Candles and Groundhogs

On February 2, most likely all of the morning TV news programs will have their cameras trained on Punxsutawney Phil, the “official groundhog” of the United States.  The reporters will be interested to know whether he sees his shadow (though no one ever seems to stop and think that the presence of so many TV lights might influence that) to know whether winter will lighten up.  For February 2 is Groundhog Day, perhaps one of the strangest days on the calendar.

Long before people were celebrating Groundhog Day, however, February 2 had another meaning entirely.  On the Christian calendar, the date is associated with the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (yes, it’s a mouthful) or, as it is often called in the Western churches, Candlemas.  It is a feast which remembers the story from Luke’s Gospel in which Joseph and Mary take the baby Jesus, on the eighth day after his birth, to the Temple in Jerusalem to perform the rites that were expected to be done after the birth of a male child (which would have included circumcision).  While in the Temple, Luke says that the holy family encountered a prophet (Simeon) and a prophetess (Anna), both of whom waxed eloquent (and prophetic, of course) about the identity and destiny of this child Jesus.  Luke composes a beautiful hymn which he places in Simeon’s mouth, one that is traditionally sung or said at Vespers or Evening Prayer, in which Simeon speaks of Jesus as a “light to enlighten the Gentiles.”

This acclamation of Jesus as the enlightening light is what leads us to the term, Candlemas.   It became a tradition for candles to be blessed at the celebration of this feast and for people to take them from the church to their homes.  Candle-light processions also became a hallmark of this celebration.  The blessed candles served as a reminder, each time they were lit, of Christ as the light who enlightens the minds and hearts of those who commit themselves to him.

The candles also serve as a baptismal reminder.  It is common practice in many churches for the godparents of the newly baptized to be presented with a candle representing the light of Christ.  And, indeed, the most ancient term for baptism in the Christian tradition is “illumination.”   Christ is the One who brings God’s light into the world; that light is given to each Christian in baptism; and the traditional Candlemas blessing serves to remind us that we are bearers of that light.

And so the Feast of the Presentation give us an opportunity to reflect on our own vocations as keepers of the light of Christ.  Are we aware of that light within us?  If so, do we keep that light hidden, as simply a private illumination that is disconnected from our outer life?  Or do we allow that light to be seen by others, as it informs our words and actions?  If Christ was a bearer of God’s light, then we are surely meant to be bearers of that light in our own time and place.  For, as St. Theresa of Avila reminds us,

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

And Christ has no light in this world, either, but ours.


One thought on “Candles and Groundhogs

  1. The image of the candle flame as a metaphor for faith also evokes the truth that, like love, faith is not diminished, but increases in the sharing, but that though shared freely, it requires care lest it be extinguished out of inattention.

    Also, thank you for the prayer from St. Teresa, I was unfamiliar with that one, but it is deeply moving and powerful.

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