Egeria doesn’t mention candles. In the late fourth century, the Spanish nun made a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. She writes,
The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.
But within a century, candles would appear, in both East and West, as integral elements of the Christmas cycle, the proclamation of dawning light.
In their simple, easily-spent natures, candles also illustrate an important theme of Saint Luke’s Gospel: downcast eyes are most likely to see the Christ. Luke’s opening scenes draw contrasts between those, who are ready to receive the light, and those, who are not. Caesar Augustus reigns in Rome; Herod, in Jerusalem, but it is humble shepherds who revere the newborn king. The priest Zechariah stands temple duty, but fails, at first, to believe the depth of God’s good news. Yet Mary, a poor, illiterate woman, immediately opens her very being to God’s great initiative. In this Gospel the outcast Zacchaeus must climb a tree, yet he is ready to receive his Lord. Even a criminal, condemned to die on a tree, recognizes the Christ who suffers at his side.
And then there is this lovely scene. Simeon and Anna are aged. Like old candles, they have passed their days in the temple, and they are spent. Besides bones, what are they but bundles of memories and regrets? And, as many have said, isn’t that the way with life?
No one more perfectly captured the dolorous dying of the light than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth 5.5.18-27)
Certainly true! Our candles are brief enough. But we decide, in the few tomorrows we’re granted, how they will burn, what shadows they will illumine. In the eyes of the world, Anna and Simeon are of little account, but it is within their aged eyes that the glory of the Lord appears. Their wavering voices profess his praise.
Candles—and I mean real candles, not the newer Botox brands that never melt, because their callous casings are filled from within by oil—are a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. We burn away; we are spent, so that others might see the Christ. Yet, like Simeon and Anna, candles can burn brightest at the end, when reserves are spent and the wick of grace is given its go.
Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel (Lk 2: 29-32).
Malachi 3: 1-4 Hebrews 2: 14-18 Luke 2: 22-40