"Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel's consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
According to thy word."
TS Eliot's A Song For Simeon is part of a seasonal series of poems taking the reader through Advent and into Christmas. However, this particular line has resonance this weekend as Christians around the world will commemorate the inspiration for them – the Song of Simeon, recorded in Luke 2 29-32.
The prayer, which went on to become integral to the worship of the church (and inspire some of its most beautiful music), is known as the Nunc Dimittis and comes during the passage commemorating the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
The celebration this Sunday is known by that name to some, by others as Candlemas and is called Hypostante by our Orthodox sisters and brothers, which means 'the meeting of the five' (referring to Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna and Jesus).
It's also the day where some churches will finally take down the crib that has been up since Christmas and is even the date where some parts of America celebrate Groundhog Day! (If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.)
What, though, can we learn about the spiritual significance of this celebration? The name 'Candlemas' comes from the tradition that priests would bless candles on this Sunday which would be used in the church throughout the year. This points to the real meaning and significance of the text. Not in the candles themselves, but in what they represent – Jesus as the light of the world – the long promised salvation of Israel but also the gentiles.
This is highlighted by two of the other texts that will be read in many churches on Sunday. The first focuses on Jesus' divinity and the second on His priestly ministry.
Firstly, the section of Psalm 24 that will be read indicates how this celebration continues the revealing of Jesus' divinity to us. In previous weeks we've read of the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus and His turning water into wine. In their own way these stories make up the season of Epiphany – which means 'revealing'. We are learning again about exactly who Jesus is – the Incarnation of God. Psalm 24: 7-8 reads, "Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle."
This reading being placed next to the story of Jesus being presented at the temple reinforces again the message we've been hearing through the Epiphany. Jesus isn't merely a new prophet or a well-schooled rabbi. No, He is God Himself come to us.
The second reading, meanwhile, gives us another piece of the jigsaw. It helps us to understand the 'priestly' role of Jesus. Hebrews 2:17 says, "Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people."
Again, it is no coincidence that this passage will be read this Sunday. It shows how Jesus is our great high priest – the mediator between us and God. This role had previously been held by the priests in the temple.
Jesus was a faithful Jewish boy. He was presented at the temple as was the custom. But later He would go onto pronounce that He would rebuild the temple in three days after it had been destroyed – an allusion to His death and resurrection.
While Simeon's words in the Nunc Dimittis show us that Jesus was indeed the Messiah of Israel, in fact His message was going to be available to the gentiles too. Seen this way, His presentation at the temple is very significant. Less than 70 years after Jesus' parents brought Him there, the temple was torn down by the Romans and has never been rebuilt.
But the true temple – Jesus – was resurrected on the third day. Candles which used to be lit in the temple are still lit in many churches to remind us of Jesus as the light of the world. Those candles will be lit this Sunday to pronounce that He is risen and He remains with us.
Coming as it does here in the northern hemisphere in the middle of winter, it's no surprise that the groundhog and others weather-related folk tales have sprung up around Candlemas. But here is something far more significant than the news that spring is on its way...
As poet Malcolm Guite puts it:
They come at last with us to Candlemas
And keep the day the prophecies came true
We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,
The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.
For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,
Against the dark our Saviour's face is bright.