I light the small tea candle and let it slip down into the holder, which is of solid rose quartz. Once light has come inside, it has a very reddish hue. This beautiful candle was a gift to me when I became an Oblate last year at St. Placid Priory. Sr. Sharon, my Sister Mentor, named it my “Compline” candle, because it becomes enhanced in the darkness, and the orange-red glow colors the room. It reminds me of the infra-red side of the spectrum, of slowed-down light, “red-shifted”, invisible. The mind is quieted, open — as I am when singing the Office of Compline.
Last Sunday morning the reading from Isaiah told of the land of Zebulun and Napthali (west of the Sea of Galilee), and how the people there “who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1-2). Then the gospel (Matthew 4:12-16) related that Jesus, having heard of John the Baptist’s arrest, “withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in the region of Zebulun and Napthali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled.” Galilee was, in those days, a region of Judea whose inhabitants were a mixture of Jews and pagans, an area of peoples so diverse that it was called “the nations”.
The season of Epiphany is all about light. It’s a natural thing for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere to be hungry for the light at this time of year; a friend at my office, has “seasonal affective disorder”, and needs a 30-minute blast of “white light” (ten times normal lumens) every day throughout the winter. Like dreams of sugar plums to the starving, images of light are associated with many events during Epiphany. At the beginning of the season, a star appears to the Magi, leading them to Christ, who is still called the “morning star”. On January 25 is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, when an intense light appeared to him on the road to Damascus at mid-day, with the voice “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” — causing him to be blind for three days. And on February 2 is the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; here the aged priest Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be “a light to enlighten the nations”. The feast, known also as “Candlemas”, was developed by the early church partly to build on pagan feasts of light. Obviously there’s a deep psychological need for light (and enlightenment) that these observances satisfy.
Last Sunday evening the Compline service was a feast of light. The Orison (sung prayer) was the Third Mode Melody by Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505 – 1585). The third verse reminds us of the morning’s Gospel, as well as looks forward to the resurrection (to listen, click on the “Play” button of the podcast):
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s Light.
Look unto Me; thy morn shall rise
And all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In Him my Star, my Sun;
And in that Light of Life I’ll walk
Till traveling days are done.
I can never hear the Third Mode Melody without thinking of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s reworking of the tune into his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I once saw a short film consisting of images of stars, galaxies and planets, with the Fantasia as background music. Here is a lovely two-part video of the piece, where the orchestra plays it in a darkened cathedral. But if I close my eyes and listen, I still see galaxies and stars.
The rest of Compline last Sunday continued the feast of light with Psalm 27 (“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?”); the hymn (“The people who in darkness walked have seen a glorious light”); the Nunc dimittis (“a light to lighten the Gentiles”); and the anthem (“Surge illuminare” – “Arise, shine, for thy light has come”). I hope you take some time to listen to them all and meditate on our wonderful gift of light. And burn a candle or two. Who knows, it may be as good as a 30-minute bright light treatment!
- Scott Cairns: Holy Theophany: The Baptism Of Jesus And The Blessing Of The Waters (huffingtonpost.com)