The humble snowdrop peeps out into the world just as we are hoping to experience the last throes of winter. They are the first heralds of spring. Something of beauty; so precious and small, yet steely enough to burst through ice, snow and earth as hard as iron. For centuries, the Christian tradition has seen in the snowdrop a sign of hope and new life, and also something bitter-sweet. Their beauty is fleeting and fading. When each flower raises its head above the earth there is no fanfare, no great trumpeting of spring like the loud and confident daffodils. The snowdrop emerges somewhat forlorn, bowing her pale head.
They were once commonly known as Candlemas Bells, and one folk rhyme tells us that, ‘The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas Day.’ They were often planted around churchyards and at vestry doors, and this simple flower, because of its life cycle, chimes in with the churches’ festival of Candlemas.
The festival falls halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Also called the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, it falls 40 days after Christmas and signals the end of the season of Christmas and Epiphany and the beginning of our move towards Lent and Easter. Candlemas marks the turning away from the birth of Christ to consider his suffering and death. But it also gives us a hope of what is beyond.
When we celebrate Candlemas at a church service, our reading tells us about two very old people, Simeon and Anna. They are nearing the end of their lives and have been waiting for years for the day when they will see the Messiah, Jesus. It’s as if they have been stuck in an eternal winter. Perhaps they had begun to wonder if God’s promises would ever be fulfilled. Then into the Temple comes someone so small, pure and full of light that they can hardly believe their eyes. A child, like a tiny flower, just a few months old. In this child there was light and life; this child was so full God’s spirit that, through him, even in the darkest moments, hope would emerge and love would overcome everything. As Simeon and Anna stood before this child they were transformed.
Within the festival of Candlemas we find our own stories of loss and longing and grief. In the dark days of winter, we yearn for the light to once again dispel the darkness that hangs over our world today. We wait for the spring, hoping for new life and new beginnings.
The story of Simeon and Anna, and the story of the Candlemas Bells, gives us hope that as we stand before the Christ Child, we too see fragile beauty breaking through, a glimpse of brilliant light in the darkness. A hope that means that we can offer the whole of our lives, seek God’s blessing and trust in God’s promises as Simeon and Anna did. For every winter that we face we will be given strength, like the snowdrop, to emerge from the hard earth and know the love of God calling us back to life again.