To signify your presence

*** This hymn celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, popularly known as Candlemas.  Begun on St AGNES’ Day, the music proceeds in stately fashion for two lines, moving towards an abrupt change of style in the fourth line:  a conscious attempt to evoke the fiery otherness and the finality of Christ.


To signify your presence (midi)


The Feast of the Presentation of Christ – widely known as Candlemas – is commonly acknowledged in liturgical celebration by all present bearing a lighted candle for some part of the service. It is this action of lighting candles at the Eucharist that provides the context for this hymn.

The text offers a focused and rather intense meditation on the symbolism of lighted candles, for they represent much more than the action described by the Chinese proverb ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’. The candles ritually intimate a cosmic drama that climaxes in Christ’s becoming a merciful and faithful high priest…to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2.17b). The symbolically rich meditation of this hymn is cast in the form of an address to God. It has about it a formal dignity that, coupled with the somewhat stately music AGNES, suggests the atmosphere of a staged masque.

From the start the worshippers proclaim their conviction that “these symbols incandescent speak Christ, the fire of God”; and the candles are lit explicitly “to signify your presence within this temple, Lord”. Because this conviction is established at the beginning, the way is cleared for the address following, which forthrightly (not speculatively) acknowledges the “fire of God, descending to warm the world with peace…”

The second stanza offers a generalized overview of the history of salvation, whereby the spirit that was understood to have kindled first in the people of Israel is now believed to have fanned forth to become a “beacon furnace to light all nations’ path”. While the prophesies of Malachi were addressed in their time to Jews first of all, they are understood – by Christians, among others – to apply to all humankind: I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts (Malachi 3.5).

What are contemporary images of the refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap? We may need to look towards wider horizons than those of our forebears: to, for example, smelting furnaces and chemical manufacturing processes. But these are not readily warranted by the text of scripture. It troubles this hymn-writer that verse four therefore seems to lack contemporary impact.

The fifth verse concerns Christ’s self-offering, the sacrifice that led to his death. “Yourself…” is a way of insisting that there was nothing partial about this sacrifice: rather than say that ‘you offered your self…’ – as though to suggest that his self was something objectively separate from him as subject – the hymn acknowledges that divinity and humanity were united in Christ. In the offering of  “yourself” on behalf of all creation, ‘you’ inaugurate and establish a people who continue and extend ‘your’ self-offering. United by both mutual affection and the sharing of their lives, they remember the truth of ‘your’ saving sacrifice, and they themselves become evidence of that truth.

The concluding stanza is a gentle gushing of gratitude, in the form of a promise that “our lives, like candles burning, shall glorify your grace.” In terms of the whole hymn, it rounds off a journey that began with drawing attention to candles lit for the feast. At the hymn’s beginning they intimated Christ’s presence; at the end symbolise the worshippers’ readiness and commitment to embody all the riches of God “warm(ing) the world with peace.”

The music for this hymn was begun on St Agnes’ day, 21st January 1997. For two lines it proceeds in stately fashion, with a suggestion of the atmosphere of late Elizabethan or Jacobean courts. Then although the melody of the third line repeats that of the opening line, the harmony subtly begins to shift the style towards an abrupt change in the last line: a conscious attempt to depict the fiery otherness of Christ. Thus, the music aims to provide a comfortable platform for the lighting of candles, and also to disrupt expectations of comfort: it is the Most High who is come to his temple.