The Christian festival of Candlemas celebrates the purification, when Mary and Joseph went with the little Jesus to the temple. This was a requirement in Jewish holy law, laid down in Leviticus chapter 12:
“Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days: she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed…..When the days of her purification are completed, she shall bring to the priest..a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtle dove for a sin offering….If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take with her two turtle doves or two pigeons. The priest will make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean from her flow of blood.”
So after the birth of Jesus, Mary had to allow eight days before Jesus was circumcised, which was his naming ceremony. She then had to allow thirty-three days for her “blood purification”. At the end of these thirty-three days Mary and Joseph took their sacrifice of two pigeons to the temple to ask for her forgiveness and healing from the flow of blood.
Now how we see the purification ritual very much depends on where we are standing. In our society today we don’t see women as “unclean” after childbirth and at first sight this all looks rather primitive. But if you think back to the first century, childbirth was a terrifying, dangerous and very bloody business, with no pain relief, a high risk of infection and a high maternal mortality rate. It was seen as part of the curse of mankind, the curse following the fall in Genesis:
To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.
To be honest, childbirth is pretty scary today, even in Western society with all our midwifery and medical capabilities. For the young Mary it would have been terrifying, and she would have been relieved to survive as a healthy woman after giving birth.
So another way of looking at the period of purification after childbirth, when Mary could not go to the temple or touch holy things, can be seen as a time of protection for her, when demands were not made of her. She gets eight days of peace and quiet before the child is acknowledged in the naming ceremony, and then thirty-three days of further peace and quiet to spend with her new baby, before she comes back into society. This protects both her and the infant from excessive travelling and work, and from being exposed to crowds of people possibly carrying infections.
Interestingly, the purification ritual survived for a very long time in the church, and the rite for the churching of women after childbirth has survived through all the revisions of the book of common prayer. In a different form, that of “Thanksgiving for the gift of a child”, it can even be found in Common Worship.
One of the key points to note about this ritual is that it is the woman’s ceremony, not the child’s. There is evidence to show that it was often a popular ceremony among women and accompanied by celebrations. In the Middle Ages women looked forward to churching as a social occasion, a collective female occasion, the conclusion of the month of privilege after childbirth. The time between childbirth and the churching ritual provided a degree of protection for women from being put straight back to work after childbirth and gave them the necessary time to recover.
But this is all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with us here in church today? Well, I think it is relevant, because it shows the underlying soundness of pattern and ritual. The time of seclusion, of purification, before the ceremonial return into society, follows a pattern we can see in many holy festivals. A period of quiet, of reflection and peace, precedes all the important celebrations in holy life. Christmas is preceded by Advent. The Passion and the glory of Easter is preceded by Lent. If we fail to acknowledge Advent, and just start celebrating Christmas at the end of November when the decorations go up in the shops, do we diminish the glory of Christmas? If we don’t take a time of reflection and preparation during Lent, can we even approach the death and rising of Christ in
any fit state of mind? As the Bible says in Ecclesiastes, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”
Because Jesus was Mary and Joseph’s first child, they were also required to present him at the temple and request his redemption. In Jewish tradition, the first born child is considered to belong to the temple, and so must be redeemed by the parents - a financial transaction like redeeming a bond.
When that poor young couple entered the temple, Simeon was aware that something momentous was happening. Simeon had spent all his life as a righteous and devout man, looking forward to the consolation of Israel. His whole life had been a time of reflection and waiting, which culminates in this one day in the temple. He takes the infant Jesus in his arms and praises God in some of the most beautiful words in the whole Bible. He blesses the young couple and speaks to Mary, for he sees the great cost to Mary. There is great sympathy in the way he talks to her, saying:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
I said earlier that this ceremony was for Mary rather than for Jesus, and the sacrifice was to ask forgiveness and blessing on Mary and Joseph as she comes back into society. But when Jesus is brought into the temple, the whole focus of the story shifts. We hear no more about the little blood sacrifices, the little turtle doves, for into the temple has come the light of the world.
Jesus is the light of the world, in Simeon’s wonderful words “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel”. But this light and this salvation is brought to us at a terrible cost. This is no longer just about Mary’s purification, but the purification and salvation of us all. We can all be made clean, through the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross. It is His innocent, sacrificial blood, which makes us all clean of our sin. Are we prepared to face this? Are we prepared to take time for silence and seclusion, to listen to God and to understand the magnitude of this sacrifice when we make confession and ask for forgiveness?
Simeon recognised that this was a pivotal moment in his own life, in Mary’s life and in the history of the world. His whole life was a time of preparation for this moment and he has the courage to recognise this, and seize the moment when it is asked of him. We too, need to take time to watch and wait, as we come into the presence of the Light of the World, here symbolised by the candles of Candlemas. All we have to do is turn to the light and ask for forgiveness for our sins, for the sacrifice for our purification has already been made.
And there will be pivotal points in our own lives, when we are perhaps offered the chance to see things more clearly, or we are asked to do something unexpected. We need to have the courage to live like Simeon, watching and waiting for the light of Christ to dawn on us. We need to follow the rituals and patterns of the church year, to support us through the quiet and dark times when the light may be difficult to see. And when the dawn does break, when Easter comes to us, we need to acknowledge that great sacrifice made for our purification, as atonement on behalf of all of us, and we need to be ready to face the brightness of that light in the knowledge of Christ’s love and forgiveness.
Reverend Anne Bennett is team vicar at the Church of the Ascension, Blackheath. You can follow her on Twitter @AscensionVicar.
There is no substitute for attending church – the communion, the community (the coffee and biscuits at the end!) ...but if you do miss a Sunday service you can find past sermons here