With my own eyes I have seen your salvation… a light to reveal your will… Luke 2.30-32 (GNB)
Old Simeon’s faithful waiting pays off. Here, in the twilight of his life, he has this moment in which he holds the Christ-child in his arms, and understands that the will of God will be revealed through Jesus.
The old man understands, too, that the salvation and redemption which Jesus will bring is not only for Jews like Simeon, but for the non-Jewish people of the world too. Jesus brings a relationship with a loving God within grasp of us all, and the metaphor for this is light.
Jesus illuminates our understanding of God. He shines a light onto a path the leads us away from all that can make life hellish for us, towards that which is good. His light leads us to our true selves, lifting us out of those base instincts in life that can destroy us; to tame the ego and give ourselves up to the Spirit of God instead. Jesus, the light of the world, shows us instead a heavenly way, where pursuing union with God shapes and changes us for the better, leading us into life and joy. 'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled' (Matthew 5.6).
In the time of Jesus there were only two types of light: natural light, from the sun; and firelight, such as the flame of an oil lamp. So fire can be as much a metaphor in Christian spirituality as light. The candles that we burn in church, after which Candlemas is named, are naked flames that produce light.
Many of you, at some point of your life, may have lived in a home warmed by the heat of an open fire. You may even have learned the skills of building and lighting such a fire. Our little house in Kent still has the original fireplace from when it was built over a hundred years ago. Sometimes I like to think about all those for whom, over the decades, that fireplace has been a constant. Who else has sat in that room and warmed themselves by that same fire, perhaps sitting in the settling shadows of dusk with only the light of the fire brightening their faces?
We still use the fire and one of the tricks I’ve had to learn in the morning is how to revive a fire from the dying embers of the night before. Some sticks of kindling, a few lumps of coal and, with luck, the fire bursts back into life. But this can take a while, and I’ve noticed that kindling which has been smoking but not yet caught light, can be speeded along by applying a lit match in just the right place. That small flame can enable the whole struggling assembly to catch fire instantly.
It reminds me of the experience of the soul, that part of us in which God resides. The worries and challenges of life, a preoccupation with trying to get everything under control, and the constant tugging desire to have our own way can dim the embers of one's soul.
It doesn’t take much, though, to help that tiny eternal flame within to break out in fire — a prayer, a few Bible verses, a moment of silence and stillness, a good conversation with a soul friend. And whoomf! — we're off.
One of my favourite prayer visualisation exercises is to sit quietly and imagine this tiny flame inside that represents God’s presence in me, and to visualise it growing and filling me, enveloping me with the light and warmth of the love of God. There is a prayer I'm fond of that helps me with this:
As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever.
— Common Worship: Daily Prayer (Church House Publishing, London, 2005)
Set our hearts on fire with love for you. Abbot Guerric of Igny (c.1070-1157) said:
In the presence of the angels our lamps will shine with unsullied reverence when we sing the psalms attentively in their sight or pray fervently; before God our lamp is single-minded resolve to please him alone to whom we have entrusted ourselves.
When we open our inner lives to God, our soul catches fire, drawing us closer to the presence of Jesus, to the light of salvation which shows us the way to life in all its fullness, dispelling troubling darkness and allowing our best self, our true self, to shine.