Wheat Field

Lights of Devotion



“Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).


God woke in the early morning to pray. I was camping, once, in the hills of Meteora, Greece. It is a region in central Greece with some of the most spectacular natural wonders. Huge boulders jut up into the sky hundreds of feet high, creating a sight like you would expect in a fairytale. What makes the scene most dazzling are the monasteries carved out of rock at the peak of the boulders. I woke at the crack of dawn, and started up the road, when I heard singing. High above, as though it were coming out of the clouds, sweet chanting soared down into the valley. It was a choir of nuns. They were in their chapel, up in the rocks, singing their morning hymns and prayers.


All across the world, monks and nuns wake up in the early morning to pray. Why do you think this is? They would say they are aspiring to be fully human. There is nothing merely monastic about a daily devotional life. It is the life that we are all called to. It is as fundamental as eating and sleeping. Morning and evening prayers make us human. They are the essence of being alive and the heart beat of a Christian life. Today, on this Feast of the Purification, we are called to a higher standard, a life of devotion.


And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord…And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel…And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel’” (Lk. 2:22-32).


The Savior is brought to the world. Up until this point, God’s incarnation was mostly a family affair. A few knew about his birth. The Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, the shepherds and magi, and maybe a couple others were there. The rest of the world was ignorant. Today, Christ is revealed. In the Jewish and Christian religions, the temple has always symbolized the core of humanity. All sacraments, all forgiveness, all sanctification begin here at the altar. When the Blessed Virgin carries Christ into the temple, she is offering God to humankind.


This is where St. Simeon plays his profound role. Holy Tradition tells us he was about 270 years old. He was one of the 70 Jewish rabbis who translated the Jewish texts into the Septuagint, long before Christ was born. While translating the Book of Isaiah, he was stumped at the verse: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). He hesitated before translating this small Hebrew word, ‘almah,’ which made all the difference. It could refer to mere, young girl, and it could refer to a ‘virgin.’ Which one was it? Could a virgin possibly give birth to a son? At that moment, an angel appeared to Simeon and confirmed that God would prepare a Virgin to usher in the savior of the world, and that Simeon would be there to witness it. So, the prophet waited year after year until this day.


‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel’” (Lk. 2:29-32).


The Church celebrates this event by a procession of candles. This is why the Purification is given its name. It is ‘Lichtmess’ in German: Feast of Light, or ‘Candelaria’ in Spanish: Feast of the Candles.” In English, we call it by the name ‘Candlemas.’ The whole Church comes together, blesses and lights candles, and then lift them high while circling the church. We are joining the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, and Simeon on the long road of anticipation, bearing Christ to the world.


It is important to understand why we do our rituals. The flame on our candles represents Jesus Christ, the light to lighten the world. The candles represent the Blessed Virgin that bears Christ in her womb. Yet, more than that, the candles represent our humanity. Like the Holy Virgin, we too are called to be God-bearers.


In many Orthodox Churches, the first icon you see shows the Queen of Heaven with her arms outstretched, and the Christ child in-between blessing the world. This icon is often painted in the Sanctuary behind the altar, so that our Lady’s arms cover the entire sanctuary. There are some in the Protestant world who are scandalized by this. They think it gives too much focus to the Virgin, but they do not understand it. Our honor to the Blessed Virgin is an honor of the incarnation. All our hymns and feasts to Our Lady are praising God who works his salvation through his people, the Church. The Blessed Virgin is the mascot of the Church. She represents all of us who too must bear God.


So, the candle that carries the flame also represents us. It is you and me. The blessing ceremony represents our process of sanctification. Just as the Mother of God was purified in the temple, you and I must be purified in the temple. This is what we are called to.


“In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21).


On this Feast of the Purification, we are called to be purified. Each of us has to become pure, like a beeswax candle, so that we can carry the Light of Jesus Christ.


How are we purified? There is nothing so vital as our daily, devotional life. We begin our service today by blessing and handing out our candles. Next, an altar server comes down to the people with a light from the altar. The candles’ wick catches on fire, by coming into contact with the first fire from the altar. In the same way, your soul has to come into contact with God.


How can you expect to bear His light, if you do not spend time with Him? This is why so many Christians are sad. This is why Christians can wake up in the morning to find their lives dry and monotonous. We let our devotional life slip. The world, with all its distractions and excuses, swallows us up and we get stuck in empty routine. We forget to spend time with the Light of Life.


“Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).


God himself rose in the morning to pray. This should be enough to convince us. With each step, the God-man taught us how to live. If we are called to follow him, from baptism to crucifixion to resurrection, we must follow his steps towards a devotional life. May our Lord, who is the Light of the world, enlighten the flame of our souls.




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Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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