Candlemas to Lent

February 2nd - The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (also known as Candlemas and formerly as The Purification of Our Lady) p757 ASB. Candlemas falls 40 days after Christmas; it is a pivotal day looking back to Christ's birth and forward to his passion. As this is a Greater Holy Day and falls this year on a Sunday, it replaces the 8th Sunday before Easter. The gospel for Candlemas tells the story of Mary and Joseph journeying to the temple with Jesus, 8 days old, that they might be purified and Jesus consecrated to the Lord. Simeon sees that the child is light, the light to enlighten the nations. It is for this reason that light in the form of candles has long been associated with this day.

Candlelight processions would form part of the celebration. They were borne into the church, as Christ was carried to the Temple, lit for the gospel as the light of Christ was revealed, and also for the Eucharistic Prayer and the receiving of the body and blood of Christ. They were then taken out into the world, for the world. They were also a symbol of Christ's instruction that we are not to hide our light, and also a reminder of the Wise Virgins' lamps, lit ready to meet the bridegroom when the Kingdom comes.

The Anglo-Saxon practice was as follows. "Be it known to everyone that it is appointed in the ecclesiastical observances that we on this day bear our lights to church and let them be there blessed; and that we should go afterwards with the light among God's houses and sing the hymn that is thereto appointed. Though some men cannot sing they can, nevertheless, bear the light in their hands; for on this day was Christ, the true light, borne to the temple, Who redeemed us from darkness and bringeth us to the eternal light."

Perhaps it is a day when we might light candles at our dinner tables to remind us of this day celebrating that moment in the temple of the revelation of Christ, light for the world. Christ who is the light of our world, the light at our table, in our homes, and in our lives. In the evening it would be appropriate to light another candle and say as an evening prayer the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon) p66 ASB.

Shrove Tuesday. "Shrove" comes from an old Saxon word meaning to confess. In the week before Lent everyone was expected to make a private confession and the confessor would shrive them. It was a time of making peace with those amongst whom one lived so that one could come forgiven and set right to enter the season of Lent, ready by fasting and penance to be caught up in the Easter Promise. The day has now lost any religious connotation. Pancakes being a loose connection of "eating up" ready for a frugal Lent.

Lent. This English word means Spring but offers nothing to our understanding of the significance of the six week period of spiritual discipline. The origins of the season are a final time of preparation for those to be baptized at Easter. The season was then also used a a time of public discipline and sanction by the church community against individuals. "Sinners" were "excommunicated" for a six-week period, having been marked with ashes. Repentance was expressed through fasting and works of charity until they were received back into communion just before Easter, enabling them to participate fully in the Easter ceremonials.

With the decline of the formal catechumenate and an official order of penitents, it became the custom for the whole church to undergo this period of penitence and fasting, eventually fixed for forty days in imitation of Christ's forty-day fast in the wilderness. As Sundays are always seen as celebrating the resurrection and cannot therefore be fast days, they are not counted in the forty days of Lent.

The "re-enactment" of Christ's days in the wilderness is the secondary theme of Lent. The primary purpose of Lent is to provide a time of preparation for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Holy Week and Easter worship. The church "gives things up for Lent": there are no flowers; as in Advent we say the summary of the law, we cease singing the Gloria and the choir sings the penitential Kyries; the liturgical colour is once again purple; the hangings are less ornate. The Lent themes and readings open with the struggles of the King and his Kingdom against evil, and then looks towards the passion and transfiguration. With Palm Sunday the Cross comes clearly into view. In part these changes and themes express the penitence of the season, but they also provide a stark contrast with the glory and joy of the Easter Eucharist.

Privately we may choose to mirror this "giving up", not to make Lent dreary, but to give it some austerity as we walk towards the Cross of Good Friday. We might give to others rather than ourselves by saving on something we would normally eat or drink. We may find another discipline to lead us to Easter. Something that expresses our commitment to the risen Christ, who is the Christ who died for you and me. This might mean taking something on: attending extra services; taking part in a personal spiritual review as suggested by the Rector; committing time to prayer or reading; giving time to others.

Ash Wednesday is a very important day in the Christian year, when we should all try to come to church. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday - the liturgy provides an opportunity for silence, reflection and penitence. It sets us on the road for a holy Lent. Even at this stage we can see that we are embarking on a journey leading to Good Friday and the Easter celebrations. The traditional practice of the imposition of ashes is a central part of the service. As mentioned, ashes have been imposed on penitents for many centuries, ash being a biblical symbol of mourning and penitence and, with dust, of the physical substance of our being (see 2 Samuel 15:19, Isaiah 58:1-9, Matthew 11:20-21 and Genesis 18:27). As the ash is imposed the minister says these words: "remember that dust you are and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ".

This is something that every Christian should both be reminded of and make a commitment to. At St Peter's there will be a sung Eucharist with the Imposition of Ashes at 7.30pm.

Helen Walker, January 1997
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997