Feb. 2, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Feb 2, 2020 in Epiphany, Feast Days, Sermons

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

February 2, 2020

Today we see the last glimpse of Jesus as an infant, and this moment in the temple is our pivot from Christmastide toward Easter. Today is the start of preparations for all that Jesus will become, heard through the words of the prophet Anna and blessed Simeon, and seen through the actions of Joseph and Mary. Though many Episcopalians have never observed it before, The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas Day, has been celebrated since the 4th century. Originally infant presentations and purification blessings were carried out in accordance with the law set forth in Leviticus, prayers being offered when mother and child entered the tent or Temple for the first time. (Fathers didn’t have to wait.) The word February is from the Latin word februum meaning purification. For a while the emphasis in the Christian church was on the purification of the mother, then prayers for the child became increasingly prominent until the service was entirely centered on giving thanks for the birth or adoption of a baby. Soon this day about the infant Christ’s light was associated with candles, originally carried by the woman as she knelt at the entrance to the church, and by the 7th century everyone sang their way in by a candlelight procession—just as we did this morning.

Amidst our candles out there and here at the altar are ‘Candlemas Bells’ (also called snowdrops) which are a sign of purity and of life breaking through the ‘death’ of winter. They are often the first blooms to come up as snow begins to melt. “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas Day.” Flowers grown from bulbs are also symbols of the resurrection; new life coming from what appears dead. In early days, all the church candles to be used for the year were blessed on Candlemas, and people brought their own too as many of us do today, so as to take the blessing of the light out into the world and into our homes as we embody our faith. (If you didn’t come with one, please take one with you today to signify Christ’s light in your life.)

Candlemas occurs just when we are wearied by the long winter nights and rainy days, between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, as we begin to glimpse lengthening days and growing light. We internalize this shift as a spiritual turning point, as we turn towards our relationship with Christ as God’s plan of salvation for all the world. Picture the scene, these four adults gathered around the infant Christ; the aged prophet Anna watches the young mother Mary as she hands her infant son to the elder Simeon who reaches for him. Is she surrendering her son to the world and to what his future holds? By tradition Joseph and Mary’s presentation of their son for blessing honored the Genesis idea of the first-born belonging to God in a special way. What calls our attention though is how this event with Simeon and Anna shifts us from seeing Jesus as the center of the Bethlehem birth narrative, with his identity confirmed and his lineage named, to the greater truth acknowledged by Anna and Simeon’s holy expectation; in the Christmas story we know who Jesus is. Now the focus is on what Jesus will do.

They went as faithful people do, to their place of worship to give thanks—this time for a child. They likely didn’t expect to hear prophesy and revelation, but we hear God speak in our lives when we are present and listening, faithful and intentional. Faith is the fabric of life, woven of love, trust, constancy, ritual, questions, and prayer. In our coming together we have glimpses of God, we glean a holy perspective, invest ourselves in sacred ways to understand the complexities, the joys, the fears, in life. We become tuned to recognize the Spirit’s song when she is revealed in the unexpected. Here we too grow to know both who we are as Christians and also what we do as Christians—and why. This is boldly and simply symbolized by the light you carried in today, and which you will take out into the world bringing the light of Christ’s love to whatever lies ahead.

In this liturgy and its scriptures we know to our bones this is a theocentric moment; leading us to focus on God’s presence a promise fulfilled in the whole unfolding life of Jesus. I’d encourage you to take your bulletins home and read both today’s Collect prayer and Psalm 84 as you relight your candles, their light blessing the space. Interestingly that Collect sheds peculiar light on what we do this day—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 other Sundays the collect speaks of Jesus the Christ as our conduit or way through to the fullness of God. This 10th century prayer and has evolved some over these many years, but the theology illumined in this tiny word “by” (instead of “through”) has been there from the beginning. It says we ourselves are being presented to God by Christ. As Jesus himself was presented in the temple by his parents, and blessed by the Spirit of God, so too are we. As beloved children of God we are presented by Jesus himself.

Psychologists speak of our ‘inner child’ and we sometimes look back at our childhoods for a loving or accepting experience, or one we longed for, or perhaps never knew to seek. Jesus himself gathered children close and acclaimed them as beloved, calling all people children of God. Perhaps this is our holy do-over, because here we become that new child once again, starting over as Jesus brings us to God for blessing in the Spirit. Every Candlemas Day we are reminded of ourselves being borne into the temple as beloved children. We are invited to consider, what blessing do you, as God’s eternal child, hunger for, long for, hope for?

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 42 times throughout the New Testament and in every other instance it is translated to mean one thing; resurrection! That’s what Anna and Simeon recognize in this holy infant, not with words or creeds or detailed foreknowledge, perhaps not even with consciousness. 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. Their regular coming to God in prayer and presence has made them practiced at recognizing God’s grace. That is what I pray for each of us. That our faith is deepened and strengthened so that we are like Anna and Simeon blessed by such seeing and recognizing. They were freed into the peace of God by what they lived to see, even if not the whole of Jesus’ life. Where have you, like watchful Anna and Simeon, seen the presence of Christ in those around you this week? Was there a moment made sacred by such joy coming into your day, and did you proclaim it aloud as they did?

I pray that we are like Joseph and Mary; rewarded by their faithful obedience to God’s ways, and especially that we too present Christ to others. Everywhere we go, every phone call and email and post are opportunities like theirs, to carry Christ in your arms and offer him to those who wait, to those who need you to bring his love and his light. Your ongoing prayer and faithfulness give you eyes to see and a heart to recognize what might otherwise be missed in our busy world, and the courage to reveal it to those who await the good news.

The gospel is not a simple thing. It is filled with tension and questions, joy and sorrow—sometimes all at once. The bedrock of God we stand on in all of these things gives us faith strong enough to navigate such messiness, not avoid it. Coming together in that faith helps us to be strong when we feel weak, to rest and be renewed in a place of grace. It gives us perspective and insights on the complexities or fears in life, because true spiritual friendship doesn’t mete out easy canned answers or pretend life is without suffering. On this Candlemas Day remember that the Christ light you carry within you brings his light to whomever and whatever might lie ahead.

Episcopalian and British-born poet Luci Shaw (now living in Bellingham, WA) wrote of Simeon;

Expectant, though never knowing quite
what he was watching for, the old man
had waited out the years of a long life
to be in the right place,
at the right time.

How many generations of crying babies
brought by new parents into the holy precincts
for dedication? …Yet, when they
came with their child and their pigeons,
and when the man Simeon, seized by Spirit,
took the infant in his arms, his eyes
looked into the eyes of God; there was
the flash of absolute knowing.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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