Feb. 3, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Feb 3, 2019 in Epiphany, Feast Days, Sermons

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

February 3, 2019

Celebrated since the 4th century, the church has called this at times the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and Candlemas Day. It seems a familiar rite that parents bring their new baby to the place of worship for special blessing, as we hear in today’s gospel, and it might recall for us infant baptism more than ancient biblical teaching. We need to remember though that it was tied up in a ritual of powerful transformation though, when women who had given birth (and considered unclean until this presentation), returned to the worshiping community with their infant at 40 days, be it at the door to the temple or the flap of the tent that Leviticus refers to. It is a ritual echoing from there all the way into Christianity. Under Pope Leo (460 CE) women were forbidden to receive communion for 40 days after the birth of their child, except in the case of an emergency. Later Pope Gregory and Augustine of Canterbury would argue about this, with Gregory asserting that such a time to return was “a mystery” rather than a strict number of days, saying that even if she “enters the very hour that she is delivered, to return thanks, she is not guilty of any sin.” 

As with what we just heard in Luke; in accordance with the law set forth in Leviticus, prayers are said at the time of mother and child entering the tent, or Temple in this case, for the first time. For a period, the emphasis shifted to the purification of the mother, rather than presentation of the child, and led to a special service once called “The Churching of Women,” which still included, like with Mary and Joseph, her making “accustomed offerings” and then receiving Communion.  (That offering was used for the relief of “Distressed Women in Childbed.”) Before discarding the idea as archaic or unenlightened, consider when you have come here and felt cleansed of something staining your soul, lightened.

Later in our history prayers for the child entered back in and became increasingly prominent until the service was entirely centered on giving thanks for the birth or adoption of the child. Early on the day became associated with candles, first as carried by the woman as she knelt at the entrance to the church, and later (in the 7th century) in a candlelit procession by everyone as they sang their way in – just as we lit candles and sang when we gathered ‘outside the tent,’ blessing the candles and processing in. All of this helps us understand the connection of carrying the light of Christ candles into the church with the blessing of the babe when he was brought and presented in the temple, with both Simeon and Anna knowing the presence of the Holy Spirit in the infant Jesus. We are led by them in knowing to our bones that this is a theocentric moment, pointing us to focus on God’s presence of fulfillment, peace, and promise, in the whole unfolding life of Jesus. Here’s how T. S. Eliot puts it in his poem; A Song for Simeon

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
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 to-morrow.
According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
…Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

T. S. Eliot A Song for Simeon

Again; “Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word” grant us consolation.  The promise is carried out for us by Jesus, God’s incarnate Word – yet does so even without words, without speaking. The collect today sheds peculiar light on this same sense—maybe you caught the unusual wording. Turn in your bulletin to the page which says The Collect of the Day. “…we humbly pray that, as your only- begotten Son was presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord…” by Jesus Christ. Not the usual “through Jesus Christ” you’ll notice. All of the other days we make note of Jesus the Christ as our conduit or portal into the fullness of God. Here we pray differently as people brought by Christ as an action, to God’s presence. This ancient 10th century prayer has evolved a bit, but some aspects remain the same, and this tiny word, “by” instead of “through”, is one of them. It tells us that the means of answering our prayers is not so much through the mediation of Christ, but that we ourselves are being presented to God by Christ. Earlier translations describe Christ as one who is “in the same substance of our flesh,” reiterating the common flesh connection we have through this Christ who lived among us as human even while divine. 

As Jesus himself was presented in the temple by his parents, and blessed by the Spirit of God, so too are we, only we are presented by Jesus himself. Psychologists speak of our ‘inner child’ and often in therapy one looks back to some acknowledgment or loving presence that one longed for as a child or perhaps never knew to seek. Is this why we are called children of God? Why Jesus himself gathered children close and acclaimed them as beloved? Perhaps this is our holy do-over, because here we too become that new child once again, starting over as Jesus brings us to God for blessing in the Spirit. Similar to reaffirming our Baptismal vows, every Candlemas Day we are reminded of ourselves being borne into the temple as beloved children. We are invited to consider, what blessing do we seek this time? How are we that child which Jesus himself bears lovingly to God? What would you have God give you as God’s eternal child that you have hungered for, longed for? 

These tangible symbols, candles, springtime, Candlemas Bells, are easily reminders of the spiritual promise of our faith. This morning we first gathered at our entrance with both candles and ‘Candlemas Bells’ also called snowdrops. These little white flowers (also on the altar today) are often the first blooms to come up as snow melts and winter ebbs. Legend has it that when Adam and Eve were driven out of the beautiful Garden of Eden Eve wept bitterly. She was inconsolable as the snowy winter dragged on as if it would never end. An angel took pity, and caught a snowflake to show her its beauty, and then blowing on it, transformed it into a small white flower —promising it would bloom every year as a reminder that the new life of spring would always come. When the angel left a ring of snowdrops bloomed where he had stood with Eve.  

More widely celebrated in England, Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season, so all Christmas greenery must be removed by Candlemas Eve in preparation. By tradition, it is the first day one may bring ‘Candlemas Bells’ indoors, first bringing them first to the altar to recall the promise of greater light coming, as when the Light of Christ first entered the Temple, fulfilling God’s promise to Simeon and Anna. Many have never observed Candlemas, yet it is in Christian writings as early as 380 ad. It was even a day when people predicted weather patterns, and so is forerunner to our Groundhog Day, again, all about growing light! (When the wind’s in the east on Candlemas Day, there it will stick till the second of May! Or If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another fight. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter won’t come again.) Our candles today are symbolic of Christ’s light coming into the temple, of Christ bearing us to God in that light, and our taking that light out with us. By tradition all the candles to be used for the church year were blessed on Candlemas, and people even brought their own so as to take the blessing of the light home with them. I hope you will take this one home with you today to celebrate Christ’s light in your life and his presence where you live and his blessing in your interior child’s heart.

Candlemas Bells (Snowdrops)

Let’s close in prayer borrowing Eliot’s words:

Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

Grant me thy peace…[And] Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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