Candlemas and the rituals of life

Dear colleagues, 

One of the great insights of Christian liturgy is what might be called the sanctification of time. The seasons of the church year orient us at different times of the year to different aspects of the Christian gospel. The sacraments, especially the Eucharist, sanctify our daily experience of the world and the basic stuff—bread, wine—that give us life. Baptism, confirmation, weddings, and funerals point us towards God in the whole course of our life. 

Jesus lived in a Jewish ritual world like this too. This week the church commemorates one of those moments when it marks Candlemas, the name Christians have given to February 2. It is 40 days after Christmas and the Gospel of Luke tells us it’s the day when Mary and Joseph, in accordance with the law given in Leviticus (chapter 12), go to temple for purification. As Luke tells the story, the significance of the moment is less about Mary’s purification and more about the recognition of who Jesus is: Simeon, an elderly and righteous man, has been waiting to see the messiah before he dies. When he gets to hold Jesus in his arms, he realizes what he is seeing and begins to sing, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…” in words that will be familiar to us from the Nunc Dimmitis of the Daily Office. 

The Nunc Dimmitis is not the only way the church has brought this story into its liturgical life. The idea that women need to be purified after birth has historically been part of the liturgy too. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer included an “Order for the Purification of Women.” By 1662 this had become commonly known as “The Churching of Women” and marked the welcome back to the church of a woman and her child after giving birth. In our own time in which we aspire to greater gender equality, these services can seem a bit, well, off. The idea that a woman needs to be purified after birth no longer strikes a modern ear as sensible. The earliest of these rites indicated the woman should stand outside (not inside) the church and be “decently apparelled” (what did the prayer book authors think women were wearing to church anyway?). 

This rite persists today, but in an evolved form. Both the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church and the 1985 Book of Alternative Services have rites for “Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child” that are further evolutions of this tradition. The focus of this rite is now less directly on the mother and more on the child and the parents as a family. There are prayers for families that have adopted children too, prayers for women after delivering a child, and more. 

What Candlemas reminds me is that the whole of life—from its very beginning—is sanctified by God’s grace. One way of describing Christian ministry is that it is about recognizing and naming this holiness and grace in the world and helping others recognize it. As this community prepares to welcome a new child in its midst, may we all know again the wonderful joy of Simeon (and the prophetess Anna) at what God does in our lives. 

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.