Wednesday 3 February 2021

‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger’

One of the most disconcerting things for a South African living in England is the fact that all the seasons here are upside down. Christmas is in mid-winter, and summer is in July! It’s very strange to have to dress warmly in January and open the church at 7am in the pitch-black darkness. February is probably the strangest of all the months: it suddenly starts to get lighter earlier; the days quite rapidly begin to lengthen. Soon getting up in the dark will be a distant, horrible memory.

February back home is a month of baking sunshine and clear skies, when the beginning of the new academic year has to fight (and often lose) against the temptation to “bunk off” and head to the beach. February in the Northern hemisphere, however, marks the end of the solar winter — those three months of the year with the least light. But the bittersweet paradox of February is that it is also usually the coldest month — and so there is the old farmer’s saying: “as the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger”. This phenomenon has to do with the temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans lagging behind the appearance of more sunshine: having depleted their heat-reserves over the winter, they need a chance to slowly warm up again.

It’s no coincidence that yesterday’s feast of Candlemas comes at the beginning of February. Candlemas, like February, welcomes the light. This light is the light that is spoken of in the great prologue of John’s gospel, that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it”. This is the light that Simeon speaks of as he takes the child Jesus into his arms: “the light to enlighten the nations”.

As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger. The charm of Candlemas and the lovely scene of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the temple form only part of the picture. For Candlemas, like the lengthening days of February, is bitter-sweet. Christmas is well and truly over, the crib is packed up for another year, and the last of the decorations have come down. We have already begun the season of Septuagesima in preparation for the penance of Lent, and soon the organ will fall silent, the flowers disappear from church, and our minds turn to the passion and death of the Lord.

Our Cardinal in his famous hymn describes this bitter-sweetness:

The angel-lights of Christmas morn,
Which shot across the sky,
Away they pass at Candlemas,
They sparkle and they die.

Comfort of earth is brief at best,
Although it be divine;
Like funeral lights for Christmas gone,
Old Simeon’s tapers shine.

Yesterday’s feast is bitter-sweet because of the remarkable words Simeon utters to Our Lady: “this child…is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected — and a sword will pierce your own soul too — so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare”. His words are both mysterious and troubling. Mary and Joseph learn that this child will be a source of division. They learn that this child will be rejected. And Our Lady learns that she too will suffer; a sword will pierce her own soul, as she stands at the foot of the cross.

As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger. So despite the great light that is brought into the temple, there is a great coldness that lies ahead of the child Simeon takes into his arms. At this time of year we stand between the incarnation and the crucifixion. We find ourselves with one eye cast back at Christmas and Epiphany, and the other looking forward to Lent, Holy Week and Easter. We realise that the Child in the Manger will be the Crucified of Calvary. We turn from the manger to the tomb.

Cardinal Newman’s hymn continues:

And then for eight long weeks and more,
We wait in twilight grey,
Till the tall candle sheds a beam
on Holy Saturday.

We wait along the penance-tide
Of solemn fast and prayer;
While song is hushed and lights grow dim
In the sin-laden air.

And while the sword in Mary’s soul
Is driven home, we hid
In our own hearts, and count the wounds
Of passion and of pride.

The bitter-sweetness of the month of February is the bitter-sweetness of the Christian life. To be a Christian is to be filled with light — the light of the world. But it is also to feel the coldness that is a constituent part of bearing that light. At baptism we are presented with a candle, symbolising the light of Christ. This comes with the vocation to shine as a light to the world. This vocation must be open to the possibility of coldness: the coldness of persecution, the coldness of rejection, the coldness of ignorance. In a progressively more secularised society Christians are increasingly confronted with these “coldnesses”. As we witness the watering down of our Christian heritage and the ignorance and hostility with which the church is viewed by many, we feel the bitter-sweetness of being a Christian in the twenty-first century.

However, this bitter-sweetness should not depress us. As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger is certainly true of the month of February, but we know that come the spring the light will triumph over the coldness and the temperatures will rise. We know, also, that as we observe Lent, Holy Week and Easter, Jesus, the Light of the World, will triumph over the powers of darkness. We know that, despite a sword piercing her soul, the Queen of Heaven will rejoice in her Son’s resurrection.

So, if we believe in Christ’s power over darkness, there is hope for Christians in the twenty-first century. Despite the present darkness, the Light will triumph. But it won’t triumph unless we let it triumph. You and I are to shine ever more brightly as lights to the world, faithful to our calling as baptised members of Christ’s body. Only by our courage and boldness will we turn the tide of indifference and negativity towards the gospel. We, like Simeon, are to proclaim Christ as “a light to enlighten the nations”.

Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shinest: so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from Thee. None of it will be mine. No merit to me. It will be Thou who shinest through me upon others.