Beginnings and Endings: the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas)

The Prsentation by Nicholas Mynheer
The Presentation by Nicholas Mynheer. Oil and gold leaf on handmade paper. Image copyright.

Today’s feast is one that looks two ways: back to Christmastide and forward to the Passion. I think that must be why it was chosen as the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life, because monks, nuns, friars, Religious Brothers and Sisters and so on are all marked with the grace and glory of the Incarnation in baptism but must, by virtue of their vows, follow also the often dark path that leads to Christ’s Passion and Death. We share in the privilege and the pain, but the focus must always be on Christ. That is why the Presentation of the Lord is such an important celebration, and the candles we hold in our hands are a reminder of both what we are and what we hope to become.

Today’s feast is always one of great gladness and rejoicing because it marks the point at which Jesus is taken up into the Temple and begins his mission. I think we could also say it is a great feast of the Church qua Church. For we do not think only of the joy of Mary and Joseph as their infant son is offered to the Lord. We think, too, of Simeon and Anna, nearing the end of their lives, and the fulfilment of their hope in the Messiah. There is something very moving about the way in which their long fidelity is portrayed in the gospel. Every night at Compline we sing into the darkness the Canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, and affirm our faith in the Light that enlightens the gentiles, just as they affirmed, at the end of their lives, their undimmed hope and trust. Christ’s light must pierce even our darkest, drearest moments — the times when faith seems hollow and we cling on by our finger-tips. And when we cannot, we know that the rest of the Church will, for that is the meaning of the Communion of Saints here and now.

Yesterday, we received a beautiful gift from a friend and oblate of the community. The circumstances surrounding the gift, and the giver himself, make it very special. Nicholas Mynheer’s depiction of the Presentation is quite small, 20 cm by 20 cm, but it glows with great intensity (the illustration does not do it justice). It lights up the room in which it hanges. This morning as I was praying before it, it struck me that this wonderful feast of light and joy is itself a great gift to the Church. It allows us a little glimpse of eternity, a warm and supremely accessible vision of what the Church is and the importance of every individual within her, young or old. Today, please pray for the donor of the painting, for the maker of it and for the whole Church, especially those who think themselves ‘small and of no account’. It is what we are in the Lord’s eyes that counts, and to him we are worth much.

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Gene Editing, Consecrated Life and Candlemas

Yesterday the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approved a limited form of experimental gene editing of human embryos (see BBC report here). For anyone who believes that life begins at conception, irrespective of whether that life lasts for only a few hours or many years, is born or is not born, as we commonly understand that term, it is a decision of enormous consequence. But because it is ‘science’, because it is presented in the language of compassion for those who are infertile or whose children miscarry, most of us are probably not thinking through the questions that follow in its train. By saying the embryos must be discarded after seven days and destroyed after fourteen, are we not saying, in effect, they are not human, they have no rights? The caveat that embryos which have been experimented on should never be implanted or allowed to grow to term may not cut much ice with those of us who remember the debate around the 1967 Abortion Act and the way in which many of its provisions seem to have been ignored. The prospect of GM human beings just came another step closer.

You notice that I have been careful to write of embryos whereas I naturally think of the unborn as babies. (Whoever said, ‘We’re expecting an embryo!’ or ‘I can feel my embryo moving!’) That is because I think the Church often fails to speak or even understand the language of those to whom she must proclaim the Gospel. Today, on the feast of Candlemas (also known as the Presentation of the Lord or the Purification of Mary), when we think of Simeon and Anna keeping faith through long years of hardship and disappointment and finally seeing the Glory of Israel, we tend to think of the elderly, of the gifts they bring to the Church, and we look backwards, perhaps to a Golden Age that never was. We forget the wars, the poverty, the ill-health, the sheer ignorance that marred the lives of many (as they still mar the lives of many in other parts of the world) and indulge in a little nostalgia. We think of peace after the day is done and the quiet tones of the Nunc Dimittis as night falls. The HFEA’s decision is comfortably forgotten in the soft gleam of candlelight and the sprinkle of holy water.

Let us be grateful, therefore, that today is not only the last of the Infancy feasts, a reminder of what the Incarnation means and Jesus’ purpose in becoming man, it is also the Jubilee marking the end of the Year of Consecrated Life. Quite a lot of people see religious life as irrelevant or a refuge for the stupid and are astonished when they discover that it is not necessarily either. Indeed, whether apostolic or contemplative, religious are great shakers-uppers of fixed ideas or accepted notions. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Mary Ward, Mother Teresa, they were all very different, but they exposed and overturned many of the fashionable complacencies of their day. The Church has never had greater need of people whose whole lives will proclaim the absolute transcendence of God and the importance of the Gospel in defiance of whatever society endorses as ‘acceptable’ or even ‘good’.

Today, as we process holding our flickering candles, let us pray that God will continue to call and uphold those whose service of the temple is, in many respects, hidden but who, by their very existence, assert the reality of values that go beyond the present and reach into eternity. And may those privileged to serve in the temple continue to pray that we may never lose sight of our humanity or fail to be humble in the presence of Life.

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A Candlemas Post 2015

Villagers on Their Way to Church
Villagers on Their Way to Church

This lovely Flemish illumination of villagers making their way to church for Candlemas (you can just see the lighted tapers being carried in procession) captures the essence of today’s celebration.
Detail showing Candelmas procession The Presentation of the Lord marks the end of the Infancy Cycle, the true end of Christmastide. Our gaze now turns towards the public ministry and, very soon, we shall begin the Lent and Easter Cycle. But for a brief moment all is gladness and joy as we mark the dedication of Christ to the service of his Father. It is uncomplicated: a fulfilment of the Old Covenant which ushers in the New. Simeon and Anna stand as types of Israel’s long fidelity, and there is only that fleeting reference to the sword that will pierce Mary’s heart to give us pause. Every night the Church joins her voice to Simeon’s in his jubilant Nunc Dimittis. We, too, have seen the promised salvation, and we rejoice.

It was no accident that today’s feast was chosen for the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. Every religious vocation begins with a joyful dedication of self to the Lord’s service; and like every vocation in the Church, it is never for oneself alone. The whole village participates, so to say; and though the menace of that sword of sorrow is acknowledged, it is not dwelt upon. The light that enlightens the gentiles and the glory of his people Israel guides us every step of the way.

Yesterday I wrote in very personal terms about my own understanding of monastic life. Today I  invite you to think more generally about the place of consecrated life in the Church — what it says to you, and what it asks of you. Of one thing we can be sure: it is a light that will never go out because it takes fire from him who is the Light of the World.

Note on the illustration
Simon Bening (Flemish, about 1483 – 1561) 
Villagers on Their Way to Church, about 1550, Tempera colours and gold paint on parchment
Leaf: 5.6 x 9.6 cm (2 3/16 x 3 3/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 50, recto

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Candlemas, the Fifth Degree of Humility and Consecrated Life

The Presentation in the Temple

How good it is that on the Day dedicated to Prayer for Consecrated Life (monks, nuns and all the other kinds of religious there are today), we not only celebrate the Presentation of the Lord (olim Candlemas, or the Purification of Mary), we also read St Benedict’s Fifth Degree of Humility, which is about not merely acknowledging our sinfulness but confessing our sins (RB 7. 44–48). How St Benedict roots us in reality, a very concrete reality!

The practice of confessing one’s sins is a gift of the monastic order to the Church as a whole. Before monks popularised the practice, private sacramental confession was rare; and in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, there was a marked decline in the practice of regular auricular confession. In the last few years, however, there has been a re-appreciation of the value and importance of this sacrament. Some are still inclined to argue that it is outmoded, primitive psychology at best. To which I can only reply that, unless sin is now outmoded and human nature has undergone a sea-change, the practice of confession remains a healthy one. So what if it makes us feel uncomfortable? Oughtn’t sin to make us feel very uncomfortable? So what if we find it hard and disagreeable? Oughtn’t it to be unpleasant to have to face up to the reality of our dark side and what we are not only capable of doing but have actually done?

Nevertheless, what Benedict alludes to in the Rule is not exactly what we have come to identify with the sacrament, and we should be aware of the difference. The old monastic traditon of ‘manifestation of thoughts’ is often misunderstood. In essence it meant — and still means — going to someone who is endowed with supernatural gifts of wisdom and insight and laying before them something of what is going on in one’s soul, especially the temptations with which one is struggling.

The role of the spiritual elder is a delicate one. Benedict says elsewhere that ‘they know how to cure the wounds of others without revealing them or making them public’. That is a much rarer gift than many suppose. There also has to be a freedom from ego in the elder, and in the junior. It can be lovely to talk about one’s soul, lovely too to be perceived as a guru; but that is not the Benedictine way. What we bring to the spiritual elder, and what the spiritual elder gives in return, is an intense form of honesty. The light of Christ is brought to bear on the dark places of the soul and the important thing is not to get in the way of it (the spiritual elder) or hide from it (the junior). That is the humility that returns us to earth. Whatever little molehills of pride and self-sufficiency we have constructed for ourselves are overthrown. We stand on firm ground again.

 I like the idea of light flooding our souls as we read this passage of the Rule today, when we process with our candles in remembrance of the true Light that has come into the world. I like too the idea of praying for my fellow religious — young, old, middle-aged — on this day. This is a day for rejoicing especially in the gifts of old age, of fidelity and perseverance, and above all, dedication. There is nothing more fragile than a candle-flame, but how its brightness can pierce the dark! Please pray for us all, that we may have the grace of perseverance and do our part to bring Christ to others, humbly, faithfully, joyfully.

Note on the illustration:
Master of James IV of Scotland (illuminator) [Flemish, before 1465 – about 1541], The Presentation in the Temple, Flemish, about 1510 – 1520, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment, Leaf: 23.2 x 16.7 cm (9 1/8 x 6 9/16 in.) Justification: 10.9 x 7.4 cm (4 5/16 x 2 15/16 in.), 83.ML.114.135v. Used under the Getty Open Content Programme, with permission and with thanks.

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Candlemas and Consecrated Life

The feast of the Presentation of the Lord, otherwise known as Candlemas, is also the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. I wonder how many people in the British Isles ever come across what we used to call religious, and if they do, do they know it? If you bumped into me in the street you would certainly register the funny clothes (Benedictine habit), and I hope my conduct would not be unbecoming, but would you really know I am a nun?

That is not an idle question. When Jesus was presented in the temple he was ‘ransomed back from God’ by his human family. When a religious vows him- or herself to God, it works the other way on. When we look at the life of Jesus, every word, every act, speaks of his desire to save, heal, make whole. That is what those who are not themselves religious should see in us. Pray it may be so, for those of us privileged to live under vows know what a sorry job we make of things. Still, as my old Junior Mistress was wont to say, ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’ God doesn’t make junk, no matter how much we mess things up.

A Little Light Relief

Vocation videos are not my cup of tea, but this one has the redeeming grace of being funny and insightful. Benedictine, of course!

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