Epiphany, Candlemass and the Sundays before Lent
The Feast of the Epiphany takes place on 6 January, the traditional Twelfth Night when the Christmas season ends. By its other name, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, it celebrates the coming of the wise men to the stable and their offering of gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh; the origins of the magi are not known but they were Gentiles, non-Jews, from the east.
The Sundays that follow continue the idea of beginnings: Christ’s baptism, the calling of the first disciples, the first miracle and so on. These Sundays come to an end with the feast of Candlemass on 2 February. Candlemass harks back to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, its other name. Jesus was brought as an infant to the temple to be dedicated and there encountered two prophets of his future destiny, Simeon and Anna. It may seem odd that the church’s year does not follow Christ’s life chronologically, but it cannot do so easily, partly because we wish to celebrate the major events in his life and ministry every year. For that reason we pick up themes rather than events to connect the Sundays of a season.
Candlemass and the Sundays before Lent
Just as the Epiphany season has as its sub-text the topic of beginnings, so Candlemass is a hinge-point, turning our attention from the Birth to the Passion. Indeed, that’s what the final prayers at the service say. We blow out our candles lit to whim who is ‘the light to the Gentiles’ which we shall then relight only for the Easter vigil. The prayer picks up the gospel story for the day where old Simeon greets Jesus’ mother with the words that he can now die in peace because he has seen the Messiah but adds that he will be opposed ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too’. From then onwards until Ash Wednesday the Sundays before Lent, variable in number because of the moveable date of Easter, draw our attention to who Jesus was. Thus, this year we hear of St. Mark’s record of Jesus mission, we hear again the beginning of St. John’s gospel and, as every year, on the Sunday before Lent, we hear the story of Christ’s Transfiguration, when his godhood is revealed to his disciples on the mountain.
By these means the connection between Christmas and Easter is made.