Sermon at St James and All Saints
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
Jesus, light of the world, illuminate our hearts and minds to hear and receive your word.
If you were here on Epiphany Sunday you might remember that I warned you that we hadn’t heard the last of the baby Jesus, despite diverting to stories of his adult life in the past few weeks. We might have taken the tree and its decorations down, but I counselled you not to put the baby away! Because today we go back to the story which finally rounds off the Christmas season as we celebrate the Feast of Candlemas 40 days after the birth of Jesus.
Candlemas is just one of the names that we have for this day and in some churches the custom of blessing the candles to be used during the year on this day still continues. We light candles as a symbol of Christ, the light which conquers darkness, highlighted in the song of joy which Simeon sang in that reading, - a song which we know as the Nunc Dimittis, as he identifies the holy child in his arms as the one who is God’s light to all nations.
But this feast day also goes by three other names, all derived from the events in the gospel reading we heard form Luke.
- Firstly, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As we heard, Mary came to the temple in accordance with the law of Moses. For 40 days after childbirth a woman was considered unclean. This time was ended by coming to the Court of Women in the Temple and making a sacrificial offering.
- Today is also known as the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord. The father of each first-born child was required to present him to God, and then buy him back, or redeem him, for a token sum. In just a few more verses we will discover that the child redeemed in this way is the One who will redeem the world – at infinitely greater cost.
- And the fourth name by which this day goes, especially in the Eastern Church, is the Feast of Meeting. As Mary and Joseph come to the temple and meet with Simeon and Anna, there is a meeting of the generations, a meeting of the old world order with the beginning of the new, a meeting of faith.
For if there is one thread which runs through this multi-layered festival it is the thread of faithfulness – the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph in meeting the requirements of the law, the faithfulness of Anna and Simeon in their unswerving trust and willingness to wait for the fulfilment of God’s promises, and the golden thread which weaves the Christmas stories into the events of Holy Week and the mysteries of Easter - the thread of God’s faithfulness to God’s people.
Let’s explore that a little more:
The young couple Mary and Joseph have been the model of obedience since Mary’s ‘yes’ to the angel of the annunciation and Joseph’s positive action to take her as his wife after an angel appeared to him in a dream. Now they have come to the Temple in order to observe all that is required of them in Jewish Law after the birth of their son.
As they rise to all that God asks of them, so they find themselves entering more deeply into God’s mysteries as the truth of who their son Jesus is becomes gradually revealed.
They already carry in their hearts, though doubtless not yet fully understanding them, the words of the angels: that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God; he is the Saviour who will bring peace. Now in the temple they encounter Simeon, who has more words for them.
All we know about Simeon is that he lived in Jerusalem and was righteous and devout and open to the guiding of the Holy Spirit. There’s an assumption that he was old since he has at some point received a promise that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
His faithful longing for this moment, coupled with his prayerful waiting on the Holy Spirit leads him to the temple on the very day that Jesus is brought there by his parents. And the Spirit’s guiding opens his eyes to see that the infant Jesus being brought in by Mary and Joseph is indeed the long-awaited Messiah.
Imagine Simeon’s joy as he scoops him up in his arms and praises God for this moment! Jesus hasn’t done anything yet, but with the eyes of faith Simeon recognises Jesus as the chosen one, who will bring liberation and peace to a troubled world and declares that here is the light which will lighten all nations.
Perhaps Simeon’s song is heard by the final character in this story, the prophetess Anna. After her early widowhood Anna, now 84 years old, has devoted herself to a life of prayer in the temple. It is this faithfulness in prayer over the years which leads her too to recognise that the baby in Simeon’s arms is the embodiment of the fulfilment of God’s promise. This baby is the one for whom Israel has been waiting – the one who will bring redemption.
It is for Simeon to hint at the shadow side of this prophecy. This child is indeed destined to change the world, but there will be those who don’t recognise Jesus or welcome the light which he brings. Here we have a glimpse of what lies ahead for Jesus in his passion and the sorrow of Mary his mother. ‘A sword will pierce her heart.’
As the Church year turns from the crib at Christmas to the cross and grave of Holy Week, there is a sense in which Simeon’s words help us to pick out that golden thread of God’s faithfulness weaving through the Christmas stories, through the whole Christian story. Israel had long awaited the coming of a saviour. The angels of the stories which we hear at Christmas have promised that this saviour will be the child Jesus born to Mary. Now Simeon confirms that and assures us that God is at work in the person of Jesus even though there will be dark times when it might appear the opposite is true.
What I love about this story is that it can be our story too. Simeon and Anna were ordinary people who had committed themselves in their different ways to lives of prayer and devotion to God, making them open and responsive to the Holy Spirit. Their faithfulness to God opened their eyes to God’s presence in the world in fulfilment of their hopes.
Can we lead lives of such faithfulness that our eyes and ears are tuned to discern God at work in a troubled world in fulfilment of our deepest longings and hopes and are able to proclaim it as such?
Mary and Joseph likewise were an ordinary humble couple who made obedience to God their way of life. As a result, they were privileged with the responsibility of bringing the Light of the World into the world.
To bear the light of Christ in our lives and sometimes the cross too is our privilege also.
May we find the courage to do so through our trust in God’s faithful, unfailing, loving presence, with us always.