Sweeping Away

One of the traditions of Candlemas, likely a holdover from ancient pagan celebrations of the day that falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, is sweeping one’s house clean.

Candlemas, also known as The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin, and the Meeting of Christ with Simeon, is one of the ancient feasts of the church - the nun Egeria writes of what likely was a Candlemas procession and solemnities around the day in her 4th century account of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Our ancient Northern European ancestors celebrated Imbolc, while our ancient Roman ancestors celebrated Lupercalia. Many cultures have rhymes or lore associated with the continuation or (hopeful) early end of winter, like our American Groundhog Day.

Whatever the feast is named, humanity has acknowledged the cosmic wisdom of this time for eons. It falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Winter’s grip is beginning to subside. The light is returning slowly. Days lengthen. Plants are beginning to break through the winter soil, and livestock prepare for birth. Life, through light, growth, and fertility, is beginning again.

Various traditions from across the globe are associated with Candlemas. Some are formal and solemn, like the Candlemas procession and Blessing of Candles. Some are celebratory, like the Spanish tradition of eating tamales.

But the one I find most meaningful? Sweeping out my home. Cleaning, in general, is a Candlemas tradition. Some cultures (and clergy) keep Christmas decor up until this day. 

We have, in the liturgical calendar, come to the threshold of old and new. We’ve celebrated Christmas and Epiphany and settled into the bleak mid-winter. But we will not stay here. Forty days ago we celebrated Jesus’ birth. Now we are in this space, moving, stretching preparing, as we ready ourselves for the forty days of Lent.

Winter, from a pastoral perspective, is a hard time. The cold drives many of us inside, where we are not exposed to the light of the sun. Even if we were, its rays are weak. Most clergy will share that winter brings an increase in illnesses and funerals in congregations. Modern medicine identifies we are impacted by the lack of our exposure to the light, both physically and psychologically. Symptoms of depression spike during the winter. We miss feeing the warmth of the sun on our skins.

In the darkness of winter, as we huddle within our selves and souls and in some ways, spiritually hibernate, we hear the Light is still with us, but often that Light seems faint and weak.

But now, on Candlemas, we are very close to spring. Lent is coming, a time to work the spiritual soil of our souls and till the literal soil of our land. The Light gets stronger as we prepare for Easter with prayer, fasting, and penance. 

However, to welcome the Light, to welcome that which God has planted and is taking root and growing, we frequently discover we need to clean out some of the stuff of our souls, the things we pushed into corners and left to stagnate over the long winter. A truth of life is for something new to be born, we must be willing to create space for it to thrive and grow.

Candlemas, in its wisdom, invites us to do just that. We light candles as we give thanks for Christ, the Light of the World. We say prayers of thanksgiving for the Light that shines in our selves and souls, and then - hopefully - we will allow this Light to guide us into the corners and recesses of our souls as we sweep out the dust, debris, and dirt we no longer need.

Granted, deep cleaning is rarely a one-day process. But on this holy day, we begin the process that Lent will allow us to engage with more fully.

On this night, I will light candles in my home during Evening Prayer. After I pray, I will sweep. As I sweep, I will offer the names of those with whom I am asking God’s help as I journey into forgiveness. As I sweep, I will confess my sins, known and unknown. As I sweep, I will offer the detritus and clutter in my life that needs to move out and on so I make holy space for what is to come in God's time. 

When I am finished sweeping, I’m always a bit amazed (and grossed out, quite honestly) at the amount of dust and stuff that I’ve accumulated. Then I open the door and sweep it out, offering it back to God.


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