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.

Memento mori

Wall relief in Castrojeriz on the Camino de Santiago

Wall relief in Castrojeriz on the Camino de Santiago

I tell my pupils to live each day as if it were their last… I don’t want children to fear death; I want them to respect life… It’s good for children to confront the idea of death, and… of their own mortality. Sometimes a child feels squeamish about death… skulls and skeletons. When this happens, I tell my pupils to touch themselves. “Why are you afraid?” I ask, “when each of you owns a skull and skeleton. We all carry death within us.” They feel themselves, and they say: “Yes it’s true, we too are made of bones.”

– María Antonieta Sánchez de Escamilla, a kindergarten teacher in Mexico (The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico, Elizabeth Carmichael & Chloë Sayer)

No leaves, no flowers, no light, no warmth, November. The eleventh month, as the year begins to slip away, evokes mortality like no other. Though it begins with the festivity of All Saints Day, celebrating the friends of God now radiant with the light of heaven, it immediately shifts to the more shadowy realm of All Souls, the Day of the Dead. Death itself, rather than what lies beyond it, becomes our focus. We visit graves, light candles, speak names, gaze at old photographs, tell stories of vanished presences.

In Mexico, death is playfully treated in comic skeleton images and candy skulls, but it is not mocked. A resigned acceptance of mortality pervades the festivities. The living remember not only the dead, but the skeleton inside themselves. They too are “made of bones.”

In American culture, we are not so adept with death. We always seem a little surprised by it. We avoid speaking its name. Memento mori is not a common spiritual practice. Few of us keep skulls on our desk, or sleep in coffins while we still have breath.

Forty-five years ago this month, I had my closest brush with death. I was sleeping in the back of a Volkswagen bus hurtling down a New York thruway at 65 miles per hour. A friend and I had been traveling all night, and it was my turn to rest. Suddenly the bus went out of control and flipped sideways, rolling over and over six times until finally coming to a stop upside down on the grassy median.

I remember two things about that long roll. My mind sped up to make everything appear in slow motion. It was like being inside the giant rotating barrel at an old amusement park. It carries you up and up until gravity kicks in and you are dropped back to the bottom to begin all over again. Slide up, drop. Slide up, drop. But slowed down, so I could observe it all in detail. Meanwhile, guitars, suitcases and croquet balls were flying around in similar motion experiments.

The other thing I remember is how familiar death seemed. I was not thinking, “This can’t be happening.” I was thinking, “Oh, so this is where we finally meet.” I’m sure the words were not so precise in the moment, but the sense of recognition was. When the rolling finally stopped, I lay face down on the ceiling of the inverted bus. I probably blacked out for a moment. Then I heard a voice, “All you all right?” I wasn’t sure how to answer – not until I actually tried to move. What if I couldn’t? I hesitated a moment, delaying the verdict. At last I tested my hands; my arms; my legs. They still worked. I rose slowly to my feet. Thankfully, nothing was broken. My friend was unharmed as well. Life was never so sweet.

The bus itself was totaled, and one of the guitars, my grandfather’s Gibson “Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe” Hawaiian guitar from the 1940’s, was pretty smashed up as well. Its broken body still hangs in our garage, my own memento mori.

In the predominant secular imaginary, a peek through death’s door finds no stairway to heaven, but only darkness. Termination. Void. A terrible forgetting. Emptiness.

This is a reasonable outlook, especially after the charnel house of the past century, but it’s not much to live by. And it is no more provable than belief’s alternative. None of us knows for sure. It’s a gamble either way.

In the 1950’s, Sylvia Plath summarized the modern formulary in her journal:

You don’t believe in God, or a life-after-death, so can’t hope for sugar-plums when your non-existent soul rises… Cats have nine lives, the saying goes. You have one; and somewhere along the thin, tenuous thread of your existence there is … the stopped heartbeat that spells the end of this particular individual which is spelled ‘I’ and ‘You’ and ‘Sylvia.’

John Donne, who himself never took death lightly, saw the outcome differently:

All mankind is of one Author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.

Just a month before his death from cancer in 1631, Donne preached his final sermon, Death’s Duell, at St. Paul’s, London. “That which we call life is … spent in dying,” he wrote, but “a gate into heaven I shall have.” Then, though weak from illness, he posed for a sketch that would be used to make the sculpture for his tomb. After having a fire lit in his study (it was February), he stripped naked and wrapped himself in a burial shroud with only his face showing. Rather than lie down in the traditional sleeping position, he stood erect for the sketch. The resulting statue, the only monument to survive the Great London Fire of 1666, resides in the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s. Donne is standing to greet the resurrection. His eyes are not yet open, but he is smiling with expectant delight. His epitaph reads:

He lies here in the dust
but beholds Him whose name is Rising.