02 February 2011

Moving from the cradle to the cross, from Christmas to Passiontide

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Today [2 February] we are celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple with a special Candlemas liturgy at 5 p.m. in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

Yesterday marked the first day of Spring, tomorrow is the beginning of the Chinese new Year. But today we are also marking a change in the seasons and in the year.

This feast falls forty days after Christmas and according to traditional religious law, the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Christ-Child, presents her first-born to the priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. Because the Holy Family was poor, they offered a turtle dove and two pigeons as a submission and a sacrifice.

This is a feast rich in meaning, with several related themes running through it – presentation, purification, meeting, and light for the world. The several names by which this day has been known throughout Christian history illustrate just how much this feast has to teach and to celebrate. These names include the Presentation, and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, although today we talk more commonly of the Feast of Candlemas.

The true meaning of Candlemas is found in its “bitter-sweet” nature. It is a feast day, and the revelation of the Christ Child in the Temple, greeted by Simeon and Anna, calls for rejoicing. Nevertheless, the prophetic words of Simeon, which speak of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will piece Mary’s heart, lead on to the Passion and Easter, as the Gospel according to Saint Luke makes clear:

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too” – (Luke 2: 34-35).

Candlemas is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season, the last great festival of the Christmas cycle. As we bring our Christmas celebrations to a close, this day is a real pivotal point in the Christian year, for we now shift from the cradle to the cross, from Christmas to Passiontide – Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent are five weeks away from today.

In this shift of mood, devotion and liturgy, we take with us the light of Christ – and so the ceremony of light and the blessing of candles. This is a sure promise that Christ is the eternal light and salvation of all humanity, throughout all ages.

May you know the peace and light of Christ always.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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