21 February 2010

Epiphany 5 C - Candlemas

Sermon for 7 February 2010

By Sharyn Hall

This past Tuesday, February 2, was a very important day in our society; it was Groundhog Day. It is such an important day that some people dress in top hat and tuxedo to witness a groundhog forecast the weather for the following six weeks. You can learn a great deal on the internet about Groundhog Day – perhaps more than you would ever want to know, but it might be worthwhile to learn that Groundhog Day grew out of the religious observation of a Holy Day in our Christian calendar.

In the late 1700’s, German settlers brought the tradition of Candlemas to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Candlemas was celebrated at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, which is on February 2. The tradition in Europe and the British Isles was (and still is) that clergy would bless candles and distribute them to the people. A lighted candle was placed in the window of each home. If on the day of Candlemas, the sun was bright, the belief was that there would be six more weeks of wintry weather. A traditional English rhyme explains the folk wisdom:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Winter has another flight.

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Winter will not come again.

Several of the northern European countries have similar folk tales about the festival of Candlemas.

When the people of Punxsutawney decided to let one of God’s creatures determine whether Candlemas was cloudy or bright, they chose the groundhog because he breaks his winter hibernation at mid-point to gather food. The people of Punxsutawney held the first official celebration of Groundhog Day in 1886. We did not have our first Groundhog Day in Canada until 1956 when Wiarton Willie began predicting the weather. Now there is a groundhog prophet in every time zone across Canada. Scientific studies show that groundhogs are accurate 37% of the time, which I suppose is not a bad record for a member of the squirrel family. If we can accept that the ceremony and excitement around this event provides a welcome moment of fun in a dark and cold winter, we can smile and join in the fun, but having faith in the prophetic powers of a groundhog may be unwise.

I would guess that most people who observe February 2 as Groundhog Day would be surprised to learn that the annual celebration grew from a religious festival. The connection between Candlemas and Groundhog Day is not only history. The connection is the significance of light. The seasonal prediction of groundhogs is based on how brightly the light of the sun shines on these little creatures. The importance of Candlemas to people for centuries was the necessity of candles for light. Candles were expensive, a luxury for the rich and barely affordable for the poor. Eventually oil lamps and gas lights became common, but did not entirely replace candles. In our society, we are so used to electricity giving us light in our homes and on our streets that we expect to have the power to create light. We become very anxious when electricity fails us and we are confronted with impenetrable darkness. Then we are thankful for the light of one candle, because the light of one candle has the power to illuminate far more darkness than its single flame.

Candlemas is a time to give thanks for the ability to lighten the darkness of our world, and Candlemas is a time to celebrate the light of God, which came into our world in Jesus. The holy feast of Candlemas is the commemoration of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a requirement of ancient Jewish law that a first-born son be taken to the Temple six weeks after birth to be dedicated to God’s service. When Joseph and Mary arrived at the Temple, they were greeted by Simeon and Anna. Taking the child in his arms, Simeon praised God and acclaimed Jesus as the saving light of the world. To symbolize Jesus as the light of God, the western Christian church developed the custom of blessing and distributing candles. Eventually the religious service was called Candle Mass.

The image of light has great significance in the Bible, and symbolized many things to the Hebrew people and the early Christians. Light symbolized goodness, blessing and truth. Light fills the emptiness of darkness. Most importantly, light symbolized the presence of God in heaven and on earth. Simeon declared Jesus the saving light of God because he recognized the divine presence in the child. Jesus brought God’s light into the everyday darkness of human life. Jesus embodied God’s light in human form, which signified that humanity, with all its frailties, is made in the image of God. Jesus also brought God’s light into a world in need of salvation and new life. He said, “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”

There are many kinds of darkness in people’s lives. The people of Haiti have far more darkness than the lack of electricity. They are struggling against fear, danger, poverty, sorrow and despair. There are many places in rich nations where darkness is drowned by the neon lights of big cities, but behind those lights there often is darkness lurking in the shadows. The light of one candle may seem overwhelmed by so much darkness or so much artificial brightness, and yet we believe that the light of Christ has the power to reach into the dark corners of life to bring hope where hope might be counted as foolishness.

One candle radiates light well beyond its single flame, and the light of Christ radiates light beyond his time on earth, beyond his early disciples to generations of Christians in every age to the 21st century. Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world…Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” Those of us who claim to be disciples of Christ are called to shine as the light of Jesus in today’s world. That light is the light of God’s love for all creation. That light can bring hope against hopelessness. That light is in each one of us, because each one of us can be one candle, and one candle can begin to light the world. With God’s help, all things are possible. Amen.

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