On 29 January we celebrated Candlemas. Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 24, Malachi 3:1-5, Luke 2:22-40.
Candlemas falls 40 days after Christmas, though the number of days may vary if we move the celebration to our Sunday worship as we have this year. It is a festival full of so many meanings that it can be difficult to take it all in. Perhaps for that reason it has acquired four names to somehow encompass as much as possible.
First of all, we remember the ritual ‘Purification of the Virgin Mary’. After the birth of a son, Jewish custom demanded that a woman went to the temple to be ritually purified, having been classed as unclean for 7 days and then required to stay at home for the next 33 days. At this time, the health of the child was also prayed for, as this was considered to be a time when mortal danger for the child had passed. Luke tells us that the customary sacrifice was made, being a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons. This was in fact the sacrifice given by the poor. Had Mary and Joseph been better off they would have offered a lamb and a pigeon. Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, had to pay the reduced rate for those in straitened circumstances.
The second name for this festival is ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’, marking the end of Christmastide. This glimpse of the Incarnation is the last for some years in the Gospels. Jesus will next be revealed when he is 12 and visits the Temple once more, and then as an adult coming for baptism before beginning his ministry. The firstborn son of a family was presented to God, dedicated to him for life. Normally the son was then bought back for five shekels. Luke doesn’t tell us about Jesus being bought back, perhaps to imply that Jesus is wholly God’s.
The Orthodox Church has a very simple name for this feast: ‘The Meeting’ or ‘The Encounter’. The bulk of the Gospel passage is about the infant Jesus and his family encountering Simeon and Anna, meeting with those who had been looking for his coming over a long period of time.
Simeon was an old man, ‘righteous and devout’. He was not someone who simply went through the motions when it came to faith, like many of the Pharisees. He was serious about it, waiting for the deliverance of Israel. As a result, we are told that the Holy Spirit was upon him. As he was open to God, diligently looking for what God had promised, the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would see the Messiah before he died.
Simeon’s hearing might not have been as acute as it once was, but he was so attuned to God that he heard the message to go to the Temple, a place he no doubt spent a lot of time in. Simeon’s eyesight may have been failing with age, but the eyes of his spirit were open and he was able to see God’s promise in the guise of a baby boy, an ordinary baby, barely 6 weeks old, belonging to a poor family. He was not blinded by the hopes of a warrior Messiah that were prevalent at that time. He was open to what God wanted to show him, even if it didn’t look anything like what he might have expected. He was not limiting God by his expectations.
Maybe Simeon’s arms were no longer strong enough to do a day’s heavy work, but they were ready to welcome the child and hold him high. Maybe his voice quavered a little, but still he lifted it up in a song of praise to God for his faithfulness in fulfilling his promise. Perhaps Simeon forgot the odd thing now and again, but he had not forgotten the words of the psalmist and Isaiah which told that God promised universal redemption. Not for Simeon the small-minded purity which raised Jews above all other peoples, even their near neighbours and distant relatives, the Samaritans. God was for all nations; none was beyond his reach. Old age might have moved Simeon off the list of men of Israel able to bear arms, but he still had the courage to deliver a difficult message to Mary: ‘and a sword will pierce through your own soul also’. He was prepared to interrupt the wonderful experience of new motherhood to turn Mary’s attention, and ours, from joy to sorrow, from light to darkness, from Christmas to Good Friday. For Simeon, failing physical abilities did not mean failing spiritual strength.
What about Anna, who seems to fade into the background in this story? Luke considered her important enough to tell us some detail. Her name in Hebrew would have been Hannah, the same as that of Samuel’s mother, meaning ‘gracious’. Her father was Phanuel, another version of Penuel, which means ‘face of God’. Anna was of the tribe of Asher, which had disobeyed God and not eliminated the Canaanites but lived alongside them. All knowledge of the tribe disappeared when the Assyrians took over their land, until we come across Anna.
Anna represents so many groups of people who are on the margins of society. She was married seven years but no children are mentioned so we can assume she was barren, a terrible stigma when a woman gained her status from her family. She was a widow, so she was poor as she had no one to support her. Presumably she stayed a widow because no man wanted to risk marrying a barren woman. She was female and so couldn’t even go far into the Temple to worship God but had to stay in the Court of Women, where the Gentiles went. She was of a tribe which rejected God’s commands and turned its back on the other tribes.
Anna had good reason to feel sorry for herself, maybe to be angry with her lot, angry with God even, but we’re told that she worshipped God day and night, spending her time in the Temple fasting and praying. She was an ordinary person with extraordinary faith, waiting with patience for what God had promised and never giving up hope. By spending so long in God’s company, being changed by the worship, she became known as a prophetess, someone with acknowledged spiritual depth and insight. I wonder how many people sought her out to comfort and counsel them. The authorities may not have regarded Anna highly but it seems that the people did.
Like Simeon, Anna was watching and waiting to see what God would do. She too saw an ordinary baby and recognised the Messiah. She gave thanks to God and then spent her time spreading the good news of what she had seen to all who had hearts ready to receive it. Despite the unfaithfulness of her tribe, Anna, the remnant, was faithful. Human standards may have pushed her to the margins of society but God brought her into the centre of his plan for the salvation of all.
If we will put aside our preconceived ideas and look with expectant hearts, as Simeon and Anna did, we too will see God’s love revealed. It will probably be in the ordinary, the everyday, the unremarkable and in one another. It will show itself to be for all, not just for the chosen few.
And so to the fourth name for this festival – Candlemas. This was the day when the church used to bless its candles for the year and has been observed in Jerusalem since the 4th century AD. The candle is a symbol of hope and reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the World, or as Simeon said, ‘a light to enlighten the Gentiles.’
We too are called to be lights burning in a world of darkness, pointing with Simeon and Anna to Jesus, THE Light. The light we carry is not the feeble light of our own, a flickering candle flame, but the unquenchable and brilliant light of Christ. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Nor will it ever do!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor