Today is the feast of Candlemas an important turning point in the Christian year. The point at which we stop looking back at Christmas and begin to look forward to Lent and to the temptation, the Passion and the death of Jesus.
But what is Candlemas all about? Is it just tradition – a festival with a nice name, a chance for us to light lots of candles in a minute. Well of course not. Like all festivals it provides a focused opportunity for us to encounter God as a christian community and as individuals and to reflect upon some of the most profound aspects of our faith. The most obvious theme Candlemas points us towards is that of Christ, the light of the world. In actual fact the Christingle service was actually written for today, not for Christmas at all, and many churches will be celebrating that today The [Romsey ] Abbey, I believe, has it’s Christingle service this afternoon.
[00:01:04:22] St Paul wrote that ‘when the Lord comes he will bring light… will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart’. But the light of Christ is far from cosy. It should make us squirm as in it we are, we see ourselves for what we really are, people who often prefer our own way rather than God’s.
In today’s Gospel we have St Luke immensely, his immensely moving account of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple and his recognition by Simeon and Anna. The story is well known and grows out of the requirement of the Jewish law for every first born male to be recognised as holy to the Lord and presented in the Temple.
[00:02:00:01] We’ve already seen that at Candlemass we can look forward. In the context of the Christian year this means that we start looking forward to Lent, only a few weeks away; Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter. But in the broader context of human life as a whole the presentation of Christ in the Temple prompts us to look forward to that point at the very end when we shall come to stand before God. The point at which, in Paul’s words: ‘we shall no longer see in a mirror dimly, but face to face’.
[00:02:39:01] I might have told you this story before, but I’ll say it again, because it sticks in my mind so much at this time of year. It’s 2003 and a group of us are in the ‘Church of the Nativity’ in Bethlehem. We’re down in the Crypt where lies the place traditionally held to be where Christ was born. I’m not feeling very comfortable. I’m not spiritually in tune with my surroundings finding it really so busy, very touristy, a bit ‘samey’. I’ve lost that first time ‘wow’ feeling. I think some people are singing something like ‘Away in a Manger’ and my toes are curling ever so slightly.
[00:03:24:00] And then a young Palestinian couple come in. They enter the crypt carrying their new born baby. Very newborn, surely only a few days old, maybe eight. Ignoring everyone around them they approach the holy place of Christ’s birth. They kneel, and hold their precious baby over the shrine for a brief moment or two. And suddenly everything has changed. It’s suddenly very quiet and still as we all watch this simple gesture of faith by parents’ wanting something special for their baby. We’re told that this is customary. It’s an offering or a dedication of the child to God and the seeking of God’s blessing for that child. It’s a beautiful and moving gesture for those of us privileged to witness it.
[00:04:22:00] Well that baby will be 16 or 17 years old today, and we know nothing of him or her personally. We don’t even know if he or she is still alive, or perhaps a sword has already pierced the mother’s heart. Bethlehem is not a safe place for a Christian child. We know that if she is still alive she is growing up in a land full of political and religious divisions which seem to defy all attempts to bring peace to the region. Jesus too was born into that world. His people were oppressed in their own land by the occupying Roman forces. They longed for the coming of the Messiah – God’s chosen and anointed one who would bring freedom, peace and justice to the people. It wasn’t a safe place then for a child to grow up
[00:05:18:21] Two babies separated by two thousand years and yet having so much in common. And there’s Simeon, a personality that seems to rise up out of the story to speak to us today. He’s a righteous and devout man Like many he longs for an end to the suffering of his people, and his longing resonates with us as we see the suffering and injustices around us today. But Simeon holds on in faith to a promise made to him by God: Simeon will not die until he has seen the one who is God’s Messiah – the chosen one, the anointed one.
And we too hang on on in faith to the promises God has made to us in Jesus. The promise that we are God’s beloved children. The promise that God is always with us. The promise that death does not have the final say. The promise that even out of the darkest and most painful of circumstances God will bring healing, light and new life.
[00:06:26:06] Simeon is open to the to the guiding of the Spirit. We don’t know how the Spirit told Simeon to get up and go to the Temple today. We don’t know whether he had a dig into his ribs and say ‘hey Simeon get up’, or whether it was just a thought that gently unfolded in his mind as he went about his daily routine.
It is worth us allowing us some time and space in our lives to listen and to watch so that the Holy Spirit can get that message across to us. Have you brought your own self, your own soul, to the Temple yet? Simeon’s faith is rewarded by this revelation of Jesus as the promised one. In his wisdom he sees that God’s salvation is not just for the people of Israel, it is offered to all people everywhere. God’s light will shine out of Jesus one of the‘People of Israel’ but it will be a light that shines in all the dark places of the world.
[00:07:31:06] We too have received this revelation about who Jesus is and the message that God’s love is universal and unlimited. It’s up to us to pass on that revelation and to act in that spirit of love that Jesus showed to all around him. Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph but he also warns them of the shadowy side of the story, of this glory and this salvation. In his life on earth and still today Jesus is a controversial figure. He still attracts opposition from some who encounter him. He still challenges our thoughts and beliefs when they stray from the ‘Way and the Truth’. He still brings about our own self judgement in the way that respond to him.
[00:08:20:24] And Simeon also has a word for Mary herself, and perhaps for us too: ‘love hurts, Jesus: loving him will hurt. There was suffering when Jesus was here in the flesh and he shared in that suffering, And my goodness there is suffering in our world today. We see it everyday in our news, in our computer feeds, in the papers, it’s all around us. The world seems such more of a dangerous place, more fragile, more on edge, more selfish, than at any other time before. It could make us wonder where on earth God is in all this. Why doesn’t he do something? But God hasn’t left us. We’ve left him. We think we can mould his teaching to suit us, rather than letting his teaching mould us. We’ve forgotten and allowed the devil to tempt us into thinking that we can run our own world, that we can know better than God. That we can discriminate against some because it may harm our own equilibrium. We think we can play God in his own world. ‘This bit is for me, and for me only’ – you can’t come here.
[00:09:46:05] Last week we came together as a Benefice to celebrate all that we are. We came together as Christians struggling in that increasingly secular world. We worshipped together, we shared stories together, we decided that we need to be more missional, more intentional in what we do as a church and as individuals. Now is the time we must work together to keep watch, to keep hope, to keep the light: just as Anna and Simeon did. And when you are feeling like it’s all hopeless, that it will never be fixed, don’t put your faith in politicians, or the media that is spouting alternative truth, Don’t be deceived by the devil, but come together, pick up your Bibles, read together, share together, pray together. Pray to Jesus: ‘your kingdom come’. And as the translation in ‘The Message’ Bible says: ‘With our own eyes we have seen your salvation. It’s open for all to see, a God revealing light to all nations, and the glory of all your people.
[00:11:07:20] So carry on people of God, with your lights shining for all around to see. Amen.