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Today, at the opposite end of a long life, I have become fascinated by the Biblical narratives I used to be so bored by, and by their layered relationship with Christian ritual and belief. I am especially fascinated by the delicate balance of history and myth that runs through the Bible, in the Jewish texts of the Old Testament and the Christian texts of the New. The   Gospel of St Luke is the only one of the four Gospels to give an account of the Presentation and  Purification. Some things in this account can be validated. We know that the tradition of purifying a mother 40 days after she gives birth was well established in Jewish law, and was practised at the time of Jesus's birth. A reference to the statute can be found in the Old Testament book of laws, Leviticus. Leviticus also decrees that, at this rite, a lamb must be offered for sacrifice at the Temple. If the parents cannot afford such a luxury they can offer two doves instead or, in the worst case, two pigeons. In the painting of the ceremony (above), made in Byzantium a thousand years after the events depicted, you can see Mary's much older husband, Joseph, cradling the sacrificial birds while she cradles her son. In the stylisation of Byzantine art Jesus too appears much older than his 40 days 

We also have extensive textual and archaeological evidence that the Temple of Jerusalem was active at the time of the Roman occupation of the East Mediterranean, which coincided with Jesus's life and death.  But that is as far as history can take us to confirm the veracity of Luke's text.  Most of his description of what happened on that day reads like literature with a point to make, containing characters whose key role is to affirm that the infant Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, come to save the world or, to use the Greek word that used, Christ. At this stage we must leave history behind and enter the realm of faith, in the company of the devout old man Simeon and Anna the ancient Prophetess, the two figures on the right of the Byzantine pain

I am especially fascinated by the delicate balance of history and myth that runs through the Bible, in the Jewish texts of the Old Testament and the Christian texts of the New. The   Gospel of St Luke is the only one of the four Gospels to give an account of the Presentation and Purification. Some things in this account can be validated. We know that the tradition of purifying a mother 40 days after she gives birth was well established in Jewish law, and was practised at the time of Jesus's birth. A reference to the statute can be found in the Old Testament book of laws, called Leviticus. Leviticus also decrees that, at this rite, a lamb must be offered for sacrifice at the Temple of Jerusalem. If the parents cannot afford such a luxury they can offer two doves instead or, in the worst case, two pigeons.

 

 

 

 

As well as the veracity of ceremonies  we also have extensive textual and archaeological evidence that the Temple of Jerusalem was active at the time of the Roman occupation of the East Mediterranean, which coincided with the period of Jesus's life and death, and beyond.  But that is as far as history can take us to confirm Luke's description.  Most of this text reads like literature with a point to make, containing characters whose key role is to affirm that the infant Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, come to save the world or, to use the Greek word that Luke used, he is the Christ.

 Candlemas emphasises the Jewish origins of Christianity. But some scholars suggest that the ritual of the candlelit procession have their origins in pagan traditions.

This established a habit in me that, to this day, induces a kind of inner shivering whenever light, darkness, n impressive setting and sounds of an awesome power (most often music) come together. My tears are also involved. Perhaps the most extraordinary experience of this kind occurred some 15 years ago in Moscow, where I was making a film on the symbiotic relationship between politics and religion in post - Soviet Russia. I had asked where I could hear the best church singing in the city on the first Sunday in Epiphany. Epiphany is concluded in the Western Christian tradition with Candlemas. I knew already that services in the Eastern Orthodox tradition can have a concentrated energy that can be overwhelming, so I was prepared for a profound experience. 

 

In the early morning I took a taxi ride to an all-white medieval church, built on the Byzantine model, which was reputed to have most impressive monastic choir in the city. I had been warned to go to the church as soon as it opened because the it would be packed. It certainly was. Everyone pressing their way into the church seemed double-sized by the many layers of clothes that they were wearing. It was that hard, almost dogmatic cold that I associate with Russia. The snow surrounding the church was high. This was no false memory from childhood - everyone needed to be packed tight that they could share their body heat.

The unaccompanied singing -male voices only, with the deepest, darkest voices thundering throughout- was in full flow as I squeezed my way into the centre of the church. Above my head I could see vaults covered in the rich, deep colours of Orthodox fresco, heightened by gold leaf, shimmering in the candlelight. The frescoes had obviously been recently restored, but the restoration could not disguise the fact that these marvellous and profoundly sacred  paintings had been badly treated sometime in the past. Then I could see that all images abruptly stopped at the top of all the columns and walls, to be replaced by a dark, earth-coloured monochrome. I knew why. I had been told that this church had been turned into a warehouse during the years of Stalin's Terror, between the 1920s and 1950s, when almost every place of worship had been shut down and all religion was essentially criminalised. {check and refine} 

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but to be intimately involved in the other purpose of this service, the blessing of the church's new candles, that would burn for the rest of year, apart from another 40 day stretch, the austerity of Lent. 

 

By far the most impressive of these candles was the beeswax Paschal candle, the tall, fat one that would stand for the rest of the year beside the altar. It remained unlit throughout Lent, but was brought to life on Easter morning, to declare an end to the darkness of winter, and to lighten the souls of the congregation. When I was in the choir stalls on Easter Day, and into the summer months, I would look at what I now see as this great burning lingam (long before I knew what a lingam was) and feel a sense of glory in the glow this candle gave out. Throughout Christian history the Paschal Candle has helped a special status.... {etc} 

 

One precept of Christian Theology that I had managed to grasp as a choirboy was the compelling symbolism of the contrast between brilliant light and deepest darkness.... 

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