Preacher Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Today we celebrate the great feast of Candlemas, or as it is known in the Book of Common Prayer,
“The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, commonly called “The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin”. In Common Worship it is one of the nine principal feasts of the Christian year. Candlemas is the culmination – the end point – of the great season of Christmas/Epiphanytide. The feast technically falls on 2nd February but we keep it today as the nearest Sunday. It is a feast rich in meaning, with several different interwoven themes – presentation, purification, meeting, light. The several names by which it has been known in Christian history help to show how much it has to teach us. It is a pivotal moment in the Church year, when we take one last look back at Christmas and the Incarnation, and then turn to look ahead to Lent and the cross.
The feast commemorates the purification of Mary after giving birth to Jesus – the requirement after child-birth as set out in Leviticus chapter 12 of the Old Testament, to take place 40 days after the actual birth. And the feast also commemorates the presentation of Christ in the Temple. The feast was kept locally in Jerusalem from about 350 AD first on 14 February and then later on 2nd February. In 542 AD the Emperor Justinian ordered its observance as a thanksgiving for the end of a plague, and after that it spread throughout the East where it was called “The Meeting”, that was of Christ with Simeon. Later still it began to be kept widely in the West.
The blessing and lighting of candles is now the distinctive feature of the liturgy for Candlemas in the West. Beeswax candles are blessed, distributed and lit and carried in procession while the Nunc Dimittis is sung, commemorating the entrance of Christ, the True Light, into the Temple.
Before further reflection on the feast of Candlemas itself, let’s focus on our Old Testament reading today from Malachi. In well-known words the passage begins,
“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”.
And then the messenger is later described as a “refiner’s fire”. The book of Malachi dating from the late fourth century BC was compiled within a society that contained sorcerers, perjurers, corrupt employers and landowners. So what’s new, you might ask? This sorry state of affairs leads to a series of charges in the book, as God and the people dialogue together. In our passage today God responds by objecting to the view that God is unable to deal with evil-doers and right injustice. Instead God declares that a messenger will come to the temple with the purpose of cleansing and warning the people. It is strong stuff. Perhaps this prophecy is most obviously fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus when he cleanses the Temple and angrily chases off the extortionist money-changers in the Temple by overturning the tables and using a whip of cords against them.
But today’s feast by contrast shows Jesus entering the Temple as a mere 40 days old baby, meekly carried into the Temple in his mother’s arms. Three ritual ceremonies are included in the gospel account from Luke – the purification of the mother Mary, the redemption of the first-born, and the presentation of the child to the service of God. When the parents arrive with Jesus in the Temple, the old man Simeon comes and acknowledges Jesus to be the Christ. This is the moment Simeon has been waiting for, and he bursts into joyous song in the words known to us as the Nunc Dimittis, the song sung since at the monastic office of Compline, and also in Cranmer’s conflation of Vespers and Compline in his version of Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. The traditional words are hauntingly beautiful:
“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 boldly proclaims Jesus to be the light of the world, as well as the glory of his own people of faith.
Then another elderly wise and holy person enters the scene, Anna the prophet. She too bursts into praise. It is a wonderful picture of the wisdom of old age paying homage to innocent youth – not even youth, but infancy, with the adoring parents looking on in wonderment.
There are very many paintings of this Biblical scene. You can google them on the internet. I did so yesterday. I particularly admired one by Fra Angelico, the Italian artist who lived from 1395-1455. It is a serene scene. Four saintly adult figures – Joseph, Mary, Simeon and Anna – stand greeting one another between two columns of pillars of the Temple. Simeon holds the young child Jesus in his arms, while Mary looks on expectantly. It is a moment full of mystic meaning as Simeon blesses the baby Jesus, saviour of the world. There is a bitter-sweet tone to Simeon’s words as he prophesies that the child will be a sign that will be opposed and that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul also.
On this great feast of Candlemas we recall how Jesus was presented to God in the Temple, the most holy of all the sacred places of his religious faith. We too today are called to present ourselves anew to God in worship – to put the past and its failings behind us, and to focus on the living God who loves us and who calls us to a life of deepening holiness. May we also look ahead to Lent and Holy Week and the commitment to follow in the way of Christ that will inevitably mean sharing to some extent in his walk to Calvary.
But in our hearts there is the light of hope, just as the candles we will hold alight today display a sense of light in an often all too dark world. God calls us to share in the light of Christ – to bring help and comfort to others by that message of hope and light, and to re-awaken our dedication to God in the renewal of our daily lives. So as we process with lighted candles at the end of this service and take as it were one last look back at Christmas, giving thanks for the great gift of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, let us also look ahead with expectancy – the way ahead may be uncertain and even filled with difficulties and challenges for many, but with Christ as our guide we may be confident of his presence with us and his strength to sustain us, as we follow in his way even to the cross and beyond to newness of life. Amen.