If Candlemas be Fair and Bright: Guest Post
By Brendan Jones O'Connor
Our online collaboration with the Deaconness Anne House continues, with Brendan writing a reflection on his housemate Rosemary's baptism falling upon the day of Candlemas. Thanks to Brendan, and congratulations to Rosemary! (You can, of course, follow Deaconness Anne House on Twitter at @DAH_STL, and Brendan himself at @Jones_Oconnor.)
New Year's Day of 2014 was one of the most hopefilled days of recently memory. After 2013 in a failed intentional community, two terrible jobs, and a grungy living situation, I had just accepted a position as the youth ministry leader of a vibrant parish. Driving to the first meeting with my parish priest to discuss how we wanted to shape this year, I made a somewhat unusual resolution: 2014 will be the year I celebrate more church holidays.
Most New Year's Resolutions I heard up to this point tended to be about placing restrictions or obligations on oneself. However, if I enjoyed the holiday season so much, why not instead choose to celebrate more occasions? Of course, this practice was meant to be deliberate and devotional, but I also wanted to mark the seasons of the year in ways I had not thought of before.
Epiphany came without much trouble. My parish already had a tradition of recognizing the Feast of Epiphany, and it helped that there is already a multitude of images (and a perennial favorite hymn) that accompany the familiar story. I patted myself on the back for knowing that Epiphany was the official end of the Christmas season. It was time to finally start enjoying the pear trees and swimming swans gifted to me.
I hit the first obstacle of my resolution a few weeks later, when I learned that February 2 group event day, was the Christian holiday of Candlemas. My cradle Anglicanism drew a blank, and I was forced to do some research about the traditional holiday that gets overshadowed by a tourist event involving a weatherpredicting rodent and a man in a tailcoat. I don't blame anybody, Candlemas is a strange name for the feast day of a relatively obscure event in the gospels, Jesus' presentation to the temple. The only thing I had remember about this story was thinking how the Prophetess Anna, who Luke tells us never leaves the temple, but prays and fasts day and night, managed to stave off boredom. Theologically, I wasn't sure what to make of the text, but culturally, I noticed something almost immediately. Candlemas and Groundhog's Day sharing February 2 long before Punxsutawney Phil got on the scene. As the old English rhyme stated,
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again.
Incidentally, that winter February 2nd was fair and bright, the groundhog saw their shadow, and the winter continued well into April. The next month I suffered a major automobile wreck after hitting an icy patch, and found myself reminded why people since time immemorial wished away the winter: snow, ice, freezing rain, fog, and lack of vegetation are all signs of death. Sailors of old wouldn't leave harbor on Candlemas, as they knew the February waters got especially choppy. Perhaps I, too, needed to check myself in midwinter to make sure I was stable during the doldrums of the post Christmas dry stretch.
One year later, and I find myself in a new intentional community, an Episcopal Service Corps program located in St. Louis, MO. My six housemates and I signed our contracts with the house long before Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, sparking international outrage. I dislike falling back on platitudes, but the classic Grandmotherism of “You want to know how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans,” seemed especially apt. My housemate Rosemary Haynes found herself the most affected in our group by these events, and discerned that her place within the Ferguson movement was to be on the front lines, demonstrating, observing, and allying herself with those who knew oppression too well. Doing this work, she was accosted by police, arrested, and interviewed by CNN. She even wrote a more thorough article about her faith journey and the experience of being a Ferguson protester in an earlier article for St. Hilda's House. Following the experiences she movingly detailed in her piece, Rosemary decided she wanted to be baptized. The date set was February 2, 2015: I could not help but smile.
It was a fair and bright night. The moon only one day from being full, we gathered in the street outside of the Deaconess Anne House to commence Rosemary's baptismal vows. We had threaded white Christmas lights around the front of our property, and invited as many people in our community to join us in our unconventional liturgy for the evening. Rosemary found the unconditional love of Christ in the streets of Ferguson, standing with the oppressed, it made sense that's where she would affirm her devotions to God.
Calling this event a “New Beginning” did not seem right to me. Rosemary grew up Episcopalian, she just had not been baptized. She hadn't been negligent of the great deal of suffering in the world, she worked for a number of causes prior to joining the Deaconess Anne House. Baptism marked the point her desire to be a part of the church meet with the gifts, vocation, and love already given to her by God. As I repeated my baptismal vows, I recognized how baptism, and salvation for that matter, is not a oneoff event, but a continuing process. What better day to celebrate than Candlemas?
Having spent 40 days since Christmas, a month since New Year's, and ten weeks since Advent, Candlemas is a holiday smackdab in the middle of a liturgical season. Nothing starts or finishes with Candlemas, and the goofy weather tradition and the blessing of the votive candles seems almost too minor to really pay attention to. But Candlemas is a time to breath. A recognition of that long, dark, and often lonely time between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, especially in a culture that likes its holidays about something flashy or heroic. Candlemas is the perfect holiday for the midwinter, as it allows for waiting, praying, and hope for a distant spring, just as how the frail Anna saw Christ in the Jesus child that Mary brought to the temple.
In these days when I am daunted by the unfinishable work of perusing social justice in a broken world, I take great comfort in the message of the baptismal vow and the Day of Candlemas: God's Covenant began before us, continues after us, and is here for us, even in the darkest of seasons. Especially in the darkest of seasons.