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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

03 February 2023

In today’s fragmented society, Candlemas is a counter-cultural feast, says Malcolm Guite

CANDLEMAS is one of my favourite feasts for two reasons. First, it brings the arc of the Christmas story to a beautiful conclusion, carrying it to the brink of Lent. Second, it brings together, in the same scene, and at the same pivotal moment, the oldest and the youngest people in the story. Indeed, if we think of Christ in his infancy, Mary and Joseph in their prime, and Simeon and Anna in extreme old age, and then unite all the ages and stages of human life, this scene in the temple has some claim to be the first all-age service.

When Eamon Duffy’s monumental The Stripping of the Altars first appeared, I was very moved by the chapter that he devoted to Candlemas, as a worked example of how the service, and the gospel at its heart, was owned and entered into by both community and church. All the candles that would be used in the parish that year — both in the church and to light people’s homes — were brought into the church and blessed: all these little outer lights brought to the true Light that lightens the world, to be kindled in spirit, to be “dipped and glamoured” (to borrow a phrase of Heaney’s), immersed in the aura of the sacrament. I loved, too, Duffy’s account of community participation: the different guilds bringing their votive candles, the oldest inhabitants of the parish joining the procession as Simeon and Anna.

But, if Candlemas was so consonant with community life then, it is positively and prophetically counter-cultural now. We live in a culture that ruthlessly divides and separates the ages and stages of life: the aged are siphoned off into retirement complexes and care homes; couples starting out together, and those with young families, can scarcely afford anywhere to live; and, when they can, it’s nowhere near their parents and grandparents.

Even in church, the one place where we might reconstitute a more balanced community, we often find a sort of liturgical apartheid. Children are taken off to separate rooms; the elderly, put off by razzmatazz and innovation, congregate to the eight o’clock Prayer Book service; and those who are left muddle through with something in the middle. But, perhaps at Candlemas, at least, we can all be together.

When I came to write my “Candlemas” sonnet for Sounding the Seasons, I rejoiced that Simeon and Anna, economically unproductive as they might be, still had a place in the temple. But I also reflected on how, even then, Mary and Joseph had to overcome some barriers to get in — barriers which their son would one day throw down:


Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.
Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,
They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,
For God was coming with them to His temple.
Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle
They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,
Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,
Had made a killing on the two young doves.
They come at last with us to Candlemas
And keep the day the prophecies came true;
We share with them, amidst our busyness,
The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.
For Candlemas still keeps his kindled light:
Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

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