A sermon for the Parish Eucharist preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 2nd February, The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas), by the Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar
We can suppose, I think, that in the days after the birth of Jesus, Joseph had been able to find a more comfortable lodging with members of his own family in Bethlehem. We have already had the account of Jesus being circumcised at eight days and now we come to the next step in the rituals as laid down by Jewish law for a new baby. It was Mary who now forty days after the birth (eighty days if the baby is a girl!) needed to perform the ritual of purification. An offering of a lamb was the usual sacrifice but in the case of Mary and Joseph they offer what was called the ‘offering of the poor’ two pigeons. As with the birth in the stable we have the Saviour of the world identifying with the poor. As well as making Mary ritually clean so that she could attend worship, the ceremony also was a way of giving thanks to God for the gift of her child.
This is like something we used to do in the Church of England through the service of ‘Churching’ and some of you may remember that service and indeed been part of it as I have. Today we have another service called a ‘Thanksgiving for the gift of a child’ sadly it is not very well used and I have only used it for family members, but it’s a lovely way of giving thanks and of welcoming a new child into the world. It’s a shame more people do not use it as it is a very special way of marking the gift of a child, their safe delivery and that of the mother.
Simeon is an interesting person; a watcher and a waiter; a man not to be rushed. We perhaps imagine him as a reassuring person and the words known to us today as the Nunc Dimittis we perhaps think of as soothing and comforting. We recite it during evensong and in the late-night office of Compline just before bedtime. It often used in funeral services too. Simeon can take his leave of this life in the knowledge that the saviour has arrived; a saviour who will bring light to both the Jews and the Gentiles.
But, if we look at what Simeon says to Mary later on, he delivers a much darker message. Simeon foresees not a journey in sunlight but rather a journey through the valley of the shadow of death: the end destination may be glorious, but the route takes us along the Via Dolorosa; this babe in his arms was born to be a crucified king. Even the imagery of the babe wrapped in swaddling bands reminds us of a body wrapped for burial. For Mary, I wonder if the full understanding of these words didn’t hit her until she knelt at the foot of the cross and as the spear pierced the side of Jesus so it pierced her heart too, was it then that she remembered the words of Simeon?
I wonder as Anna watched from afar this conversation whether she could see, mother to mother, the anguish, and the pain, which had already begun to creep across Mary’s face. They had enjoyed these early days, getting to know their new baby, holding him close loving him. They had laughed at the funny faces he pulled or the strange sounds he gurgled; become worried when he cried and looked on adoringly as he slept.
Anna we are told had spent her life in the Temple; she never ceased to worship, she never ceased to pray. But she had been on her own for a long time, a widow for perhaps 60 years; she was familiar with pain and isolation, yet the years had left Anna full of hope, her life strengthened by her close relationship with God. Anna appears very briefly in the great scheme of the life of Christ. A passing figure mentioned in the shadow of greatness. However, for Anna this wasn’t a brief action. For Anna it was years of worship, years of waiting. Years of devotion culminating in one amazing gift, meeting Jesus on the day he is presented to the temple. She watched as Simeon spoke to a young family; she listened as he declared the coming of the saviour; and she bathed in the light that came among them. It was as if the light and darkness which had been separated at the beginning of time were united once again and darkness no longer existed.
The story of Simeon and Anna is one of the most beautiful in our scriptures. These two old people, both so devout have much to teach us about the virtue of looking forward to the new age of God’s future. Of being patient; of quietly watching and praying and of the value of the wisdom which comes with the years
And so today, Candlemas, we come to the end of our Christmas celebration – 40 days’ worth. Today we take the crib down and our focus starts to point towards Lent and then to Holy Week and Easter. Simeon too knew that the joy of the birth of the saviour would not last forever; his words to Mary are about her future suffering. Few would be able to remain neutral after meeting Jesus. They would either be for him or against him; already the shadow of the cross hangs over the baby and his mother. The tradition of bringing the candles to be used in church for the coming year to be blessed is how today got its name. But it also reminds us that with the birth of Jesus the world has the opportunity to choose to walk in the light of Christ. With the example of Simeon and Anna to inspire us may we walk with faithfulness and patience in the light of Christ.