The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas) - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)

Luke 2:22-40

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22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;

23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)

24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.

26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ.

27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,

28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

33 And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.

34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;

37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.

38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.

40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

I worked out the other day that my first ever visit to Rome was exactly thirty five years ago this week.  I was a Classics student at the time, and steeped in the history and literature of the Classical world, so I was absolutely blown away by the experience. 

And my trip there came at a time when I also happened to be exploring the Christian faith for the first time in my adult life, so it was a very significant visit for me for that reason too.  And my experience of the churches in Rome was an interesting one.  Mostly I was overwhelmed by their sheer beauty: even the most insignificant little church on an ordinary street corner would be filled with the most breathtaking frescoes, and mosaics, and works of art. 

But there was one feature of those otherwise exquisite places of worship which, I have to say, I found really quite difficult: namely, the electronic candles.  I was accustomed to the kind of votive light stand, where you can light candles for those for whom you pray, like the one that we have at our Journalists' altar over there.  But this was a set-up where you put your lira in the slot (for this was in the days before the mighty Euro, dear children), and a nasty little electric light on an automated pricket stand, would light up.  It operated like a rather naff religious slot machine.  And yet, those wretched devices were everywhere, even in the most exquisitely beautiful historic churches.

Interestingly, I realised on reflection it was not simply the rather unfortunate aesthetic dimension to this that was troubling me.  It was also something much more basic to do with the nature of candles.  Because for me, one of the really important things about real wax candles is that they not only give light and heat - they also weep.  There is a song by Joni Mitchell that contains the lines: 'In the church they light the candles/and the wax rolls down like tears/ here is the hope and the hopelessness/I've witnessed thirty years.'   Candles generate both light and tears.  Which is why automated electronic candles that switch on at the receipt of a coin, really don't do it for me.

And there is another side to candles as well; because they can also burn.  Many years ago, when I was first exploring the my vocation to the ordained ministry, a very wise priest of my acquaintance likened the priestly ministry to 'handling sacred flame': the sacred flame of the things of God; and the sacred flame of all that is precious in the lives of the people one is called to serve.  And his salutary warning to me, which has stayed with me ever since was this: 'Hands that handle sacred flame can become calloused and hard.'   Over the years, I have certainly known clergy to whom that has happened. I sincerely hope I shall never become one of them.

Today, the feast of Candlemas - when we celebrate the Presentation of Christ in the Temple - is a curiously bittersweet festival in the Church's calendar.  Traditionally it is the day on which, in some churches, candles are blessed for use during the coming year - hence the name. 

At one level today is an occasion for joyful celebration: as we heard in our Gospel reading a moment ago, the child Jesus is recognised with joy by the aged Simeon, who knows him to be God's chosen Messiah; the Saviour of Israel; the one for whom he has been waiting so patiently for so many years.  And that moment of recognition takes place within the Jerusalem temple, the sacred heart of Israelite worship; the dwelling place of God.  It is a wonderful moment of revelation, when Simeon rejoices that, because he has at last seen the promised Messiah with his own eyes, after so many long years of waiting, he can now die in peace. 

Every Sunday evening, at our service of Evensong, we hear Simeon's words set to music, as the Nunc Dimittis, which begins:  Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.

And yet, as we learn from what Simeon says next, what lies in store, both for this miraculous child, and for those whom he has come to save, will be far from easy or straightforward.  For he goes on to utter these words: 'This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.'   

This is a Messiah whose arrival brings turbulence and opposition in his wake; a Messiah who brings to light things that are now hidden in darkness, and who, simply by his presence within the world, will generate hatred and opposition.  Because to have the darkest parts of our lives, the darkest parts of our souls, exposed by the searing light of God's love, can be a profoundly discomforting and disconcerting experience, which many will resist.  Indeed, our own core instinct may well be to recoil or to resist, as we desperately attempt to cover our spiritual nakedness with the fig-leaf of our own self-delusion. 

But Simeon's final words, directed to Mary, are the most startling of all - even chilling.  Words that, interestingly enough, are omitted from the Nunc Dimittis.  Because his closing message to her is this: 'And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.'

Being the special recipient of God's favour can be a decidedly mixed blessing, as Mary discovers to her cost.  Because the one who loves most also grieves most - a truth in human life that transcends both time and culture.

The one who loves most also grieves most.   And those who bring the most light into the world, will, by the same token, also shed the most tears.  Because ultimately it is compassion that generates both light and tears.  And our God is a God of compassion.

However, just any gift of life and love will inevitably be accompanied by the possibility of death and loss, so too, the bleakest of situations in life can sometimes give rise to the most astonishing and most unexpected gifts, that bring new life and new hope in their wake. 

The Methodist writer on spirituality, Neville Ward, once wrote: 'We all live hurt and hurting lives ... But our lives are also the kind that are shaken periodically by beauty and other intensity of happiness, and again and again we are saved by love.'   And sometimes it is from precisely within the deepest darkness, and the most profound despair, that new light first dawns.

On this Candlemas Sunday, it is right that we rejoice at the light that has come into our midst; but we should also remember that, just as candles bring illumination, they can also sear with their heat'; and that candles weep: 'their wax rolls down like tears'. 

Redemption is real; redemption is ours; but no one has ever claimed that redemption is easy.


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