We don't often light candles these days just to get light, although most winters we have a few breaks in our power supply. And I’m always careful to have some candles in and know where they are, just in case. But what we mostly do is to light candles at times of celebration. We put them on birthday cakes, or on the table when a couple, or a family, or a group of friends meet for a special meal. We like to light candles as part of the decorations when we want a place to look special: real candles on our Christmas tree when I was little, battery operated LED ones on our tree these days.
And of course we light candles in church. The candles we light on the altar are there to draw our attention to the holy table, and to make it the focus of our worship. As we break bread and pour wine and share these things together, our candles help mark the fact that this is a celebration initiated and given and shared by our Lord himself, and that he is present as we meet at his table.
Candles are also a sign of prayer; whenever I do a day’s chaplaincy at our cathedral I light a candle or two by the shrine of St Thomas, and take some time to remember people for whom I want to pray. Lots and lots of our visitors and pilgrims do the same. We don’t need to - our prayers are just as valid, and will be just as much heard by God, without candles being lit; but somehow we find it helps us to do it.
Partly that’s just because we’re doing something, expressing our inner emotion in a practical action; but candles also speak of the presence of God, and Jesus is hailed as the light of the world. In the Book of Genesis chapter 1, the story of Creation, light is the first thing God makes; the first creative act is to roll back the darkness, and everything else follows. So our candles in church can remind us that God is always looking to change darkness into light, and always close to us; when we meet to worship him, or kneel to pray, he’s not far away, he is as close as our own breathing. We don’t need to shout for him to hear us, we only need to whisper our prayers.
Candlemas really happens next Friday, but we’re encouraged to keep it in place of the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, which is today. Candlemas is the popular name for the feast day known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It’s the story told in the evensong canticle the Nunc Dimmittis: Old Simeon in the Temple sees the baby Jesus in the arms of his mother, and he knows straight away that his long wait is over. This is the child through whom God's salvation will be worked for his people; this is the child born to be a light to the gentiles, given not only for the salvation of his own people, but as good news for all the world.
Simeon sees a small child in his mother's arms, as his parents come to the temple to do what the law requires. He sees a very tiny light, like a single candle flame in a great big dark room. But he knows it is the true light; and however big and scary the darkness may be, once one small candle is lit then it's not really dark any more. Simeon and Anna the prophetess recognised that day a new and special light, a flame to bring light to every dark place, to change everything.
It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Often we can feel weak and vulnerable as we look at the world and hear the news. Especially at this still dark time of the year. What can we do, when so much seems so bad? What can we do against the mountains of greed, intolerance, racial violence and hatred, poverty, terrorism, and the gradual hardening of hearts into selfishness that so much these days seems to encourage? People get anxiety overload, and our natural desire to give and to help gets paralysed. And maybe we deal with how that feels by looking back wistfully to half remembered, half imagined past days when everything was nicer and simpler.
But we won’t find the child Simeon rejoiced to see back in the rose-tinted past. He is always striding out ahead of us, and calling us on: “Follow me,” he says to each of us. Light your one personal candle and follow me. And though one small candle may not seem very much, the little light Simeon saw at that first Candlemas is a light to shine for ever, a love that will never be extinguished, and our light is lit from him. Jesus told his disciples that they must shine as lights in the world to the glory of God, and we use those words at holy baptism when we give a candle to a newly baptized child. Being lights is fundamental to our calling as Christian people, whether we’re big and many or small and few.
Most of what Jesus says in the Gospels is directed to the small and few, by the way. Don't be afraid, little flock, he said to his friends. Don't be afraid to be seen to be mine; don't worry that you seem so very small. After all, once you’ve lit your one candle you can light others from it. One candle is a small light, but put them together and they become great. The darkness that seems so strong is forced back and conquered.
The lights went out in the cathedral one day when I was on duty there - I think they were doing some electrical checks, and Hereford is quite a bright cathedral during daylight hours, so it didn’t much matter. What I did observe though is just how bright the rows of votive candles were, all together - a lot of them had been lit that morning. Your light and mine, and others besides, can change the world, if the light that first lights us is the light of Christ, the light with which God first pushed back the dark of chaos, and began his work of creation.
To be a Christian is to be part of God’s creative process. Paul speaks about the Christian community as “having the mind of Christ.” Yes, we have the mind of Christ and the light of Christ: a light to change and transform the world. Candlemas is the traditional very end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. We’ll move on this year to just two Sundays of Ordinary Time - celebrating God’s creation (next week) and thinking of Jesus transfigured on the mountain (the week after), before we enter Lent and turn our faces towards the cross and on to Easter.
As the year moves on, we move on from celebration to action: from candles lit to brighten our Christmas celebration, to candles lighting candles lighting candles as we seek to take what Simeon saw in this little child - God’s promise of love and peace and justice and healing - out into all the world. Mission, in other words. We surely want mission, don’t we? Well, I do. I want this flame to lighten and enrich and change more and more hearts and lives, and I know that that begins here, in me; and in you, too. As candles burn for Jesus here on this Candlemas Day, may they burn also in our hearts. And may we, small as we are, be ready to say yes to being part of his work, witnesses to the world of the love born among us, the light no darkness can quench.