Candlemas

Candlemas – a Northern Hemisphere winter celebration

Last Sunday, I was in the congregation of a church (in New Zealand) which celebrated Candlemas. People were given a lit candle. Outside, the sun (which had been up since before 6:30 am and wouldn’t go down until 9 in the evening) was heating the air to 28 degrees (that’s 82 Fahrenheit if you think that way). Lights were on in the church building, but they added little to the bright natural light of the hot summer day.

The service began by the congregation being told that it was 40 days since Christmas (even those without a Maths degree were startled – clearly, it was only 35). And a lot of the service, including the sermon, talked about darkness, and waiting in the darkness.

The Feast of “The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin” survived the English Reformation, and simply as a celebration on the actual day that it falls. It did so in England right through to the liturgical revision of Alternative Service Book of 1980. And similarly in NZ Anglicanism. It was only with the Church of England’s 1991 resource “The Promise of His Glory” that Candlemas was upgraded:

Where Candlemas is given this pivotal place, Sundays up to Candlemas need to be ‘of Epiphany’, and Sundays after Candlemas ‘before Lent’. We also give encouragement for this feast to be celebrated on the nearest Sunday to 2 February, to enable it to make its impact. (page 260).

CofE’s Common Worship committed that church to this approach. Some Kiwi Anglicans, enamoured with such colourful Medieval opportunities in Northern-Hemisphere Mother England, patched some of these bits onto our Southern-Hemisphere cloth.

I don’t think the patch works. I don’t think that it fits our Southern-Hemisphere reality. And it doesn’t work that our first NZ Sunday in the Ordinary Time that we say begins after Candlemas we call “The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time”.

During the holidays (in January), I stood before a shop (I’m sorry, now, that I didn’t take a photo) which had, in big letters “The 24 days of Christmas”. And in the window display there were 24 boxes, each numbered, each with its own object you could purchase in the shop. I’m used to the 12 days of Christmas, but it took me quite a bit to realise that this was a reference to the usual Advent Calendar. The 24 days of Christmas, for this shop, were the 24 days of December leading up to Christmas Day.

Purists may balk at it, but our Southern Hemisphere culture has Christmas celebrated in the lead up to December 25. Trying to enforce a Northern-Hemisphere Christmas Season ending in February is forever frustrating. Schools, and others, have Christmas carol services in NZ in December – at the close of the school year, not at the end of January or the start of February, to begin the school year.

Australian Anglicanism and Southern African Anglicanism, both Southern Hemisphere versions of Anglicanism, have retained the inherited celebration of Candlemas as being February 2 without having it close a Christmas Season or upgrading it to an annual Sunday celebration. Only NZ Anglicanism has abandoned Southern-Hemisphere inculturation and followed Mummy England in her making her bleak midwinter less boring, filled with more celebrations and more candles and light.

So what could be our Southern Hemisphere equivalent? How might we renew our own Southern Hemisphere bleak midwinter in the manner that the Northern Hemisphere CofE has done? Well, six months from early February we arrive in early August. We, in NZ Anglicanism could celebrate the Transfiguration (August 6) with a Vigil (the night of August 5) with candles, processions, and also, as well as the Gospel message of the Transfiguration, a particular focus on peace (the anniversary of Hiroshima’s bombing being on August 6 – that has its own tradition of candles).

So I suggest NZ Anglicanism returns to the well-thought-through approach of A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa (ANZPB/HKMA) which holds with the majority Western position of celebrating Candlemas/The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on 2 February (and doesn’t move it to the nearest Sunday). If that happens (once in seven years) to fall on Sunday, you are welcome to celebrate that on Sunday. Return to the well-thought-through approach of ANZPB/HKMA of counting Ordinary Time, with the rest of the world’s churches that use that counting system, starting the Sunday between 7 and 13 January. We need to reboot our liturgical life at least back to the usually well-thought-through approach of ANZPB/HKMA 1989 with some slight improvements on that (remove the Two Year cycle; update the Three year cycle to the Revised Common Lectionary; standardise responses; increase the Maori content).

Here is a Candlemas collect:

Almighty and ever-living God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple,
in substance of our flesh:
grant that we may be presented to you
with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

(Gregorian Sacramentary, Sarum Missal, 1549 BCP)

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