May I speak in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
From Luke 2: “ …’for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared inthe presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’. And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.”
Thank you for welcoming me this late January morning as we keep Candlemas, a
festival of light and hope that concludes the season of Christmas and Epiphany some forty days after the Nativity. Here at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, between the manger and the cross, we mark the Presentation of Christ in the Temple in your beautiful King’s Chapel of the Savoy as well as its linked observance of the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin. As Mary and Joseph were observant Jews, these obligations would be fulfilled before returning to Nazareth and settling into their new family life.
These events form our final act of welcome and recognition of Christ as a child, as we observe his first public appearance by lighting and blessing candles, symbolic of the one true light that brought forth creation from nothing…the light which we know as the light of Christ that illuminates the darkness of a fallen world, dispels the blindness of sin, and reveals God presence. Candlemas is a feast of three profoundly interconnected faith components: Mosaic law, prophetic revelation, and traditions of church and culture. Candles themselves are a universal symbol of light resisting darkness, often lit as a memorial for lost lives like yesterday’s call to place a candle in windows for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In today’s lessons, the voices of King David the psalmist and Malachi the messenger ring across the centuries, telling of the judgement of the Lord descending in glory to his people. If salvation is what you seek, best prepare for the rigours of his day: righteousness demands purification and rituals to achieve it are built into the third book of Moses, Leviticus. For example, the post-partum obligations observed by Jesus’ parents. Forty days after birth of a male child he is due for presentation in the temple to consecrate him to the Lord; the same period is required to cleanse his mother from the blood of childbirth, enabling her return to worship with her baby boy and make appropriate sacrifice. A firstling lamb is preferred; birds are an acceptable budget-friendly option.
For a first-born son, such as Jesus, there is an additional obligation to redeem the
baby with a money offering, the pidyon haben, to be paid to a priest before the boy is ritually returned to his family. Otherwise, the office of priesthood belongs to the first-born son, and he to the temple as in the story of Samuel. Luke, a meticulous reporter, does mention that all duties under the Law were observed although no specific mention is made of this practice. We are told that the child left with his parents and did not remain in the temple, though as an older child, a runaway Jesus was found there, in his Father’s house. Throughout his ministry, Jesus identifies his body as the temple, the place where humanity encounters divinity and God abides with his people.
When two elderly Temple attendants without official status announce that the Lord of hosts sent to enlighten the entire world has just presented as a 40-day old infant, his young mother and her husband bearing the poor man’s sacrifice of a pair of birds, it signified a seismic shift in first century Jerusalem. The Old Covenant and all its priestly undergirding are rocked by the big bang of incarnation; there is now a new and endless supply of light for those who can see it. It may be given by grace but presents its own rigours of faithfulness and a different sort of sacrifice.
Let’s look more closely at this strange story of a certain first-born son, his mother, an old bachelor, and an even more elderly widow. Bustling with the business of
worshiping God, the multitudes and priests of the temple fail to see the King of Glory enter those everlasting doors. Not so Simeon, a righteous man who frequented the temple with single-minded devotion, ever watchful for the appearance of the saviour of Israel before he died, as foretold to him by the Holy Spirit. He has spent a lifetime waiting on God and trusting his promises, relying upon the revelation of Messiah to release him. At the critical moment on the appointed day, the Spirit guides him to the Christ Child. We can imagine him breaking into joyous song and dance as he first proclaims the Nunc Dimittis.
Imagine Mary’s surprise as her child is whisked from her arms and adored by a
stranger. Perhaps some of the parents here today have a memory of their child
being singled out for praise when they did not expect it…perhaps in a public place, by someone not a family member. Though no other parent could receive the sort of child-rearing advice Simeon provided with a prophecy for Mary’s ears only: be prepared for great sorrow as the impact of this momentous birth is felt across the world and at home, opening division, bringing death but ultimately, new life. Whatever she understood in that moment, she remained faithful to the will of God and the care of his son on earth. The same advice applies to us: whatever we understand in the moment, remain faithful to the will of God and care of his people and church on earth.
Next Anna appears, a holy woman and prophet who suffered loss of husband and family in early adulthood before taking up a life of worship, dedicated to fasting and prayer for the redemption of Jerusalem. She is witness that no one is too unfortunate, too alone or too old to do God’s work; she faces her future with
renewed energy, full of praise and the good news of redemption. Like Simeon, she is also freed from past constraints and isolation, liberated by revelation of the Christ child.
Well-known representations of the encounter abound in art and icon, frequently
depicting the Christ Child as the composition’s radiant source of light; I am
particularly reminded of a “Presentation” that Rembrandt, that master of light and dark, painted whilst still a young man. Youth and new life illuminate our story today, shining beacons of hope against the forces of darkness and division. In time their creative energy bears evergreen fruits of patience, faith, and hope, as expressed in the beautiful rite of Candlemas.
Beginning with the early church in Jerusalem, the festival spread throughout the
church, integrating a blessing of the candles from the 11th century. The supply of
beeswax candles for the church year received this blessing and parishioners could bring in their household supply to benefit from a spiritual boost to their
candlepower. The Anglican Missal includes praise to God for ‘the labours of
bees’…providers of material for human hands to make candles, …’formed into wax by thy ordinance’, rewarding their diligence as were the prayers of Simeon and Anna. Their light will ‘protect body and soul’ in all perils and darkness on land or sea. Candles in procession re-enact Christ’s entry to the temple and greet Mary as the ‘gate of heaven’.
From rite grew legend, as embodied by snowdrops or Candlemas bells, said to have sprung in clusters in Eve’s footprints when banished from Eden, modest blooms of consolation and hope of new life given of God’s love despite human disobedience. They are said to have also sprung to life in Mary’s footsteps as she left the Presentation, to honour her consent to the incarnation that makes possible a return to Eden or unity in communion with God.
For now, we stand at the crossroads of the seasons. It is a good time, a divinely
designated time to light a candle in thanks for his love and care. May hope
illuminate a way through the darkness to fulfilment of Simeon’s prophecy of
enlightenment to the Gentiles and glory of Israel in the image of God. May we
continue to be amazed by your loving presence. AMEN.