As we come together today to celebrate Candlemas, I have chosen for my sermon the theme of light and darkness.
Looking at today’s Gospel, let me begin with the words of Simeon, who has been guided by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple to see Jesus. The heart of the Temple cult was service to God. It was the place where the Law, the prophetic spirit and the Temple cult all came together to set the scene for the greatness of Jesus. Simeon arrives at the Temple and gives his great hymn of praise to God, known in Christian worship as the Nunc Dimitis. Praise, because Simeon knows he has seen ‘the Lord’s Messiah’ who will be the Saviour of mankind. Simeon describes Jesus the Saviour as ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. This light will give glory to the people of Israel.
This glory will not, though, fully manifest itself until there is a complete realisation of the Kingdom of God in the time to come. Jesus, as the light, is the dawn of salvation yet to be completed. The dawn is the fading away of the darkness of the night as a new day emerges that will culminate in the radiance of the new heaven and the new earth. When this time comes, it will be the end of a universe locked into a cycle of endless repetition as history will be resolved and God will banish evil and establish salvation, peace and righteousness. Simeon warns that it will not be a trouble-free journey from dawn to glory when he prophesies Jesus’s troubled manhood and his mother’s heartbreak, but he knows that he can die in peace because of the promise of salvation in the child Jesus.
The presentation of Jesus in the Temple does not feature in the other Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John but the light does. In the opening chapter of John, Jesus ‘was the life that is the light of all people’. John writes that ‘ the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’. He goes on to say that John the Baptist came to testify to the light – ‘the true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’. In chapter 8, Jesus says: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples that the lamp must not be put under a bed but on the lamp stand. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: ’you are the light of the world’. So they must let their light shine before others so they may see their good works and give glory to God.
Light, then, gets a very good press in the Bible but not the dark. Darkness is perceived to be that which needs to be overcome so that the light of salvation can shine on. If we go right back to the opening chapter of Genesis and the Creation narrative we read that ‘darkness covered the face of the deep’ until God said ‘let there be light’. God ‘saw the light was good’ and God ‘separated the light from the darkness’. While in a state of darkness, the earth was just a ‘formless void’. In the New Testament we learn that at the time of the Crucifixion ‘darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon’.
We could, then, produce a simple statement having read the Bible that : ‘light is good, dark is bad’. My inclination was to do so until I read recently a book by my former tutor in Pastoral Ministry, Christopher Chapman. The book, entitled ‘Seeing in the dark’ gives a pastoral perspective on suffering in the Christian tradition. In this book, Christopher puts the case for darkness as not always being negative and destructive but rather positive and spiritually inspiring. He writes that there is a place for darkness. When you wonder at the night sky it is good to feel small as you look up at it. He goes on to write about John of the Cross , imprisoned in the sixteenth century for attempting to restore the Carmelite Order, being the Roman Catholic religious order founded in the twelfth century. It was when John was incarcerated in what he described as ‘the tomb of dark death’ that he realised he was not alone. He began to sense the Presence of Christ. It was then that he found the gift of poetry. When the poetry began to flow from him ‘the tomb of dark death’ became a place of ‘spiritual resurrection’. Sensing the ‘mysterious company of the Lord’ in the isolation of the night, John writes:
‘The tranquil night,
at the time of the rising dawn,
the supper that refreshes, and deepens love’.
Christopher writes that in the darkness we lose our sense of security. We are no longer in control. Yet, he argues, if we were always to be in daylight there might be something restrictive about it. It could keep us in a state of anxiety and deny us rest. He looks at the life of the ‘anchoress’ Julian of Norwich who, in the fourteenth century, lived a life of solitary prayer in a hermitage. Julian understood that in Christ’s Passion God shares our deepest darkness and pain. This prompts me to look again at the New Testament account of the darkness that fell during the Crucifixion. Contemplating Julian’s understanding of darkness, I perceive it now to be a time in which God stands with us in our darkest hours. I have two further thoughts here. One is words of the Reformer Martin Luther who wrote that faith is ‘a leap in the dark’. I take this to mean a letting go of control to show trust in God. The other is that the Nunc Dimitis is a traditional Gospel canticle of night prayer not prayer in daylight.
What we might say, then, is that darkness in the Bible is a temporary and not wholly negative feature in the Bible story. From Genesis onwards it occurs in pivotal moments and is not always expressed in flattering terms; it is associated with the earth as a formless void and the death of Christ but it is not permanent and we may expect, as Christopher Chapman writes, ‘joy and Presence’. Christopher finds this in a poem by the seventeenth century priest George Herbert who wrote:
‘And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my only light
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell at night’.
This is the poetry of hope; the Christian hope of renewal for us when the tempest has calmed and we can then relish nature in the light.
In today’s Gospel reading, Simeon’s hope of seeing the Lord’s Messiah was realised and it is his great moment in the Temple that we celebrate here today with our candles lit and blessed. Candles that can be lit again year after year in the continuing affirmation that when Jesus was born this was the dawn of our salvation.