THERE would have been some excitement in the communities of our Christian ancestors on the feast of Candlemas, the last great festival of the Christmas cycle before turning towards Lent. In a 15th-century parish, for instance, the day would have started with a rumbling stomach, as only bread and water would have been allowed the day before.
Preparations would quickly begin for one of the most elaborate processions of the year — a real celebration, when the churches, in the words of a Shropshire monk of the time, “made great melody”, and had done so since the seventh century. The procession was an enactment of the journey to Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph to present their child in the Temple, and large parish feasts were put on as part of the day’s festivities.
Candlemas falls at the start of the month that begins to drive away the darkness from our afternoons, and many of the prayers used throughout the day drew on this image of the retreating darkness. Every parishioner was obliged to carry a candle in procession, and to offer it to the priest, along with a penny.
The candles were all blessed, sometimes on elaborate mechanical, chandelier-like constructions that would spin them round to enable the priest to bless each one. They then burned all through the day and night, in front of the image of Mary, as a sign of the parish’s devotion.
In the 14th century, an enormous row broke out in Friesthorpe, Lincolnshire, between the Rector and his parishioners, because — once the parishioners had gone home — the Rector had stolen all the candles, presumably for his private use. In our electric days, we forget how precious candles were.
NOT all the candles were left in church by the congregation, however, because on the feast day they also brought other candles to church to be hallowed.
Candles blessed at Candlemas were thought to have special sacred power, suggested by the prayer of blessing that was said over them: “Wherever it shall be lit or set up,” the priest chanted, “may the devil flee away in fear and trembling with all his ministers, out of those dwellings, and never presume again to disquiet your servants.”
People took these hallowed candles home to be lit during a thunderstorm, or when someone was ill, and a Candlemas candle was often placed in the hands of the dying with the words, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace according to your word.”
Some people made up imaginative legends about these candles. It was said, for instance, that witches were known to drop wax from the holy candle into the footprints of those they hated, causing their feet to rot off. The misuse of holy things is a dangerous pursuit; so — to counterbalance this wild superstition — clergy of the time preached many sermons on how the candles represented Christ. The wax was his body, the wick his soul, and the flame his Godhead.
It is easy to be dismissive of some of this. We can call much of it irrational nonsense — lighting a candle during a thunderstorm, and so on. But it was a different world: unknown, elemental, and raw in many ways. Who wouldn’t have wanted to light a candle in a cold, dark room with a frightened child who was scared of the thunder?
Giving the dying a candle to hold would not get through today’s health-and-safety regulations, but, in a moving way, the loved ones were placing in that weakening hand their hope in Christ, and asking the one who faced the journey into death to hold on to that hope; for this was the light for the journey. Faith was not just for Sundays, but was woven into hard, ordinary lives.
AS WE know, the Reformers were cautious about some of the practices of the time. As they focused on the Word, and on simplification, traditions such as the blessing of candles came to an end.
In 1548, we are told, the bearing of candles was forbidden throughout the whole City of London. Likewise, there was to be no ash on Ash Wednesday, there were to be no palms on Palm Sunday, and, on Whitsun, one of the most unusual traditions came to an end: that of swinging an enormous censer from the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, and releasing doves to represent the Holy Spirit.
Over time, some of these have returned, and I am glad that they have. All the important things in life need ritualising and enacting: love needs a kiss, insight needs art, grief needs a funeral, and faith needs an enactment — not to cheapen it, but to celebrate and explore its richness, its unspeakable truths.
Although candles are not mentioned in Luke’s story of the Presentation, it is easy to see why candles became the focus for the day. At the heart of the story is an encounter: a meeting between the old Simeon and the baby Jesus. An old and weary world meets a new, fresh life, and the old man says that light has broken in — the curtains are drawn back on a new way of being human.
There is great expectancy in the story, too: what will it mean for them? But there is also the prediction of pain. The Gospel is bitter-sweet; it bears witness to the illuminating-concealing nature of God. There is talk of a sword piercing the heart of the child’s mother. Light is seen as light only because there is darkness, and candles need lighting and protecting because they can easily go out.
Faith is the same. Our faith needs blessing from time to time — refreshing, nurturing, and attending to. Life can be hard. Despair can be easy. We cannot afford to take the gift of faith for granted. Candlemas reminds us that Lent is coming, that snowfall in the soul where you must work out what matters; so use it well.
SOMEONE once said of the actor Dirk Bogarde that he wanted to be a star but he resented being obliged to twinkle. There is an obligation in Christian faith to twinkle: to light up, and let the love in the gospel be seen — and felt — in a world that can get used to living in a half-light. The candles of Candlemas are Christ, but we are also called to be signs of warmth rather than coldness, of light and honesty rather than deceit and shadow.
We are told that the light is for all people, not just for some; and it is the Christian calling to ensure that those who are forgotten, or who don’t see themselves as belonging, are drawn into the circle of light. Light kindles light. It increases as it is shared.
When the medieval clergy blessed candles, and told people to carry them home through the streets and to light them at times of fear and journey, I think that they understood faith — and the importance of its light in our precarious and fragile lives — only too well.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.