Feb. 4, 2018 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Feb 4, 2018 in Epiphany, Feast Days, Sermons

Candlemas: The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple

February 4, 2018

Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas which honors Jesus being presented in the temple by Joseph and Mary, according to Jewish tradition. Aged Simeon and the Prophet Anna who had long awaited his coming, and are prophet and witness to the fulfillment of God’s promise revealed in the one we call the light of the world.  We first gathered at the entrance with an icon of the ‘Presentation of Jesus in the Temple,’ with candles to symbolize the light of Christ entering, and amidst ‘Candlemas Bells’ (also called snowdrops) which are a sign of purity and life breaking through the ‘death’ of winter. They are often the first blooms to come up as snow begins to melt and there is much lovely folklore about them you can look up or ask me about later. Widely celebrated in England, Candlemas is the first day one is allowed to bring the ‘Candlemas Bells’ indoors, first bringing them to the altar for the feast day to recall the promise of greater light to come, and only after that may they be brought into people’s homes. It falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox; just when we are wearied by the long winter nights and rainy days, we see the hint of lengthening days and the growing light in the world. We internalize this seasonal shift as a spiritual turning point, gloriously visible as our liturgy today celebrates the light of Christ being brought into the temple, and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Anna and Simeon. Our newly blessed candles also signify taking that light with us into our homes and out into the world as we embody our faith. In early days, all the church candles to be used for the year were blessed on Candlemas, and people brought their own too, so as to take the blessing of the light home with them. Please take this one with you today to signify Christ’s light in your life and his presence where you live.

Mary is watched by the prophet Anna, as she hands her infant son to aged Simeon who is reaching for him. Is she surrendering her son to the world and to what his future holds? Joseph and Mary’s presentation of their son brings with it the Genesis idea of the first-born belonging to the Lord in a special way. No surprise there, yet the event with Simeon and Anna shifts us from Jesus as the center of the Bethlehem birth narrative, with his identity and his named lineage (who he is), to new air of acknowledged anticipation and expectation—Jesus still does not utter a single word, but now the focus is on what Jesus will do.

Luke reminds us no less than five times that Mary and Joseph went to the temple to do what was required by the Jewish law. They went because it is what faithful people of God do, they go to their house of worship and give thanks for their child. Faith is the fabric of their life, woven of constancy, ritual and prayer. They didn’t expect to hear God’s word in the mouths of prophets; these were real people fully present in the temple that day – and the text says Jesus’ father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Are we ‘amazed’? Is God’s word unexpected in our ears, God’s glory right before us? God speaks in our lives when we are actually present and listening, faithfully watching. When someone shows you God’s grace and light, you are hearing the prophet Anna speaking to you from the ages. When you pray and prepare for the love of God and then see it illumine an otherwise ordinary moment with hope and promise, you are seeing through Simeon’s eyes.

Like that day in the temple, coming together in praise and thanksgiving gives us glimpses of God, holy perspective, sacred ways to understand the complexities, joys and fears in life. It is where the Holy Spirit is present within us, and so we recognize her radiance when she is revealed in those unexpected places. It is where we too move from who we are to what we do —and why. The Candlemas light you carry with you brings the light of Christ’s love to whatever might lie ahead.

While this reading is about the first days of Jesus’ infant life, it is entwined with Anna and Simeon as both are nearing the end of their lives. After they see this long-awaited Messiah come into the temple and bless him, Simeon says “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Many of you know my mother went into hospice care last week. Your prayers and support have been what has sustained us, and I have been so touched by your tender care and loving embrace. She said she also feels richly blessed by your prayers. Because my mother has Alzheimer’s we often have similar conversations more than once, and I have to say at times there is a great gift in this. I hear subtle differences in her stories, nuances change in her questions and how she hears answers. Recently together we’ve re-crossed terrain in her intermittent awareness that she will not recover from the health problems she’s presently frustrated by. Over the past two weeks we’ve talked about not wanting to live, and not wanting to die – and what her hopes and fears are about. What I’ve noticed in particular is something in light of Simeon and Anna’s message; I’m not sensing that feeling of “Lord you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised” (as our Prayerbook’s Compline service translates it). In fact, that sense of anticipatory freedom isn’t much there at all amidst the details of hospitalists and hospice, doctors and skilled nursing options, advance directives and powers of attorneys. Although being freed from all of that is perhaps what Michael and my sisters and I are trying to do for her in a sense, what we all try to do for those we love. I see some very real fear alongside determination, and, on and off, a desire to push back death – in her mind and in mine.

So, I’ve been wondering what it takes to make us more like Anna and Simeon; people so lovingly, faithfully awaiting the delivery of God’s promise, expecting it, that it’s fulfillment means spiritual freedom even in the face of death. They await something divine that is so much more than anything of this usual world that they can see it in the infant as Mary and Joseph carry him in. In the new life Mary lets Simeon hold is the future of God’s people and in it he sees the light which shines beyond this world. When Simeon says, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed…”  the word ‘rising’ is ἀνάστασις or ‘anastasis.’ This simple word is used through the gospels and New Testament writings, (42 times!) and nowhere else is it rendered as ‘rising’ – rather in every other instance it is translated and used to mean one thing; resurrection! That’s what Anna as prophet and Simeon as witness recognize in this holy infant, not with words or creeds or quoting other prophets, perhaps not even with conscious awareness. Having been long nourished by God’s promise to them, in the moment of the Spirit’s presence that day they knew perfect freedom in God’s love. That is what I pray for at the hour of my mother’s death, and at the hour of my own.

Simeon and Anna were freed into the peace of God by what they lived to see, even if not the whole of life of that infant whose temple presentation they shared. They did not live to see his ministry and miracles, his outpouring of love in teaching and healing, nor his crucifixion and death. Yet they glimpsed through the veil his resurrection in God’s promise. Anna and Simeon had faithfully awaited God’s promised incursion to signal the redemption and glory of God’s people, and their hope was fulfilled. That moment the whole of his life as the Son of God came forth, like a tiny green shoot poking through the snow during short days of long winter darkness. This white trinity of petals the same of a bell, silently calling us, challenging us, to continue to carry God’s light and peace as we received it in Christ Jesus. We are the ones who now bear witness to and prophesy that God is yet still with us, ever with us, in this life and in the life to come.

Scottish poet Robert William Buchanan (1841–1901) wrote a piece which ended in a father giving a Candlemas bell to their dying son (Poet Andrew,1868).

“Into his hand I put the year’s first flower…
[He] raised lustrous een [eyes], still smiling, to the sky
Next upon us, then dropd them to the flower
That trembled in his hand, and murmered low,
Like one that gladly murmers to himself—
Out of the snow, the snowdrop—Out of death comes life.”

Amen.

© 2018 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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