The first day of February is Candlemas Eve, and the second is Candlemas Day. As the fortieth day after the Nativity, Candlemas marks the final event in the Infancy narratives, when, in accordance with Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph presented the baby Jesus to be blessed in the Jerusalem temple. You can find a reflection on that gospel story in my 2019 post, “Consumed by Love: The Flames of Candlemas.”
In medieval Europe, people would bring a candle to the church to be blessed on Candlemas. Then they would make a communal candlelight procession in honor of the Christ, whom Simeon, in the Presentation narrative, called “a light to enlighten the nations” (Luke 2:32). A Candlemas prayer beseeches 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 northern hemisphere, this celebration of light coincides with the lengthening of days. We’ve all begun to rejoice that the days are starting a little earlier, lasting a little longer. Sceptics who dismiss Christian festivals as hostile takeovers of pagan celebrations miss the point. The truth of the Incarnate Logos as the deep structure of creation does not compete with the patterns and rhythms of nature; it completes them. In Old English, sunne(“sun”) and sunu (“son”) are nearly identical, allowing a perfect theological pun: Christ is both sodfaesta sunnan leoma (“radiance of the true sun”) and sunu soþan fæder (“Son of the true Father”).
An early Anglo-Saxon poem on the winter solstice, beautifully translated by medieval scholar Eleanor Parker, celebrates the return of the light as Christological:
As you, God born of God long ago, Son of the true Father, eternally existed without beginning in the glory of heaven, so your own creation cries with confidence to you now for their needs, that you send that bright sun to us, and come yourself to lighten those who long have lived surrounded by shadows and darkness, here in everlasting night, who, shrouded by sins, have had to endure death’s dark shadow. 
Winter’s cold and dark are not quickly undone. Poised midway between winter solstice and vernal equinox, Candlemas is a transitional feast—the last of winter, the first of spring. It will take time for spring to come: now still contends with not yet. “How long the winter has lasted,” lamented New England poet Jane Kenyon, “—like a Mahler / symphony, or an hour in the dentist’s chair.” My friends in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska echo this seasonal weariness in their Facebook posts. But for those who are faithful and alert, Candlemas marks the turning point, reawakening the hope that spring is on its way.
Long-term weather forecasts in early February have been going on for centuries, but they always hedge their bets. A sunny Candlemas is but a brief glimpse of future glory, more of a promise than a gift in hand. If the groundhog or the bear emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, back it goes into hibernation, for spring is still six weeks away. Hope’s object will not be rushed, as traditional wisdom reminds us:
If Candlemas Day is fair and clear, There’ll be two winters in one year. (Scotland)
If Candlemas Day be sunny and warm, Ye may mend yer auld mittens and look for a storm. (Cumbria)
In other words, as T. S. Eliot put it, “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” But for Ukrainians shivering in the shadow of war; for the homeless huddled in our frigid cities; for the abused and the outcast suffering storms of violence; for African-Americans terrorized by a nation that walks in darkness—Spring can never come soon enough.
Let us keep the feast: Light a candle; Trust the radiance; Become the Spring.
The Menologium, translated from Old English by Eleanor Parker in her fascinating and poetic book, Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2022), 88-89. The “five nights” refers to the Anglo-Saxon reckoning of February 6 as the last day of winter before it is “carried out” to make room for spring.
 Jane Kenyon, “Walking Alone in Late Winter,” in Collected Poems (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 77. Personally, I will take Mahler over the dentist every time.
 Charles Kightly, The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain: An Encyclopedia of Living Traditions (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 66.
 T.S. Eliot, “East Coker, III” in Four Quartets (1943). The poet goes on to say, “Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” Until it fully arrives, God’s future exceeds adequate description and cannot be grasped. The reader will note that this essay’s title is a positive reversal of the opening line of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.”
Jesus was walking out of Jericho, surrounded by a big crowd. Like all such crowds, it was a mix of the curious and the adoring. Jesus was at the height of his popularity. He stirred people’s imaginations and raised their hopes. The excitement was palpable. But amid all the festive clamor, a single shout brought this parade to a sudden halt:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It was a blind beggar, sitting by the roadside. His name was Bartimaeus. “Shush,” people said. “Don’t make a scene.” But he cried all the louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And Jesus stood still, just the way the sun had stood still in the sky for Joshua in that same city of Jericho.
“Call him here,” Jesus said. And so they did. “Take heart!” they told him. “Get up. He is calling you.”
Immediately, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, sprang to his feet, and came to Jesus. Then Jesus asked him a question that went straight to the point: “What do you want me to do for you?”
“My teacher,” he said, “Let me see again.” And what Bartimaeus asked, Jesus granted.
— Mark 10: 46-52
In Mark’s gospel, this is the last miracle performed by Jesus before he goes to his death in Jerusalem. It marks the fatal turning point between his ministry and his Passion. It is our Lord’s last act, his last word, before beginning the Way of the Cross. To the world, that looked like the path to oblivion. But to those who have been given the eyes of faith, the Way of the Cross, as we pray every Holy Week, is “none other than the way of life and peace.”
And thus the healing of Bartimaeus is not just the story of one man’s good fortune. It is an invitation to each of us to perceive and receive the vision of salvation which is about to unfold. Mark is telling us that if you want to understand the Paschal Mystery of Passion and Resurrection, you need to open your eyes. And it is crucial to note that the climactic words of this story are not “he regained his sight,” but rather, “he followed him on the way.” Once you see what God is doing through Jesus, then it’s your turn to take up your own cross and follow.
Let there be light!” says the God of Genesis. “I am the light of the world,” says the God incarnate.
And yet, in the story leading up to this moment, even Jesus’ closest friends have suffered their own blindness. “Are your minds closed?” he chides them. “Have you eyes and do not see?” But they go on missing the point again and again. To their credit, they continue to follow Jesus. They are drawn to him, they know something is happening here—but they don’t know what it is. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus sighs. I’m sure he said this more than once.
And then, after repeated examples of the disciples’ blindness throughout Mark’s gospel, suddenly we hear a plaintive voice cry out from the crowd: “Jesus! Have mercy on me. Remove this grievous blindness.”
That’s our prayer too, isn’t it? Lord, take away our blindness.Help us to see. And Jesus replies, “I thought you’d never ask!”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in the fourth century, was one of many theologians who have shared Mark’s diagnosis of the human condition as one of persistent blindness:
“Humanity was created for this end, that it might see ‘good,’ which is God; but because humanity would not stand in the light, [in fleeing from the light] it lost its eyes… We subjected ourselves to blindness, that we should not see the interior light.”
St. Augustine described the interior eye, our capacity to see the things of God, as “bruised and wounded” by the transgression of Adam and Eve, who, he says, “began to dread the Divine light [and] fled back into darkness, anxious for the shade.”
Refusing to stand in the light… subjecting ourselves to blindness. Is this what we do? Are we truly so “anxious for the shade?”
Arthur Zajonc is a quantum physicist who became fascinated with the literal dimensions of this question, examining case histories of blind people who recovered their sight. In his book, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, he tells of an 8-year-old boy, blind at birth from cataracts, who underwent surgery in the year 1910. When the time came to remove his bandages, the doctor was very hopeful. He waved his hand in front of the boy’s eyes, which were now physically perfect.
“What do you see?” asked the doctor. “I don’t know,” the boy replied. “Can’t you see my hand moving?” said the doctor. “I don’t know,” said the boy.
The boy’s eyes did not follow the doctor’s slowly moving hand, but stared straight ahead. He only saw a varying brightness before him. Then the doctor asked him to touch his hand as it moved, and the boy cried out in a voice of triumph, “It’s moving!” He could feel it move, and even, as he said, could “hear it move,” but it would take laborious effort to learn to see it move.
As that first light passed through the child’s newly clear black pupils, it called forth no echoing image from within. His sight, Zajonc tells us, began as a hollow, silent, dark and frightening kind of seeing. The light of day beckoned, but no light of mind replied within the boy’s anxious, open eyes.
“The sober truth” says Zajonc, “remains that vision requires far more than a functioning physical organ. Without an inner light, without a formative visual imagination, we are blind.”
This echoes Augustine’s description of our “bruised and wounded” inner eye. What is it that makes us so unable to process what is before us, to see what is being offered to our open eyes?
The mystical Anglican poet Thomas Traherne framed an answer in the ornately vivid language of the seventeenth century:
“As my body without my soul is a carcass, so is my Soul without Thy Spirit, a chaos, a dark obscure heap of empty faculties ignorant of itself, unsensible of Thy goodness, blind to Thy glory.”
And what are the causes of this abysmal state? he asks. They are several.
“[The Light within us is eclipsed] by the customs and manners of [others], which like contrary winds blew it out: by an innumerable company of other objects, rude, vulgar and worthless things, that like so many loads of earth and dung did overwhelm and bury it: by the impetuous torrent of wrong desires in all others whom I saw and knew that carried me away … from it: by a whole sea of other matters and concernments that covered and drowned it…”
“Contrary winds” blowing out the Light within us… being overwhelmed by “an innumerable company… of rude, vulgar and worthless things”… “the impetuous torrent of wrong desires” – does any of that sound familiar? Who among us has not had days like that, or even years like that? Is that not the world we live in today?
Not long after Traherne wrote those words, another English writer, John Bunyan, told the story of two pilgrims, named Christian and Faithful, who came upon Vanity Fair, a kind of shopping mall where all the transitory pleasures of this world were on seductive display.
“What will ye buy?” cried one of the merchants. And Christian and Faithful replied, “We buy the truth!”
This was clearly the wrong answer, for the two pilgrims were immediately set upon, beaten, smeared with mud, thrown in a cage, and finally put on trial. The jury was rigged, led by Mr. Blind Man and Mr. Hate-Light. “Guilty,” they cried, and Faithful was put to death. But Christian managed to escape, and his journey into God continued.
Bunyan’s allegorical constructs seem quaintly archaic today, but Vanity Fair is still with us, with its endless commodification of unsatisfiable desires. And Mr. Hate-Light is still at work, generating the ceaseless illusions that blind us to the beauty of holiness.
Now once Christian had escaped Vanity Fair, he still had to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, where the light was so scarce, and the path so narrow, that he was in constant danger of stumbling into the ditch on his right or the quagmire on his left.
But Christian was not without hope in that dark valley. As Isaiah says, the God of light travels with us:
I shall lead the blind by a road they do not know… I shall turn the darkness into light before them, and the quagmire into solid ground. (Isa 42:16)
All of us, deep down, want the light. All of us need the light. But sometimes we resist the light, or run away from it, or shut our eyes to it. There are things we’d rather not see, in the world or in ourselves. Illuminating our dark places can feel like a judgment, as if the light were accusing our shadows.
In Franco Zefferelli’s film, Jesus of Nazareth, we meet another blind man at the pool of Bethsaida in Jerusalem, but unlike Bartimaeus, he is deathly afraid of being healed. “Leave my eyes alone!” he shouts. “Stop touching my eyes!”
After analyzing sixty-six cases of blind people who had recovered their sight, Arthur Zajonc would concur with Zeffirelli’s portrayal of our resistance to an enlarged perception of the world:
“The project of learning to see,” he writes, “inevitably leads to a psychological crisis in the life of the patients, who may wind up rejecting sight. New impressions threaten the security of a world previously built upon the sensations of touch and hearing. Some decided it is better to be blind in their own world than sighted in an alien one… The prospect of growth is as much a prospect of loss, and threat to security, as a bounty.”
In other words, opening our eyes to a more truthful clarity can be scary—no more fictions or illusions about the state of the world or the state of our souls. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). Seeing—clearly and accurately—the fallenness of our broken world—and our wounded selves—is a painful revelation. Once we face facts, transformation is the only way forward. We must change our life. A new way of seeing demands a new way of being. We can either fight that divine summons, like the man in the Zeffirelli film (Don’t touch my eyes!), or we can jump up and embrace it, like Bartimaeus.
But it’s not just the wrongness of things which is hidden by our blindness. The truth is, there is also so much blessing and beauty in this world, eagerly waiting to be discerned and embraced. And whatever our doubts and fears about losing our protective blindness, the beauty revealed will be worth the price. It’s the beauty of God’s future—what Jesus called the Kingdom. We often think of the Kingdom as impossibly distant, but it is possible to glimpse it even now, in this present age. We only need the eyes to see.
This healing of our inner eye, this recovery of the divine Light within us, is perfectly expressed in a passage from Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Her protagonist, Jean-Marie Latour, a nineteenth-century missionary bishop to the territory of New Mexico, is discussing visions and miracles with his Vicar.
“Where there is great love,” he says, “there are always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love .… The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is about us always.”
Human vision corrected by divine love. How blessed are they who receive such a miracle!
Let us close by hearing the gospel story one more time, succinctly told by John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” in an old American shape note hymn called “Villulia.”
“Mercy, O thou Son of David, thus poor blind Bartimaeus prayed. “Others by thy grace are saved, now afford to me thine aid.”
Money was not what he wanted, though by begging used to live; but he asked, and Jesus granted alms which none but he could give.
“Lord, remove this grievous blindness, let mine eyes behold the day.” Straight he saw, and, won by kindness, followed Jesus in the way.