A sermon in candles
Given on Sunday 4th February 2007 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
A celebration in the Church's calendar which slipped by almost unnoticed on Friday of last week was the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas. Important in its own right, it also marks the end of the 40 days of Christmas, which for Christians began rather than finished on Christmas Day, and has been at the forefront of our prayer and praise ever since.
Sherborne Abbey no doubt saw many glorious Candlemas celebrations in medieval times, when folk would process into church carrying candles to symbolise Jesus' presentation in the Temple, and old Simeon's recognition of him as 'a light to lighten the Gentiles'. These days, although Candlemas is no longer much observed, we still use candles in Abbey services, and occasionally a great many of them. But perhaps we seldom take the time to stop and recognise their significance. It is all too easy to take them for granted as little specks of ornamental light in an electric world.
It was not always thus. Many of England's churches lost their candles and their candlesticks following the puritan victory in the English Civil War, when they were ejected from churches along with the Book of Common Prayer, altars, fonts, crosses and usually the Vicar himself. The Church of England had to go into exile, with its services celebrated in secret, until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Now once you have lost something, in time you become used to doing without it. That is why there were some unholy rows in the 19 th century when many clergy attempted to restore candles to the altars. These and other 'popish practices' occasioned much passion, on both sides of the argument. I particularly like the incident recorded in one parish where a new Vicar arrived and installed two candles on the altar. Immediately the Churchwardens removed them. The Vicar responded by ordering a gross and charging them to the PCC, thinking that would guarantee their use. But a Churchwarden was cleverer: he crept into church one dark night and by morning had managed to pull the wicks out of all 144.
Well, I am afraid I do not know if ever Sherborne Abbey was without candles, nor whether their restoration caused any fuss. But I am glad that we have them for, flickering little lights that they are, they preach a powerful sermon.
But first a word about Candlemas itself. The origin of the feast is as the commemoration of Mary's ritual purification according to the Mosaic Law after the birth of her son, and her offering of him, as her first-born, to the Lord. In pre-reformation times mothers of children born in the preceding twelve months would head the procession into Church on Candlemas Day, each carrying a candle, to give thanks to God for the birth of their children.
The Feast had another significance, too, as the third great celebration of the Light of the World. At Christmas the Light shone in the darkness, but only a few received it: Mary and Joseph and the shepherds at the manger.
Then at Epiphany the Light cast its bright beams on the Church, the New Jerusalem, and the Gentiles - represented by the Wise Men - were called out of darkness into the light of Christ. And then at Candlemas the light was placed in the hands of all the faithful; they had the Light, and were themselves to be lights in the world, as they echoed the words of Simeon: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.
Well, sadly, Candlemas has gone the way of most of the weekday festivals, and draws but a faithful few to the Eucharist of the day. But at least we have our two candles on the High Altar, and sometimes I think of them like this: one speaks of God, and it would draw us to God through Jesus, who is the very brightness of the Father's glory. And the other speaks of our neighbour, and when we love our neighbour then we draw near to Christ himself.
First, the candle that speaks of God. We are made for God; made to worship and adore God and enjoy him for ever. We find our fulfilment in the adoration of the God who made us. As St Augustine prayed, Thou hast formed us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee. When we really worship, when a church service or our own private prayers really engage us and we offer ourselves and all that we have and are to God, then we experience a sense of well-being that tells us, 'This is what I was made for'. I like the way one modern writer puts it: Mine has been a happy life, yet never have I known such deep fulfilment as when early on Easter morning I kneel before the altar in adoration of him who died and rose again for me.
Then, second, the other candle calls us to serve God in the service of our fellow men and women. Of all the high-sounding titles of the Pope in Rome, the one which strikes me most is 'Servant of the servants of God', and I think that is a title to which we should all aspire: servants of the servants of God. And that means not picking and choosing whom to love and whom to serve. A servant cannot just do the pleasant jobs. Some people are easy to love; some service is pleasant to do. But the servants of the servants of God offer their service on the altar of God's love. Love your enemies, commands the Lord; do good to them that persecute you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . and you will be sons of the Most High. And it is by offering ourselves on the altar of the love of God that we are enabled to love our fellow men and women, because then we become women and men transformed in a transformation we call redemption, and redemption is forged in the flame of our worship and our prayer.
Here, then, is the sermon the altar candles are preaching. And it is a victorious sermon, for they shine upon the cross, and the cross is the symbol of our faith, the sign of the victory won by Christ for all people. And Christ is the Light of the World, who turns our darkest night into his glorious day. And for that, thanks be to God.