The Return of Light: Candlemas

Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, N. Yorkshire

Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter
Photo courtesy of @Riponcathedral twitter

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.

 

 

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Saints in the Sanctuary (Cathedral in Metz, France)

The cathedral in Metz is stunning.  Stunning.  And so are all of the saints and sinners gathered there.

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”   I think Oscar Wilde said that, and I was reminded of it on a recent stroll through this cathedral.  From the saints in stone and glass, to the flesh and blood “man on fire” in the chapel, the capering kids in the sanctuary, the ponderous men, the caught-off-guard woman, and the industrious cleaning crew–it was a storied space.

Not to cast my nets on the wrong side of the boat, but I have to say that the stony saints left me a bit cold.  They were beautiful, but judgmental.  The saints in stained glass were warmer–the glow, the glint, the dancing of light in and through them–they were more dynamic, less rigid.

And the poor, scattered people, scurrying about the cathedral, or sitting in thought, or minding their own business and working diligently, or standing at the threshold of a fiery chapel–they were the stories in play, the ones the space exists for.  So I turned my camera on them.

Even the cathedral itself seemed to hint at its own impish personality as we left, the sun glinting through its windows for just a second–the unmistakable wink of a storyteller pleased with himself.

See for yourself:

 

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Man on fire

 

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cathedral wink