February, the shortest month of the year, begins with the tradition of Wiarton Willie seeing or not seeing his shadow. Will he show us the way to an early spring or six more weeks of blessed snow, slush and cold? It is important to remember that Willie gets it right only about 40 per cent of the time. Flipping a coin offers you better odds. Nevertheless, we anticipate the moment for an indication of what is to come. On the same day, Feb. 2, the Church remembers another moment – when Mary and Joseph arrive at the temple, 40 days after the birth of Jesus, to bless, to be blessed and to be purified. It’s the day when an old priest and a prophetess give an indication of what is to come.
Mary and Joseph came with a pair of turtledoves – or was it two pigeons? – to mark in a liturgical way the safe arrival of Jesus and a new beginning. Ask any new parent about the moment of arrival and one listens to an epic account that is marked by drama, near misses, harrowing anxiety, pain, a call to the midwife, a rush to the hospital, breathing into contractions, barely making it, unexpected visitors, a stranger’s intervention, and the moment a first breath is drawn. Mary and Joseph came with an emerging narrative that included the same but made more complete by the presence of angels, shepherds, and magi from the east.
Like most parents of a newborn, they must have been sleep deprived, bewildered and joy-filled. They must have wondered how their lives had changed, how their hearts had expanded with love in ways they could not have imagined. By the 40th day, it all begins to sink in. By the 40th day, you discover how a newborn can render you feeling quite incompetent, unsure of what the cry in the night might mean: is it hunger, a need for a diaper change, a want for comfort? How daunting is the responsibility of raising an infant. And yet how profound and wondrous it is, too – kind of like taking your first few steps as a bishop in this wondrously gifted diocese.
For some of us, Christmas ends on Boxing Day and out to the curb goes the tree. For others, Christmas is stretched to the Epiphany, and that’s when the decorations go back into storage. And still others go the distance and bring Christmas to its natural conclusion on Feb. 2. On the 40th day, the telling about this wondrous child takes another turn. The shepherds, the angels and the magi have already spoken. Now we hear from the Holy Spirit and two elders. A priest named Simeon and a prophetess named Anna have longed for this moment. Whispers of the Spirit assured them that their waiting would not be forsaken. They would see the Messiah with their own eyes.
Longing for the Day is part of our Christian journey. Pining to experience the return of Jesus, of peace, of justice, of divine order fuels us to keep going in the face of so many shadows in life. Moses longed for a land flowing with milk and honey. The prophets ached for home. Paul desired to finish the race. Week by week, we embody the faith and the longing that is in us when we speak the memorial acclamation, Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.
Simeon helps us imagine the same when he breaks out into song: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
We hear these words of gratitude, wonder and hope at Evensong, set to music by the likes of Chilcott and Byrd, Tavener and Wood. The older I get, the more I appreciate Simeon and Anna for their tenacity, patience and unwavering trust.
On Feb. 2, we are reminded to place our hope in a God who always surpasses the odds by transforming death into life. By the blessing of candles, the bearer reveals the Light of Christ in the midst of darkness and brings to reality God’s dream of salvation. Candlemas calls the Church to transform old, broken patterns and to be steadfast in holding on. And holding on leads to freedom. Feb. 2… that’s the same day F.W. de Klerk announced to the world that he would release Nelson Mandela from prison.