31st January 2016
So today we celebrate the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the feast of Candlemas, a festival of light at the dark time of the year.
The correct date is actually February 2nd, exactly 40 days after Christmas, but the church allows us to celebrate it today on this Sunday if we wish. Well, of course we wish! This festival marks the end of the whole Christmas and Epiphany season and we want to go out on a high!
The introduction to the service said this:
“40 days ago, we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this Eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.”
So Candlemas marks a turning point, a kind of pivot in the Church’s year. The story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple holds together the joy and blessing of Christmas and the sorrow of the cross.
It is as if on this day we take one last look back at Christmas and then turn towards the cross.
In the last few weeks I have been making baptism visits.
I have had the joy and privilege of meeting many young couples and their gorgeous babies, and this wonderful story of Mary and Joseph, bringing their baby to be presented to God in the temple, reminds me of the baptism couples I have met.
They are not always sure what baptism means, but they want to do the right, the best thing for their baby, to say thank you to God and to receive his blessing.
Mary and Joseph, even though they have already learnt that Jesus is no ordinary baby, are concerned, with simple humility, to do the right thing, to obey the requirements of the Jewish law.
They are coming to present their baby to God as the law demanded, but also redeeming him, buying him back, as the law allowed, by offering the proper sacrifice.
We can imagine them entering the temple quietly, carrying the child in their arms, over-awed by the vast building, dark with shadows, after the sunlight outside, perhaps unsure of what they were doing or where they should go, unnoticed in the melee of people.
And yet not quite unnoticed, because now we are introduced to another character, the old man Simeon.
We are told that he was righteous and devout, and was waiting for the consolation of Israel.
Israel had suffered long as a subject people under foreign rulers and Simeon was waiting patiently but expectantly for that time when God would fulfil his promises and restore the kingdom to Israel through his Messiah.
Part of that promise was that God would come once more to dwell in his temple.
In our reading from the Old Testament today, the prophet Malachi speaks about this. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”
But this is a double edged promise, yes, God would come to his temple as Saviour but also as judge, God says “I will draw near to you for judgement, to bear witness against those who oppress the vulnerable” and the writer comments truly “Who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears”
But instead of the coming of that mighty judge, we have here the quiet entrance of a small baby and his very unassuming parents.
How could this possibly be the fulfilment of that promise?
Simeon is often pictured as being physically blind, because this is a sign of inner enlightenment.
He is some-one who is completely open to the guidance of the Spirit, which has already told him that he will not die until he has seen the Lord’s Messiah, and which now prompts him to enter the temple at the very moment that Mary and Joseph are also entering with Jesus.
How, we might ask, amongst all the people milling about does Simeon recognise in Jesus the promised Messiah?
How could he even have imagined that here in this small vulnerable child is the fulfilment of all he has been waiting for?
But he does, he takes the baby in his arms and says those wonderful words which we know as the Nunc dimittis,
“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation”
His faithfulness, humility and obedience to God have brought him to this place of joyful recognition and peace.
But his seeing does not stop there, he also sees that there is opposition and conflict and sorrow up ahead.
Holding the child for whom he has waited all his life, Simeon prophesies about him, speaking to his mother in words full of foreboding.
“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul too”
This child is going to cause conflict, possibly violence, and will be a source of grief to his mother.
Simeon looks into the future and sees the cross.
This is a narrative which holds together, in one story, many contrasts. Some of them we can see:
The contrast between the great age of Simeon and Anna, their lives drawing towards their end, and the young couple with the new baby just starting out on life.
Some we can only see when we understand the background, the contrast between the expected coming to the Temple of the mighty Judge and the actual, seemingly insignificant arrival of a small baby.
Some only become apparent in the words of Simeon.
The contrast of blessing and sorrow.
As the words of Simeon make clear, for Mary, this great blessing, the gift of this child, the source no doubt of much happiness and laughter, will also be for her, the source of overwhelming sorrow.
It is LOSS that will tie blessing and sorrow so firmly together.
Every blessing holds within it the possibility of loss.
Loss is a universal human experience, however much our culture tries to pretend that success and happiness are the only realities.
Those of us who are older may face the loss of our strength and health and energy, many will have faced the loss of loved ones.
Though for each one the experience of loss is uniquely theirs, sadly no one has a monopoly.
There is a wonderful icon, a picture of Mary and Jesus, the Christ child, that reminds me of the Candlemas story.
It is called the “Mother of God of Tenderness”, and in the picture Mary is staring out at us very sadly, as if remembering the words of Simeon;
but Jesus, who is pictured as a boisterous toddler, is giving Mary a ferocious hug, with all the unselfconscious intensity of the young child.
His cheek is pressed against hers and his arms are tight round her neck.
In this picture Mary stands for the whole of humanity, for every-one of us. It’s a picture of the love of God for us, a love that will not let us go.
It is not a love that promises to protect us from loss, nor one that promises to somehow swoop in and take the pain away, but it is a love that has, in the death of Jesus on the cross, plumbed the depths of loss for us.
Whatever the depths of our loss Jesus has been there too and has overcome it for us, and it is in that place of darkness that he meets us with the promise of new life.
As we turn today to face the darkness of the cross, we can know that this is the way to the light of Easter.
Which brings us to the final contrast in this story, the contrast between light and darkness, the contrast that is so well symbolised by the lighting of candles.
Simeon says, in words reminiscent of the Gospel of John, that Jesus will be a light to lighten the Gentiles; that is a light for all people.
But of course the lighting of a candle serves both to deepen and throw into relief the darkness round about.
And to bring to light things that might otherwise have been hidden, the secret thoughts, Simeon says, of every heart.
So the coming of this light brings both conflict and judgement.
It is not the judgement of a great and terrifying God, but the judgement of unconditional love.
Because there is a decision to be made. We are free to accept or reject God’s love, offered to us in Jesus.
Simeon is clear that a person’s attitude towards Jesus Christ will be decisive for them.
He says “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” Yes, Jesus is the Lord’s salvation but each person has the opportunity to accept or reject this salvation for themselves.
We have to choose the light.
In the baptism service the baptised person receives a lighted candle. But they can only do so after they have made the decision to turn away from the darkness of sin and evil and turn towards Jesus Christ.
We each have to make that choice for Jesus, we make it once and for all at our baptism but we need to remake it every day.
It is a choice to turn and return every day to the light and love of God, and to share that light and love in the darkness of this world’s hurt.
To choose this light has consequences, it means that we must turn today and every day to face the cross and follow Jesus on that way, trusting, knowing that, through all the blessings and the sorrow that the future holds, it is the way, the only way to life.