Unlike the spectacular theophanies in the Pentateuch, in the succeeding books of Samuel , the working out of the divine will in the historical process was generally achieved inscrutably in the background. This was a time of spiritual desolation, priestly corruption, and military danger through a failure of leadership, ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.’ [I Samuel: 3.1b] God was speaking to a settled people who had become complacent and more concerned with the institutions of land management and particularly the notion of kingship.
Israel aspired to nationhood and King David wanted to build a temple but David was stained with blood, so he was prevented from fulfilling his wish. It was his son Solomon who built a temple as a permanent reminder of the presence of God among his people but it was not to be permanent. When the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon, the first temple was destroyed. When they returned, Nehemiah set about rebuilding the temple.
In the Book of Malachi, Malachi in Hebrew means ‘my messenger’, the Lord had a powerful message for the corrupt priests in charge of the temple, who were not honouring God. Malachi warns, ‘The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears….?’ [Malachi 3.2] However, when God did come to this Temple, he did not come like ‘a refiner’s fire’ in destructive judgement, as Malachi had predicted. God came to his Temple not in power and great glory, but as a helpless baby, in the arms of a poor young woman.
Jesus seems to have been ambivalent towards the Temple in Jerusalem. On the one hand he called it the ‘House of God’ [Matthew 12.4], a sacred place sanctified by God’s presence. But he was also critical of the Temple, or rather the authorities who were responsible for it, and he evicted the traders from the Temple. The veil in the Temple was rent in two [Mark 14.38] at the moment of his death upon the Cross and forty years after that, Herod’s Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.
Our Christian origins of church are closely linked to Jesus’ gathering of a community of followers, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ [Matthew 18.20]. Here church becomes a school of discipleship in which Christians are formed through proclamation of the Word and are transformed through the Eucharist. But what about Paul’s question in his First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ [I Corinthians 3:16].
The Latin word contemplare means ‘in the temple.’ From this we have the meaning of contemplative prayer which has come to signify the prayerful practice of attending to the Divine presence. Thus, for Christians, contemplative spirituality is about our efforts to spend time ‘in the temple of silence’ with God. Beverly Lanzetta says, ‘When we are capable of bearing witness to the theology of the heart, there are no concepts, forms, or names that divide and segregate. Only love, communion, openness. Silence.’ She goes on, ‘Out of the depths of emptiness, when all that distinguishes and divides melts away and we are left with the disappearance of identity, a new theology of dialogue and unity blooms in the moist quietness of the heart [Lanzetta, Beverly J., The Other Side of Nothingness: Toward a Theology of Radical Openness, p. 96].
The name ‘Candlemas’ focuses our attention on candlelight, which evokes the light-mysticism in the contemplative power of the human mind. This, illuminating the Christ-light within us, moves us, in some sense, towards a greater knowledge of God. St Luke tells us that while Jesus is being presented in the Temple, the revelation of the Light came to Simeon and Anna, who recognised Jesus as their Lord. But in this moment of their celebration with the Holy Family, a poignant note is struck in the personal canticle of Simeon who, when holding the child in his arms says, ’This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ [vv. 34b – 35]
These powerful words spoken to Mary and Joseph take them beyond the context of celebration of a birth, and obedience to the ritual of cleansing, to an experience of God at work in their lives. So as we take away the candles that have been in church since Advent, we turn away from Christmas and have to face Lent. It is a time for us to reflect on God’s plan in our lives, whether this is in meeting the practical needs of our family and community or in deepening our prayerful life for God. Perhaps to reflect too, on how we seem to have become a settled people, complacent about the corrupting influence of money in the institutions of democracy, the media and the economy, and our overuse of the world’s finite resources.
When we expose our hearts and souls to the light of God, we discover both amazing love but also the capacity for pain; sometimes we experience a period of darkness and not knowing, where secret thoughts are laid bare. These are periods of light and shade in our own story, shining light into the dark corners of our own egos, where we have we have a tendency to be self-centred, pre-occupied with our own thoughts; but also providing light and warmth, opening up what Martin Laird calls the ‘luminous vastness that is interior silence’ [Laird, Martin, A Sunlit Absence, p.6].