There is a lot going on in today’s gospel reading (Luke 2:22-40). It tells of a Jewish rite connected with childbirth and so has various names. It’s the day Jesus was presented in the Temple according to the Hebrew Law. As the first-born male, a sacrifice was required for him. It’s also a day associated with Mary’s purification, where childbirth was viewed as making her unclean. That got transferred into the Book of Common Prayer as the ‘Churching of Women’, something that has more or less died out today.
In Leviticus (12:1-8), if the woman bears a son, she is regarded as being ceremonially unclean for seven days. On the 8th day, the child is circumcised – we remember that as the Naming of Jesus on 1st January. She is then unclean for a further 33 days. The bad news is if she bears a daughter, she is unclean for twice as long. At the end of this period, she is to bring to the priest a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering.
There’s a footnote, if she can’t afford a sheep she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for the burnt-offering and one for the sin-offering. This is significant, because the offering made for Jesus in that gospel reading is the poor person’s offering. Luke keeps Jesus’ humble origins running through this story.
We also have two elderly people, who have been quietly hoping and praying that they would see this day. Faithful Simeon and Anna, both have their dreams fulfilled. For Simeon he now feels he can depart in peace, for he has seen God’s word fulfilled. Today the Lord has come to his Temple and God is redeeming all people, not just the Hebrew people. We go from poor Jew to the salvation of the world in a very short jump.
Those words of light lightening the Gentiles have echoed down the centuries. Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, has been set to music and is one of the canticles at Evensong. Today has been associated with blessing candles, though of course we only tend to use candles today for atmospheric effect – they don’t really provide our light, though we have one on our dinner table each evening, as a reminder of hope and the gathering of the day as we gather for a meal. It glows and illuminates the centre of the table.
The light of hope, the faithful patient waiting of Simeon and Anna are themes for us in this pandemic. On Wednesday we marked Holocaust Memorial Day with the theme ‘Be the light in the darkness’. The darkness there was one of atrocity and hatred, of violence and genocide. But being a light is what we are called to be, which is why we refer to St John’s Church as a beacon in the heart of our city – sadly too cold today to be inside.
A good friend of this city was Chris Duffett, who founded the Light Project as a mission to bless the heart of our city – those you would see wearing their green sweatshirts. It continues and Garden House is being a light, transforming the lives of some of the most broken people on our streets. Chris ends his emails with the simple strapline “Be the light”. It’s a reminder that shining a light means being that light; living it.
As we celebrate Candlemas, we don’t just adore a cute baby, gurgling as an ancient rite is performed for him, of which he is more or less oblivious. It is a day when we greet the fulfilment of promise, the hope made real and the light which shines in the darkness and the darkness is filled with it. Even a tiny spark takes darkness away. Wherever we are, whatever we face, we pray that God will spark in us a flame to shine the light of hope, confidence in promise fulfilled, of saving grace.
Justine Allain Chapman, one of our Lent speakers this year, in her book on ‘The Resilient Disciple’ contrasts Judas and Peter (p71ff). When we are at rock bottom, she says, there are three dangers. We can think it’s all our fault, we can think it will never end, and we can think everything is like this: all my fault, always will be, everywhere.
Candlemas with its spark of hope, says even if we do carry blame there is a way back in God’s love in Jesus Christ. Candlemas says that for faithful Simeon and Anna they saw that salvation comes; it is not always doom. Candlemas says that the light is for everyone everywhere, so as it shines the gloom goes because it does not have the final word.
Candlemas changes our perspective to one of hope and confidence in God. May that light shine for you, in you and through you. ‘Be the light’.
Sermon for Candlemas, Peterborough Parish Church online, Sunday 31st January 2021