Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, N. Yorkshire
The winter-blooming snowdrops may be pushing up from the cold ground in England about now, and we are at the halfway point between the shortest day of the year and the March equinox. Light is returning to the world, and slowly but surely we turn toward spring.
And the religious calendar turns also. There are few places in the world where Candlemas is still celebrated on February 2nd– Americans are far likelier to think of today as Groundhog Day (same principle, though)– but the Ripon Cathedral is one of those glorious places where the holiday is remembered. The cathedral is lit with thousands of candles, and candles only, and a processional service takes place in the evening.
Our first visit to a Candlemas service took place in 2005 or 2006. Our children were very young, and we took them in their pajamas (it was a cold mid-winter’s night, they were young, we saw no need to stand on ceremony). Our friend, a canon at the cathedral, had called us at the last minute and said, “You really ought to see this, it’s beautiful and will be a new experience for you.” We’d imagined that we’d just pop our heads in, satisfy a curiosity, and leave quickly to get the children into bed.
But, like Homer’s lotus eaters, we stepped into the space and it was such a fantastic and pleasurable experience that we forgot to leave! We stayed for the procession, we moved dreamily through the ancient, light-filled space and, although I’d like to tell you just how it felt and how it lifted our spirits, my words fall short. To be in that ancient space, with the thousands of candles at once warming, lighting, and dancing along the walls (seeming, in their dancing flames, to sing and process along with the parishioners), to move through that space with a sea of people (young and old, high and low, well-dressed and pajama-ed)– this was so moving and uplifting.
This morning, I’m starting my day off in sunny Florida. It is no bleak mid-winter day outside. The light never really left us this winter–certainly not by northern or European measures. But the need for a turning and a renewal is as strong as ever.
Tonight, I will put on my cozy pajamas, I will light some candles at home, and I will drift off to Ripon Cathedral, lotus-eater like. I will process through the nave and side aisle, pause by niches, hold my young children tight, marvel at the warmth and the glow and the sea of my fellow revelers. I’ll be there. Not even the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean could keep me away.