The month of January is about to finish. It gets its name from the Roman god Janus. He was the spirit of doorways and archways and possibly first of all was the god of beginnings. All first days, of weeks, months, years and agricultural seasons, were sacred to him. It makes sense, therefore, that the month of January is named after him. He is shown as a double-faced head, facing two ways at once.
At the beginning of the year, we too met here in the Cathedral and faced two ways at once. We used the ancient practice of the ‘examen’ to review the year past. We then turned to face the new year by dedicating ourselves to God’s service in the words of the Methodist Covenant Prayer.
I wonder if you noticed that the introduction to today’s service also has us looking in two directions:
“Today we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.”
“Looking back to the day of his birth”: we look back to Christmas as we come to the end of the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. The stable, which has graced the Peace Garden in this season, disappears for another year. The angels, shepherds and wise men fade into the background.
“Looking … forward to the coming days of his passion”: Lent will soon be upon us, beginning on 10 February which is Ash Wednesday, followed by Holy Week and Easter. So soon after celebrating the wonderful story of a miraculous birth, we have to turn our attention to the suffering of the adult Jesus. It all seems to rush in too quickly.
Mary and Joseph, in bringing Jesus to the Temple, were looking back and forwards also. After forty days the most critical time in a baby’s life had passed. There was a reasonable chance that it would survive. And so, looking back with gratitude to that first Christmas and mother and baby’s survival of the rigours of childbirth, according to the Law, Mary and Joseph came to give thanks to God. Mary’s purification meant that she could once more enter fully into society. Once Mary and Joseph had provided the required sacrifices to redeem their baby, they could look forward to bringing up their first-born son.
It’s in those sacrifices that this celebration of Candlemas looks forward to Holy Week. In Exodus, as God was leading the people out of Egypt, he told Moses: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” Every firstborn of the Egyptians had died in that final act of God’s to rescue his people, but the firstborn in the families of the people of Israel had survived. The idea of buying back the firstborn probably comes from an ancient custom when firstborn sons were actually killed in an act of thanksgiving to a god. And so the blood of ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons’ was the price paid to redeem Jesus. Some thirty years later, in the events of Holy Week, Jesus’ own blood was the price paid to redeem each of us.
Simeon too looked both back and forward:
‘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.’
In his song of praise, Simeon recalled God’s word to him in the past which was being fulfilled there in the Temple. He remembered that God had prepared salvation, and had spoken about this through the prophets such as Malachi in centuries past. In his words to Mary, Simeon looked forward to the events of Holy Week also: ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ The salvation, which God had prepared for everyone who would accept it, was costly.
We look back and we look forward in terms of the story of salvation as it unfolds in the Church Year with the two great festivals of Christmas and Easter. We also look back to the first coming of Jesus on that first Christmas and look forward to when he will come again, “to judge the living and dead” as the Nicene Creed says and as we heard in the opening of this service: “Today we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement.”
What do we do while we wait?
Simeon called Jesus “a light”. Last week the churches of Latvia drew our attention to our own call to be salt and light in the world. At the end of this service we will hold candles to remind ourselves that Jesus is the light of the world. In so doing, we also remember that we too are commissioned to be light in the world. As it says in the baptism service in the Church of England as the newly baptised receives a candle: “Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father.”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor