Today we are celebrating Candlemas!
Its other name is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is the Gospel story we just heard.
This holy day comes deep in the winter, at a time of year when people are longing for spring and the return of longer days.
So over the centuries – especially as Christianity moved into more northern regions with longer, darker winters – the holy day became a festival of light and a time to bless candles, to be burned in times of peril, storms, or sickness.
Candlemas is a minor feast of the church, falling on February 2.
We bring it into Sunday church here because there’s a Candlemas story about St Dunstan, the saint of our church, and that makes it special for us.
The story goes like this…
It happens about eleven hundred years ago!
In the western part of England, where winters were long and cold and dark and sometimes stormy.
And it wasn’t just the winters that were hard.
It was a time of violence, poverty, sickness, corruption, and unjust rulers.
It was Candlemas Eve, and everyone in the village was at church. In the crowd was a young woman named Cynethrith. She was married and was expecting a child.
She was a woman of deep faith, and she prayed every day that her child would grow up to be someone who could help her country and her people.
So, everybody came to church for Candlemas, and they brought their candles to bless.
This was before electricity, so they didn’t have flashlights or lamps with bulbs… just candles, and little lamps that burned oil or fat, and the fireplaces in their homes.
Imagine a little stone church full of candlelight! It must have been beautiful.
But! There was a big storm that night…. And suddenly, in the middle of the praying and singing, a gust of wind blew through the church and blew out everybody’s candles! Every single one!
The church was in total darkness! Adults cried out. Children wept. The priest begged everyone to stay calm.
Nobody had lighters or matches – they didn’t exist yet!
But then, suddenly, there was light again.
The candle that Cynethrith was holding had lit – all by itself.
As if by magic. As if by a miracle.
She shared that holy and mysterious flame to her neighbors, and the light spread until the whole church was lit up again.
The lighting of Cynethrith’s candle was a sign of what her baby would become: Saint Dunstan, monk, friend of kings, founder of monasteries, and Archbishop of Canterbury, a leader who would share and spread Christ’s light in difficult times.
And it was a sign of her own role as the mother of a saint, kindling God’s light in her son’s heart.
Dunstan shined his light in the difficult times when he lived.
Just like Jesus says in our Song of Faith today: Be light! Be salt!
This is part of a big sermon Jesus preached.
We heard the beginning last week: A big crowd had gathered, so Jesus went up on a hill so people could see and hear him, and preached to the crowd.
The people in that crowd weren’t rich or important or special.
They were ordinary people from the villages and countryside.
Matthew just told us that Jesus was healing people who were sick or disabled or hurt, so the crowd probably included a lot of people who were sick or disabled or hurt, and their loved ones.
And Jesus starts his sermon off with a big surprise for everybody:
It’s not the people who are rich and important and special in their own eyes who are really on top of the world.
People who are grieving or struggling, people who feel hopeless, people who are full of frustration and yearning for a better world, people who take time to be kind instead of always pushing to get ahead, people who are bullied and bothered for doing what is right – those are the people who are especially held in God’s love.
Those are actually the people who really matter in the world, no matter how it might look on the surface.
Then he goes on to tell this group of ordinary, unimportant people, including kids and old people and sick and disabled people and all kinds of folks – he tells them:
You are the salt of the earth!
You are the light of the world!
I want us to hear those words, that thing Jesus is telling us about ourselves – and I do think he’s speaking to us as well as that original crowd.
What does it mean to be salt and light?
Salt and light are both things where a little bit can make a big difference.
Let’s start with salt.
When food is flavored just right, it doesn’t just taste like salt, right?
Salt brings out the other flavors. It doesn’t dominate.
But you can really tell the difference between food that has just the right amount of salt – or not enough – or too much!
And this stuff Jesus says about salt losing its saltiness?
That’s not a thing. Salt is very simple.
It’s a sodium cation and a chloride anion. NaCl. It doesn’t go bad.
There are two ways we can read what Jesus says here:
Either he is surprisingly uninformed about salt,
Or he’s intentionally saying something that can’t happen.
Like, if salt just refuses to be salt, then sure, it’s basically sand, and the best use for it is to scatter it on an icy spot.
But it is salt’s nature to be salty.
Jesu says we can trust our God-given saltiness and just let ourselves get mixed in and spice up the world.
A little salt can change and improve the flavor of the whole dish.
And a room with one candle in it – or a sky with one star – is so different from total darkness.
Who grew up with the song?
“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!…
Hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m going to let it shine!
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…”
In my research this week I learned a fun fact.
Think about a lit candle in the dark.
If you were in a wide open, dark space, and you turned around and started walking away from that candle, and looked back at it now and then, how far away do you think you could still see it? …. Two physicists studied this question, and they found that it’s about 1.6 miles.
They did it by comparing it with the visibility of stars from earth!
At about 1.6 miles, a candle flame is about the same brightness as some of the stars that we can just barely see from earth.
1.6 miles is a lot farther than I would have guessed!
For those who know the local terrain: From here at St. Dunstan’s, it’s about 1.6 miles to the intersection of University Avenue and Whitney Way.
Even a single candle can shine its light pretty far!….
In a commentary on today’s Gospel, The Salt Project says, “Like salt and light, God made you as a small thing that can make a big difference for a larger whole. God made you to spice things up — not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it… And likewise, God made you to shine, as only you can: a flame that can light up an entire room, or help guide a lost traveler home… But we do have to claim and embrace and live out these gifts. We do have to actually be salty and luminous… [In the Sermon on the Mount,] Jesus does not say, Follow these instructions and you’ll be blessed. Rather, he says, You are already blessed with gifts for blessing the world — so go and bless! Spice and shine!”
I love that. Spice and shine, dear ones!
But I want to explore one more thing before we move on.
Light is one of the big themes of the season of Epiphany.
It’s in our songs and prayers and Scriptures all over the place.
Over the past few years I have been trying to pay attention to how we talk about light – and especially how we talk about darkness.
I read an article a couple of weeks ago by a Christian songwriter who’s been thinking about this too – Steve Thorngate.
First, he lays out some of the tensions and complexities.
He writes, “There is a long history in the church of using words like light, white, bright, and fair to [suggest] goodness in a straightforward way – and words like dark, black, shade, and dim to [mean] the opposite. Most instances… were not written for explicitly racist purposes (though some were). Still, this language has thrived alongside racism in White-dominated church contexts. And language—especially ritual language, repeated again and again—has great power among those who speak or hear it, [beyond] the intent of its creators. So there is a compelling case to simply avoid this whole family of descriptive language at church, [because] it can be and has been used to bolster White supremacy.”
On the other hand, he says, “The Bible is chock-full of light/dark imagery, with much (though not all) of it presenting light as the positive side of the coin.”
Furthermore, he says, “[Light and dark] language, after all, is more than biblical: it’s elemental. It names a fundamental experience of all living things. The earth’s days and seasons are defined by the planet’s relationship with the sun’s rays…These cycles of darkness and light have shaped creatures, ecosystems, and communities across generations and continents, and the depth of this shared reality makes it a rich source for [Christian symbolic] language. This universal experience of time and of the created order… is fundamental to Christian [worship].”
That’s an especially salient point here at Candlemas.
You might know at least two other celebrations on February 2nd.
Can anybody name one? … (Groundhog Day; Imbolc.)
February 2nd is important, is named and celebrated in all these ways, because it falls halfway between the winter solstice – the shortest day, the longest night – and the spring equinox, when the night and day are the same length; after that the days start to get longer than the nights.
So February 2nd is a human way of naming a planetary waypoint, a particular moment in the interaction of the Earth’s tilted turning in relation to the Sun.
And we humans, observers and meaning-makers, have layered on all these feasts that are different ways of saying that we are yearning for light and spring and rebirth.
Light and dark really do have this elemental, fundamental meaning. But that doesn’t free us from responsibility to be thoughtful in using this language, with its history of harm.
Steve Thorngate writes that he has decided – for now – to keep using these images in his songs, but carefully, and with a few guidelines.
For example: Think about what we mean when we talk about light. “Light can mean illumination, vision, transparency, openness, the revealing of secrets.” Those meanings stay close to the literal function of light.
But let’s be careful about layering on more moral or value-laden meanings, like innocence, goodness, cleanness, purity.
He also suggests that we be very cautious about using negative language for darkness – and look for opportunities to say positive things about darkness, too. He writes, “Fertile soil is dark. A dark sky without light pollution promotes healthy rest and… visibility. Secrets and mysteries aren’t always bad things.”
And he urges us to work on broadening and diversifying the language and imagery we use in worship – the ways we talk about God and about our Christian vocation.
I wonder what it would be like to spend a whole Epiphany exploring salt, instead of light? There would have to be lots of snacks!
Thorngate’s essay summed up a lot of things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ve been trying to follow similar guidelines for a while. But I am still thinking and wondering about it all.
I invite you to think and wonder with me.
How we can use these images that are so central in our Scriptures and that are so natural to us as human beings who live on a planet that spins from dark to light, dark to light again; but also who live in a society with a deep and persistent history of sorting and ranking people based on their skin color, and using darkness to stand for ignorance or evil?
I invite you to wonder and notice with me… and if you have ideas or questions or noticings, let’s talk about it.
The Salt Project’s commentary on this Gospel:
About candle flames and distance:
Steve Thorngate on light and dark imagery: