Wednesday 2 February 2022

Candlemas and Hope

In the cathedral in Belfast for many years one could not fail to come across Josie Burns. A small, bird-like woman, always dressed in a long tan macintosh with a headscarf knotted under her chin, Josie spent all day, every day in the cathedral praying. She would attend all the Masses, adore the Blessed Sacrament, and it seemed most of the Catholics in the city would give her money to light candles for them, so that there was a continual flame of devotion burning, tended by Josie. That Cathedral had a major restoration, and at the consecration, at the part of the rite when the light for the candles is solemnly presented to the consecrating bishop, there in front of Cardinals, the Nuncio, Archbishops and dignitaries, the one to present the candle was Josie, in her trademark outfit, beaming as she stood among these notable clerics. Every year when we celebrate Candlemas, my mind turns to Josie Burns.

In the Latin Rite, Candlemas is very much a feast of light. The flames of our candles dispel the darkness of winter as spring approaches, they give us a glimpse of the light of Easter as we head into the season of pre-Lent, and they symbolise Christ’s triumph over darkness in the world. In the Christian East, the emphasis is slightly different as this is a feast of encounter, a feast of the meeting between the aged Simeon and the infant Christ. But there is another character in St Luke’s account, one who is often glanced over, and that is the prophetess Anna, daughter of Phanuel, well on in years, and ministering in the temple night and day with prayer and fasting — much like our Josie. 

Light conquering darkness, and encountering Christ, of course, go together. Both these things unite the prophetess Anna in the temple and Josie Burns in Belfast, but something else does too — hope.

The supernatural virtue of hope energises our Christian life. It is a gift from God that directs us to him, and spurs us on towards heaven. We have to pray for an increase of it, and then we have to kindle the flame of hope by thinking of the things of heaven, doing spiritual reading and, most importantly, by praying. For those of us in the world, hope helps us see our life in context and helps us bring the light of faith into what we do. An increase in hope can be the antidote to so much of what holds us back in the spiritual life.

Hope sustains us. Josie was able to perform her divine service for all those years because she was full of hope, the same hope that kept Anna going. Anna was a prophetess (and I dare say Josie Burns was too). A prophet does not predict the future but is God’s sign to the world. Anna is a sign of the power of hope, a sign that hope in our salvation, in heaven is realised in a person who gives himself to us.

Next time you are in church, light a candle for Josie Burns who has long since gone to God, and remember that hope begins with a small flame in a darkened temple and grows into the light of Easter.