The festival of Candlemas is still celebrated on February 2nd in many churches across the Christian family. Its origins are the usual mixture of early religious and pagan traditions. Candlemas commemorates the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of her son Jesus. This day also marks the ritual presentation of the baby Jesus to God in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was met by Anna and Simeon. Simeon held the baby Jesus and praised God, describing Jesus as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
Ritual purification stems back to a Jewish tradition that women were considered unclean after the birth of a child. For 40 days for a boy, and 60 days for a girl, women weren't allowed to worship in the temple. At the end of this time, women were brought to the Temple or Synagogue to be purified. After the ceremony women could take part in religious services again. The concept of a woman needing to be purified after childbirth continued for many hundreds of years and there is a special order of service for it in the Book of Common Prayer (now rarely used in our culture and context).
The festival is called Candlemas because this was the day that all the Church's candles for the year were blessed. In pre-Christian times, it was the festival of light. This ancient festival marked the midpoint of winter, halfway between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox.
Reflecting on Simeon's powerful statement about Jesus and Jesus' own description of himself as "the Light of the World", I was then struck by an image from BBC News this week which has stayed with me over the past few days. I don't know where it was filmed, but some of you may also have seen the images of 100,000 candles lit to mark this desperately sad milestone in our public life. More importantly, the candles bore witness to the private grief and devastation in the lives of the families and friends of those 100,000 individual people, who were (and remain) so much more than a statistic on a spreadsheet.
The image of the candle flickering in the darkness thus becomes a symbol of both remembrance and hope. It reminds us in the words of the letter writer, John "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all." (1 John 1:5). For me, this is one of the gifts of faith. A small everyday symbol, known in every culture across the world, through which we can mark both that which we remember and miss greatly AND the truth that God is alongside us in the dark days and in his company there is always the promise of hope, however unlikely that may seem at times.
So, in the days that are ahead, let us "hold ourselves and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God" (Advices & Queries 3 (Religious Society of Friends)) whether we remember or look forward in hope.