Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, February 03, 2013

A major but neglected Christian feast day

I would have wished all my readers to be at Holy Trinity Lutheran on Central Park West at 5 this Sunday evening for Candlemas. What?? Well, I didn't know about Candlemas either, until about 15 years ago. We've been missing something. Groundhog Day is actually the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and it is colloquially known in England and in Sweden (and maybe some other places) as Candlemas. It's a feast of light, but more important, it's a feast day of the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.

The story is Luke 2:22-40. It is steeped in Old Testament atmosphere. Its chief characters, besides the Holy Family, are Simeon and Anna. These two aged Jews have been "waiting for the consolation of Israel" and "looking for redemption in Israel" all their lives. When Simeon sees the baby, he breaks out into the exquisite canticle that we know as the Nunc Dimittis:

Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, according to thy Word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
The greatest wonder of this canticle is its breakout to the ungodly--the Gentiles. The juxtaposition of Old Testament expectation with the advent of the infant Messiah creates a marvellous scene. Rembrandt's painting of the Presentation, which hangs in the Mauritshuis in the Hague, evokes the numinous atmosphere unforgettably, as the light falls upon the face of the old man who has just seen the light of the incarnate Son of God. In the background are figures of the temple visitors, drawn from Rembrandt's own experience of living among the Jews of Amsterdam. The miracle of the Word of God opening up to the heathen, the outsiders, those who are "strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12) is shown forth in the Gospel of Luke in unforgettable terms. The service tonight included a motet with a wonderful text by Martin Luther, based on the Nunc Dimittis, with much emphasis on die ganze Welt (the whole world) and die dich kennen nicht (those who know him not).

(And speaking of "those who know him not" and "strangers to the covenant of promise," I am told by Rick Erickson, the director of Bach Vespers who is of Swedish descent, that Candlemas is a huge occasion in Sweden, with unchurched people flocking to the services as they seek light in the darkness of the great Northern winter. What a wonderful bridge between sacred and secular--let us pray that the Spirit touches some of those people with the light of Christ.)

A sermon that I preached at Bach Vespers in 2009 is on this website, but tonight's Vespers was an even more moving occasion because the central portion of the service was the performance of the solo cantata, Ich habe genug ("I have enough"). This is an expansion of the Nunc Dimittis and, like all Bach's cantatas, it expresses the very personal longings and hopes of those who prayerfully listen to the words and music. The homilist explained that "I have enough" is not at all the same thing as "I've had enough!" It means that in Christ, all things needful are given to us by the grace of God. The story of the aged Simeon and Anna becomes the story of every believer who puts his or her trust in Jesus, especially those of us who are getting older. The singer this evening was Joe Damon Chappell, a wonderfully gifted basso cantabile whom I always love to hear because of his special ability of communicating his personal faith.

I hope someone will play a recording of Ich Habe Genug (preferably with Fischer-Dieskau of blessed memory) when I am on my deathbed!

The sermon for Candlemas 2009 is here: