Father Christopher writes:-

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

There are many numbers in the bible which have significance. The number seven for example occurs frequently and is generally thought to represent completeness or perfection, as with the seven days of creation. Sometimes the number is given added emphasis, as when Jesus tells Peter to forgive his brother not seven times but seventy times seven. The number three similarly symbolises completeness, symbolic of the created order of heaven, earth and underworld but related most clearly to the Resurrection. Together these two numbers occur over one thousand times in scripture. Less frequently occurring, but also significant, is the number forty, referring for example to the forty days and nights of rain at the flood, forty days and nights Moses was on Mount Sinai, and the forty years the Israelites were in the desert.

Scriptural references are often reflected in the church's liturgy. We are all familiar with the forty days of Lent, replicating Christ's forty days in the wilderness, and the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. At the beginning of February, the liturgy marks another period of forty days as we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord, or Candlemas, which occurs forty days after the Nativity. This is not an arbitrary period but shows the mother of Jesus complying with the Law and going to the Temple for her purification. The Book of Leviticus specifies that following the birth of a male child a woman shall be unclean for seven days, followed by thirty-three days of blood purification, making forty days in all. For a long time, the feast was known as the Purification of Our Lady and it is one of the oldest festivals in the church, having been kept by the church in Jerusalem in the first half of the fourth century, and being fixed at 2nd February once the date of the nativity was fixed at 25th December at the end of the fourth century.

It is true that St luke's account of the purification of Our lady makes no mention of candles, but the church uses them as a reminder of Simeon's words about the baby Jesus as 'a light to lighten the Gentiles'. The practice of blessing candles and carrying them in procession to mark the entry of Christ into the temple was not part of the original celebration but was introduced in the eleventh century. It serves to emphasise the point that this celebration is a joint memorial of both Christ and His mother. In his book The Stripping of the Altars Eamon Duffy writes about the many elaborate processions which marked Candlemas in the middle ages and points out that its importance in people's minds was reflected in the fact that according to the legend of St Brendan it was one of the days on which Judas was allowed out of hell to sit on a rock in the sea as a relief from his torment. As we perform our Candlemas ceremonies it is good to remember that we are sharing in a practice the church has performed for a thousand years.

Until 1969 the feast of Candlemas marked the end of the Christmas season, and in keeping with the old tradition until 2015 the Vatican kept the Christmas Crib in St Peter's Square until the feast of the Presentation. At All Saints, although we follow the modern rite in marking the end of the Christmas season at the Baptism, we have traditionally kept the crib in church until the feast of the Presentation. It serves to remind us that at Candlemas we look backwards to the Nativity and forwards to Easter, the time when the prophecy of Simeon would be fulfilled.


Fr Christopher.

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