For Reflection: this week Benjamin reflects on the image of the candle as we move out of the season of Christmas and Epiphany
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
On 2nd February we kept the Feast of Candlemas. In sensible, sober Church of England terms, it is listed in our books as “The Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple” or “The Feast of the Purification”. That moment recounted in our reading when Mary and Joseph, following the Jewish custom, went to the Temple for rituals of purification undertaken forty days after the birth of a child. However, through the traditions of the Church this biblical feast has become “Candlemas”. Focusing on those prophetic words of Simeon, that Jesus would be:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
Candlemas is another of the staging posts through the darkness towards the light. Like other great festivals it has become folded into the subtle shifts and changes of our seasons and year.
The 2nd of February is a half-quarter day – that point where we are half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It marks a point when, even though it still remains dark, things are getting lighter. In the traditions of the Church this became a point to gather up the Christmas decorations which sustained up through the darkness of January, and also to bless the lights – particularly the candles – that will guide us through the year, hence Candlemas.
To focus on the “Candle-ness” of Candlemas might therefore put us in danger of collapsing into the tradition and folk memory of this day. But I hope you will indulge me a little as we explore the powerful wisdom we find in the simple candle flame.
As many of you will know, before I taught history and philosophy in Universities. During that time, I was fortunate to complete research on a group of seventeenth-century English philosophers and theologians commonly remembered as “The Cambridge Platonists”. The Cambridge Platonists did, as the old advert used to say, exactly what it says on the tin. There were a group of thinkers educated and working at the University of Cambridge who drew their intellectual inspiration from the Renaissance rediscovery of the philosophy of Plato and his followers.
Their work came to mind for me today because they are remembered by many for popularizing a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “The Spirit of man is the Candle of the Lord” – an apt verse for Candlemas I’m sure you’d agree.
This was not an idle quote, but a deeply powerful and subtle image they used which carried with it a double meaning.
The first is that, for the Cambridge Platonists, the light of the Candle of the Lord was a strong and hopeful thing. In the seventeenth-century context this light equated with them with the faculties of human reason which were beginning to be stretched by innovations in science and philosophy. The Candle of the Lord was, so the founder of the Cambridge Platonists, Benjamin Whichcote said:
a thing first lighted, then lighting: So that Mind and Understanding is first made Light, by Divine Influences; and then enlightens a Man, in the use thereof, to find out God, and to follow after him in Creation
The Candle of the Lord was sign of God’s good creation placed in the heart of man. It was a sign of enlightenment and hope in the dark decades civil war and conflict that coloured the seventeenth-century.
But if the Candle of the Lord was a sign of hope, it was also a fragile one. It is worth noting here that Whichcote and his followers kept loyally to the translation of Proverbs found in the Authorised Version. Where other translations have this divine light as a “lamp” or “lantern” the Cambridge Platonists focused on this divine gift as a fragile candle flame.
This light was not the bright shining light of the Enlightenment, burning away superstition and tradition. This candle was for them a gentle and fragile thing which humanity takes for granted at their peril.
As Whichcote says elsewhere in his writings:
Men … go against their Light: that Men put out the Candle of God in them, that they may do Evil without Check or Controul
The Candle of the Lord, Whichcote is a precious thing, a sign of hope and possibility, but one which is fragile and needs to be nurtured and cared for.
This double image of the hope and fragility of the candle is not one limited to the musing of early-modern divines, it is one we all know well.
One of my proudest moments as Vicar came in my first year when, on a hot early summers day Bishop Frank White confirmed eleven candidates at St Cuthbert’s Haydon Bridge. At the end of the service each candidate was presented with a lit candle and we processed out of the Church. As we emerged into sunshine everyone holding a candle instinctively guarded the flame as the summer breeze tried to blow it out. As the did this Bishop Frank, with characteristic wisdom spoke to the newly confirmed.
“Don’t forget this”, he said: “your newly confirmed faith is like this candle which shines brightly in church, but you have to work even harder to protect it as you emerge into the world.”
Candlelight – he reminded us – was precious but fragile.
But even with that fragility it brings us hope. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people wordlessly light a candle as a sign of hope. A simple flame lit in grief or prayer wordlessly speaking of the hope we seek. I remember once visiting a family living with great fear and anxiety. As we spoke there was a power cut and the room we sat in was plunged into darkness. Darkness except for a candle burning on the table between us. And as we continued to speak we watched as this fragile and precious light gently but surely pushed the darkness that surrounded it away.
Candlelight is precious and fragile and gives us hope.
So, at this Candlemas, surrounded by the darkness of this time, we might pray that we would live with those words on our heart. That our spirit would, in these coming weeks and months, be the Candle of the Lord. Simple, precious, and fragile that it might be. But guided by that light we will have the confidence to nurture that light as we move through the darkness of this time, so that it might continue to slowly but surely push the darkness away.
Questions for reflection
- Have you ever found yourself lighting a candle in hope, what was the reason you did it?
- What fragile signs of light in the darkness can you see?
- How might we best protect that fragile candlelight?