jesus shines in his Transfiguration? Doesn’t that indicate the presence of something utterly “other” at work in Jesus, transcending the strictly human? I have written elsewhere about the symbolic dimensions of this strange story. Whatever the facts behind the text, it seems to ring true both psychologically and spiritually. Even if, as the gospels tell us, the divinity of Jesus was always in him, not everyone saw it, and no one saw it all the time.

The Transfiguration isn’t just a story about Jesus. It is a sign of the light desiring to break forth from within each of us. Contemplation isn’t a spectator sport. It demands participation. The Epistle reading for Last Epiphany insists that the divine light is not just something we may see, but something that we are also made to reflect:

All of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory. (II Cor. 3:18)

St. Paul’s metaphor was inspired by the story of Moses descending the slopes of Mt. Sinai after being in God’s presence. As Exodus relates, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29) I love this detail. Moses shone with God’s reflected light, but he didn’t know it. Yet it would be quite evident to his friends when he returned to them. Let your light so shine.

We ourselves have been made to receive divine light, to partake of it, to shine and dazzle with its holy beauty, until our own bodies become “the luminous seeds of resurrection planted amid the blind sufferings of history.”[i]

Robert Bresson, the French film director, shunned professional actors. He hated what actors usually do in films, which is to explain their characters and link their actions to understandable motivations, thus denying the elusive mystery of being human, a mystery whose secret is ultimately beyond us. “The important thing, said Bresson, “is not what they show me, but what they hide from me, and above all what they do not know is in them.”[ii] Claude Laydu, the protagonist in Diary of a Country Priest, said that he did not realize he was playing a saint until he saw the finished film.

In nine days many of us will kneel to be anointed with ashes. We will be told to remember that we are dust. But after that we will undertake the long journey to Easter in the faith that our dust is mixed with a Light which we ourselves may not yet see or even know.

 

Related posts

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

Ten questions to ask about your own picture of Jesus

Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable!

 

[i] Although I can’t find the source for this quote, I believe it comes from Olivier Clement, an Orthodox theologian in France.

[ii] Quoted in Keith Reader, Robert Bresson (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 5, n. 12.