Sunday 31 January 2021
Candlemas – The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Readings: Malachi 3:1-5, Luke 2:22-40
I have a slight concern with the Church of England at the moment. Actually, I have lots of concerns both for and about the Church of England at the moment, but today’s is this:
Sometimes I wonder if we are so keen for everyone to like us and hopefully to join us and hopefully to put a bit of money in the pot that we can keep the roof watertight that we make our faith all about the niceness and never about the challenge. We always say: “Come as you are” but rarely: “Have you thought about allowing God to change you?” We are happy to coo over the baby of Christmas but reluctant to let the lessons of the adult Jesus threaten our way of life.
And although we are now over a month from Christmas, in fact today closes the season of Epiphany even for the most dedicated decoration enthusiasts, we are back to seeing Jesus as a baby, being passed around among the adults for them to wonder at, with the resultant temptation to sentimentality that brings. But we must resist our brains being bypassed by this cute imagery to focus on, and listen to, what is actually happening here.
Mary and Joseph were devout Jews and, under the law of Moses, Mary had come to be ritually cleansed. Leviticus 12 says that 8 days after a son was born he should be circumcised and 33 days after that the mother should go to a priest and offer a lamb as a burnt offering or, if she could not afford a lamb, she should take two doves or two pigeons. This offering was for the women to be purified from the ritual uncleanliness of childbirth and there were echoes of that tradition in the churching of women.
In addition, Jesus, as the first-born son, was being offered or presented to God, hence the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This was in accordance with Exodus 13:2,12 – “Consecrate to me every first born male.” and “Redeem every firstborn among your sons”. This was in memory and thanksgiving of the Passover in Egypt, when the first-born children of the Israelites were spared.
So, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to fulfil these requirements of the law. When people talk about Jesus being either anti-Temple or anti-Law it is useful to remember him in this context, not to mention his teaching at the Temple as a boy and his later zeal to maintain the Temple as a place of prayer by driving out the money changers.
But, whilst the Holy Family were there, they had the remarkable encounters with Simeon and Anna.
Simeon and Anna have at least two things in common, one minor and one major. First it seems that they were both well on in years. We are told that Anna had reached the age of 84 and, whilst we are not told Simeon’s age expressly, we are certainly given the impression that he is on the verge of death and has been hanging on for this moment. God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah and, when he saw Jesus, Simeon’s words, are saying that he can now die in peace:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people. To be a light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
Simeon didn’t actually speak in the King James Version but these words are familiar to regular church goers as the Nunc Dimittis, which is part of our Evening Prayer and sung at Evensong.
Although this scene could hardly be more Jewish, Simeon makes it clear that Jesus is not merely the consolation of Israel for which he has been waiting but is also a light to the gentiles, which is the whole, non-Jewish world. It is of course that imagery of Jesus as light coming into the world which we represent when we give a lit candle to the newly baptised and which we represent here today with our own candles for candlemas.
So far this all sounds quite positive but, and here is where we need to get over the cute baby imagery, even now there is a foreshadowing that this will not be an easy or pain free journey. Speaking specifically to Mary Simeon says that Jesus will cause the rising and falling of many, which echoes Mary’s own song the Magnificat, that he will be spoken against and that even Mary will not be spared from having a sword pierce her own soul. We only need to think about Mary standing at the foot of the cross to see the truth in that.
This baby will change things – it will change things for the powerful but also for you.
Simeon’s words also contains echoes of the prophecy of Malachi, which was our first reading this morning, and this makes it even clearer that when the Lord comes into his Temple things are going to change:
“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come into his Temple…But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiners’ fire…he will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver…then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…”
How is silver refined? It is heated until it melts and all the dross is scooped off. It leaves the silver purer but the melting and the scooping away of dross may not be a comfortable experience. The coming of the Lord into his temple, which is what we see and celebrate today, is not intended to be a cute montage of older people celebrating a new baby which affects nothing. Rather it signifies that the old order has passed away, that God is doing a new thing.
But Simeon and Anna have something even more important in common than their great age. Both Simeon and Anna were blessed by the Holy Spirit. We are told expressly in v.25 that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and we know that Anna was blessed by the Holy Spirit too as prophecy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit in both Simeon and Anna revealed to them that this baby Jesus was the Christ child and through them it was revealed to others – to Mary and Joseph, to others in the Temple and to us through the words of scripture. We should never think that the Holy Spirit forces people to do things against their will – if Simeon or Anna had not been open to the work and prompting of the Holy Spirit in their lives they simply would not have been there and this encounter would never have happened.
So, today, let us not get distracted by cute babies. Let us remember that when God comes into his Temple, which could be the Temple in Jerusalem, it could be this church and it could be the temple of your life, that things will change. Silver will be refined, but the burning away of dross may not always be comfortable. Today we remember the epiphanies of Simeon and Anna, as they welcomed and proclaimed the coming of the Christ to the world, we give thanks for the insight granted to them by the Holy Spirit and we pray that the same Holy Spirit which rests on us through our baptisms and on the church because of Pentecost will also grant us the gift to recognise Christ and be unafraid to proclaim to the world the coming of the light of the world.
May the prompting of God the Holy Spirit lead us always towards Jesus who is God the Son who lifts always towards God the Father.