By Catherine Sider-Hamilton

Where I grew up, in southern Pennsylvania, Groundhog Day was a big thing. For weeks before February 2, the papers, the broadcasters asked: would the groundhog—who had a name, Punxatawny Phil, from Punxatawny, Penn.—see his shadow? Were we in for another six weeks of winter, or was Spring, and light and life, around the corner? (That was a question of course that only made sense in southern Pennsylvania, and in Germany whence came the settlers in the 1700s who brought Groundhog Day with them, where winter could conceivably be over by March. Not so much here in the great white north).

Groundhog Day caught my imagination, because I knew groundhogs. A very large, very bold one lived in the farmer’s field behind our house and pillaged our garden every summer … until one day our elderly neighbour, who until then had been known to us as the unremarkable gentleman who sat quietly on his porch, marched out his back door with a shotgun in his hands and shot that groundhog dead.

I knew groundhogs.

Candlemas I did not know. Yet Candlemas—or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord—also falls on February 2, and it is, here in the dead of winter, a promise, much surer than the groundhog’s, of light and life.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

according to thy word. (Luke 2:29)

We sing these words in the Anglican tradition at every Evensong, and we sing them on Candlemas Day. This is Simeon’s song, an old man’s joy as he looks for the first time on his Saviour’s face. Mary and Joseph have brought the baby Jesus to the temple, to present him to the Lord.

And behold, Luke tells us,there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel. (Luke 2:25)

Simeon came in the Holy Spirit into the temple that day and saw Mary and Joseph with Jesus and he took the child in his arms and blessed God and lifted up his voice in praise.

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people. (Luke 2:30-31)

In the dead of winter, we sing Simeon’s song. We sing Christ our light. Will Spring come? Here it is; it comes already, it does not depend on the shadow of the groundhog; it comes in the child in Simeon’s arms; it comes in the joy in Simeon’s song.

Here is our Spring, this child who is light, a light that reaches into the earth’s far corners, into the dark places, the winter heart, a light to lighten even the Gentiles, to reach the peoples who have no God, for judgement and for peace.

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. (Mal 3:1)

Here he is, the Lord who comes, and he is a child in an old man’s arms.

There is such tenderness in this gospel of ours: an old man smiling, weeping, holding the little one who is all his hope in his arms; Anna, too, leaping up finally at 84, telling everyone about the child who is the hope of Jerusalem. Our hope is carried by a young mother; it is held in an old man’s arms; it is announced by an old woman who has spent a lifetime in prayer.

The light comes gently into this night; we can hold it—we can hold Him—in our arms. That is what it means, when at Candlemas we hold a candle, each one of us in our hands, and walk into the church in procession. God gives his Son into our hands. Like Simeon, like Mary, like Anna, we carry His light. He gives it to us to carry. He gives us the Child in our flesh, so that in our flesh we might speak God’s glory in the world.

Christ comes to us in the child like a candle: light in the dark, a fire to purify and cleanse. How else shall we hold God’s glory in our hands? How else shall we speak his salvation in the world, except our hearts be cleansed? And not our hearts only, but our hands, our bodies, our words, our lives as we live them. So nearly and dearly he gives himself to us: a candle in the hands, a child in the arms. Candlemas is the prayer of our hearts, that we might give ourselves to him.

The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows, the bishop St. Sophronios of Jerusalem said on Candlemas Day in the seventh century. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal.

Let us be shining ourselves.


Catharine Sider-Hamilton is Professor of New Testament and New Testament Greek, Part-Time.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also appreciate her blog, “A mystery at the heart of St. Francis.”