Sermon for Candlemass 2021 (The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple)
31st Jan 2021
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2021.
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come enter the Temple to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event also concerns a second narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Simeon and Anna provide a contrast to the young family of Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two oddly matched couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was traditional to present a boy child to the priest and for the mother to be ritually cleansed. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the Jewish blessing and the cleansing ceremony there takes place in this story a meeting and a greeting between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus. The meeting is expressed as the fulfilment of ancient prophecy and brought to bear in the prophecy of Simeon. He tells Mary that her child “is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel,; a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. And then the sting “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too”. There is blessing and foreboding.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meeting the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. We bring back into life things done and spoken long ago, and of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, we claim real ownership of those things which this meeting offers and proclaim them as Epiphany.
Some time ago I was in York, and waited on a cold morning for a free guided tour, which was to take place at 11 am. The tour guide came up to us and sais “You are an exceedingly privileged group. You are the first group of pilgrims who will see this morning the newly restored great East Window since it was covered some ten years ago. You will see this glorious miracle, the largest medieval stained glass window in the world, all wrought in glass, as the medievals saw it. Well, we couldn’t believe our luck, and nothing could have prepared us for what we saw; this miracle in glass. We were told that Medieval Church glass is exceedingly rare, and that York Minster has 40% of the Medieval glass contained in the whole country. It is, literally, a wonder of the world, and a wonder to behold. It tells in stained glass the story of the Christian salvation from Creation in panel after panel of images shot through with animation and narrative power and luscious colour. On that day, standing before this immense, miracle window, my eyes were ‘seeing salvation’ through the same human eyes, minds and souls of all those who beheld it, and for whom this window was the expression of a passionate avowal of their Christian Faith. This same passion is uttered by Simeon to literally ‘bring down the curtain’ on the Old Testament and ancient prophecy. Now the promise is made in Jesus. The Light which illumines the light and dark places of this world’s being. That light, perhaps as ‘the light at the end of a dark tunnel’ is held out for us now at this time as it was held by Simeon, as a light which is the profound hope underlying our Christian calling and whose presence and glorious vision is unsurmountable..
As we present ourselves to God we are aware of an experience of life as a mixture of light and shade. The light of Christ in this time of coronavirus comes as our present and future light. We are being called to bear witness to that same light – that it may illumine and reveal God’s purposes for all of us in the present time of great challenge.