Thursday, February 2, 2017


Coming to terms with Candlemas, tradition, syncretism, and purification

Today is Candlemas

Traditionally, this is the day, 40 days after Christmas, when we celebrate the time of purification for Mary and Jesus' presentation at the Temple.

The Old Testament clearly outlines why Mary did this:
Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.
“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons,a one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”
Since we pretend Jesus was born on December 25th (no one really knows), we would then pretend that forty days later, February 2nd is the day Mary would have been purified and she and Joseph would have brought Jesus to the temple where Simeon and Anna prophesied over him (Luke 2).

Traditionally, this has been a big thing for Christians. According to Wikipedia, many Christians take down their Christmas decorations on this date. The lights of the home are blessed. Christians focus on their own purification and "bringing light into the world."

This is a Christian tradition. I would say I was raised Christian. Still, for at least the first two decades of my life I had no idea about this holiday, it's importance, or even that it existed. It was groundhog day. Some years we may have had biscuits and sausage gravy (ground hog), but every year we joked about it. We'd guess in school if the groundhog had seen his shadow. I had no idea the day had more important symbolism. I knew nothing of the tradition. 

The Dangers of Tradition

The New Testament is pretty clear about the dangers of tradition. Jesus warns that by focusing on tradition we can "break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition," (Matt. 15:3), it can cause us to neglect "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness" (Matt 23:23), that you can "leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8). The entire book of Galatians is a written by the Apostle, Paul, basically as a warning against people who try to force traditions on the believer. He is concerned that by following traditions, one can be trying to be "perfected in the flesh" where we can only be perfected in the Spirit. Paul is mostly concerned about circumcision but also mentions that the believer should "let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col 2:16-17).

So, it is no wonder that many of the (ahem) traditions which have heavily influenced the development of my theology have shown a distrust of tradition. The Reformers are concerned about Roman "superstition" and that in the attempt to follow Christian tradition, many are aiming at a "salvation by works" rather than "by grace throug faith" (Eph 2:8-9). The Restorationists want to "call Bible things by Bible names," and restoring "New Testament Christianity." If a tradition was not specifically named in the New Testament, therefore, it is treated with distrust if not contempt. The Pentecostals are often concerned with what they call "a religious spirit," which to them represents abject legalism and a faith which 'holds to a form of Godliness, but denies it's power" (II Tim. 3:5).

Because these three have been the primary influences on my theology, I never much thought about the various traditions and where they come from and what they represent. In my family, we celebrated Christmas and Easter as holy days and every Sunday we went to church (my Dad is a preacher, so it really isn''t an option). We took "the Lord's supper" and I and all my siblings were "baptized by immersion" when we were at a proper age. Still, the thousands of other traditions which historically supported Christianity were not really discussed. I was in my teens when I found out that "the Day of Pentecost," for instance, happened every year, not just one time, in Acts.

Still, I saw other traditions develop that were insidious even without the --- traditional traditions. I remember the tussle around having guitars in the church. I have seen open anger at those who would sing "off the wall" rather than from a hymnal. And if the veterans who attended church were not acknowledged on the Sunday before Independence Day, and Memorial Day, and Veteran's day, there would be much grumbling and complaining. I've been told I'm going to Hell for going to "so-called 'Christian' rock and roll shows." I've seen downright superstitious fears of fantasy novels, He-Man toys, and Dungeons and Dragons. I've watched with a combination of amusement, disgust, and a chilling fear of expressing either as people ritualistically burned Harry Potter books, Mötley Crüe albums, and stuffed plush Smurfs.

I saw exactly what Jesus, Paul, and the more contemporary influences on my theology warned about as arguments surface over whether or not there should be coffee in the sanctuary, about how much and where girls should be allowed to show skin on their bathing suits, or if Bob Dylan was "really saved." Doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly (Micah 6:8), loving God with all your hear and soul and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself, (Matt. 23:37), all these take a backseat to the important things like making sure the pastor doesn't eat at a cheeseburger restaurant that serves beer. "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27) but the former takes a back seat to the latter which means "not wearing baggy clothing."

So, even though there was an abhorrence of tradition, traditions developed nonetheless and put their strange stranglehold on faith.

Worries over Syncretism

Traditions such as Candlemas were seen by many influential people in my life as being especially problematic as they seemed to place a Christian veneer over archaic pagan rituals. Greek, Roman, and Celtic religious practices seemed to poke their scaly heads from beneath the rocks of these traditions. Many people objected to Christmas trees and Easter eggs because of their pre-Christian symbolism. Still, it was hard to fight those as cultural phenomena. Those traditions that were Christian but were not part of the culture at large, were even easier to disdain for people already nervous about a mistletoe over a threshold. They weren't even discussed except perhaps as mockery of Catholics or Lutherans who still practiced these "demonically inspired" holidays.

The worries were not without basis. Most Christian rituals and holidays have their counterparts in pagan culture. There is a cycle to the year and any agrarian culture is going to notice that certain things happen in certain parts of the year and engage in activities that notice it. Thus, any religion of the northern hemisphere is going to have a holiday at this time where the days begin to noticeably lengthen and the promise of spring hesitates in the air. Spring is coming, but when is a real question for people who didn't arbitrarily mark a day on a calendar as the "first day of spring."

So, there are rituals about animals breaking their hibernation, briefly, to check the weather. There are rituals about light. There are rituals about preparing the ground to be fertile. These are going to exist in any culture that pays attention to the weather and the changing of seasons.

So, the pagans had them. So, the Christians who came later copied them. Does that make them evil?

Certainly, there are traditions associated with this holiday that no Christian could condone. Pagan acts such as ritual drunkenness and rape really couldn't be tolerated by a people defined by temperance and chastity. Still, does that mean that "light coming into the world" cannot be appreciated by Christians?

I'd make another argument. That argument is that God's "invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Romans 1:20). Part of God's story was clearly shown to the pagan, pre-Christian people and they recognized it and marked it. Certainly, Satan perverted it (and ritual rape is definitely a perversion) but it was God's to start with and it is God's now.

To me, the concept of redemption is an important one when dealing with things that have pagan aspects. Is this a perversion, or is this part of what was holy and there from the beginning?


And that is the entire point of Candlemas. Mary had to be purified, even after giving birth to the perfectly pure Son of God. We also need to be purified. Light needs to be brought into our homes. By celebrating the holy day of Candlemas we recognize that need for redemption. We recognize that in our impurity, we needed to be bought at a price of God's purity. That "for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). We can be purified. Light can be brought into our lives.

Also, maybe we'll have biscuits and sausage gravy tonight.

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