Counting forward from December 25 as Day One, we find that Day Forty is February 2. A Jewish woman is in semi-seclusion for 40 days after giving birth to a son, and accordingly it is on February 2 that we celebrate the coming of Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus to the Temple at Jerusalem to offer sacrifice, both on behalf of Mary and on behalf of Jesus as a first-born male. As they did so, they were greeted by the aged Simeon.
In a Sunday-School pageant, I once saw, the narrator said, "And now Simeon bursts into a spontaneous song of praise, assisted by the Temple Choir." His song, called the Nunc Dimittis, has always had a prominent role in Christian worship. It has often been rendered in verse. I append one example.
Lord God, thou now hast set thy servant free, G-GGAGceddc--
to part in peace according to thy word. eefgGcBAAG--
Mine eyes have seen the Saviour, Christ the Lord ddef--cccfed--
prepared by thee for all the worlds to see; dpdBGceddc--
to shine on nations lost in darkest night, cfgaadggrg--
the glory of thy people, and their light. Gcdedfeddc--
We denote two octaves of white keys by CDEFGABcdefgab.
We denote black keys (beginning with c sharp) by pqrst.
We use a dash to continue the previous note for another beat.)
Because an old reading for this festival contains the line (Zephaniah 1:12), "I will search Jerusalem with candles," the day is also known as Candlemas, and sometimes observed with a candle-lit procession.
On the other hand, Groundhog Day ("If the groundhog (or woodchuck, a kind of marmot, which burrows and hibernates) sees his shadow on 2 February, there will be six more weeks of winter.") is strictly a secular holiday, confined, as far as I know, to the United States.
written by James Kiefer
First, some history
By the seventh century it had become the custom to begin the worship service on February 2 with candlelighting by the congregation gathered outside the worship area followed by a procession into the Church with all carrying their lighted candles. This was to relive Simeon's experience of meeting the "light of nations" at the temple. The pastor Sophronius wrote in that century
Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light.
Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who came to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.
So let us hasten to meet our God.
The custom of beginning the worship on this festival with a candlelight procession is the origin of the day's other name, "Candlemas."
The festival day's position at midwinter—exactly midway between the winter solstice December 21 or 22 each year in the Northern Hemisphere, and June 20 or 21 in the Southern Hemisphere. and the spring equinox the day when daylight lasts for exactly 12 hours—caused it to be a time for taking inventory of one's winter supplies. One English poem goes:
The provident farmer on Candlemas Day,
Hath half of his fires and half of his hay.
The day's emphasis on light and life at midwinter gave rise to many superstitions and legends. Some believed that "if the day be clear and sunshiny, it portends a hard weather to come; if cloudy and lowing, mild and gentle season ensuing." From that piece of weather folklore it is not too difficult to understand how our Pennsylvania Dutch descendants of Germanic peoples who emigrated to the United States (primarily to Pennsylvania), from Germany, Switzerland and The Low Countries prior to 1800 legend of Groundhog Day began.
By the seventeenth century the Presentation of Our Lord was understood to be the absolute end of the Christmas season. Indeed, Ash Wednesday the first day in the season of Lent can follow as early as just two days later on February 4. As the end of the Christmas festivities, it was the day to complete the removal of all the holiday decorations. This, too, became the cause of superstition:
Down with Rosemary, and so
Down with Bays and Mistletoe;
Down with Holly, Ivy, all
Where with ye drest the Christmas Hall;
That to the superstitious find
Not one least Branch there left behind
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.
Second, a meditation
The change has been slow, yet unrelenting. Since the winter solstice, the sun's setting has daily delayed, if even by one minute, so that journeys and chores once completed in darkness now are accompanied by brilliant twilight.
Yet, even as this change in evening's day length has been progressing, mornings remain as dark and foreboding as they had a month before. Morning journeys and chores are still completed in darkness. The morning darkness has been unrelenting and slow to change.
But just at the time you receive this newsletter, the mornings too will brighten. With increasing rapidity the sunrise will advance, first by five minutes each week, then nearly by ten. The lengthening of the daylight at morning and night will become obvious.
Because the lengthening of the morning light first becomes obvious around the beginning of February, it is very probable that this helped inspire the tradition of candlelighting that begins the festival of the Presentation of Our Lord on February 2. Surely the brightening of the morning sky would add cheer to the day when the faithful—like the Biblical Simeon—hail Jesus as "the light of all nations and the glory of Israel" (Luke 2:32). As the great hymnwriter Charles Wesley has declared:
Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ the true and only light,
Sun of righteousness, arise,
Triumph o'er the shades of night.
Dayspring from on high, be near,
Daystar, in my heart appear.
This annual return of morning light and lengthening of the daylight in the Northern Hemisphere certainly influenced our forbearers in the faith as they developed the cycle of feasts and fasts that we know as the Church year. Indeed, the season of preparation for the Paschal (of or relating to Passover or Easter Feast of Easter)—Lent—derives its name from lengthen, a reference to the lengthening of the daylight.
There is a terrible irony that just as astronomical days grow longer we are very starkly and visibly reminded that our anatomical days grow shorter. As the first buds begin to swell and the first hints of green plants appear our brows are smudged with the residue of lifeless plants and we are told that truth that we would like to deny and yet can never defy: "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return." That change back to the dust of the earth from which we were made is also one that is slow, yet unrelenting.
It is this inevitability that gives Lent and its disciplines such urgency. Knowing not when shall be our last day or hour, we hear all the more sharply the words of St. Paul addressed to the congregation at Corinth:
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As we work together with him, we urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:2 (Epistle for Ash Wednesday)
The Apostle pleads for his people not to delay in repenting of their sins or in redirecting their lives. The day of salvation may be at hand at any time.
And when it is at hand, will we greet it with the joy and faith that inspired Simeon of old to take the forty-day old Christ child, the "light of nations" in his arms and bless God because now, as it had been promised to him, he could die in peace?
For we know that without Christ, the day of the Lord brings darkness and no light. Again, to quote Wesley's hymn:
Dark and cheerless is the morn,
Unaccompanied by thee,
Joyless is the day's return,
Till thy mercy's beams I see,
Till they inward light impart,
Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.
So it is then, that we should anticipate the lengthening of the daylight and the shortening of our days with the Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to encourage that gift of heart-warming grace. And so it is that we should greet the lengthening of the daylight and the shortening of our days with the final verse of Wesley's hymn:
Visit then, this soul of mine.
Pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
Fill me, radiancy divine,
Scatter all my unbelief;
More and more thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day.
So may we pray. So may we fast. So may we give alms. So may we change slowly and unrelentingly .
I hope that this can be of inspiration to you and others.
by the Rev. J. Thomas Shelley, STS