Sunday 31st January 2010
Year C, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Luke 2:22-40

One of my favourite pictures so far this year was the satellite image of our country totally white under the snow. We have got used to such wonderful pictures ever since that iconic shot of planet earth from outer space, a blue and green ball in a black sky.

My own favourite, however, is the world photographed at night from outer space, contrasting the total darkness of central Africa and parts of North America with the blazing illumination of artificial light in Holland, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and the South East of England.

In a very direct sense, then, we are not so open to the wonder and charm of Candlemas as those who lived, or still live, without electricity; and at another level, too, we are losing our consciousness of the past, for Candlemas was superimposed on the Pagan festival which marked the half way point between the Winter and Spring Solstices; the tipping point from deep Winter into the hope of Spring.

In the Christian tradition, Candlemas represents the end of the forty days of Christmas and, in Luke's Gospel, bids us to look forward to Lent and the passion and death of Jesus. This year we have two weeks of breathing space between the forty days of Christmas and the forty days of Lent. What might we think about and pray about?

The starting point for our reflection might be Simeon's remarkable speech to Mary, so easy to rush over in the narrative of the Temple. Here is a man who has been promised that he will not die until he has seen the Messiah; and now that he sees the baby, he foretells that the career of this promised Messiah will not be uniformly glorious. Jesus may become a light to lighten the gentiles and be the glory of his people Israel; but Mary's heart will be pierced by a sword of sorrow which we associate with the lance that pierced the side of the dead Jesus, just before he was taken down from the Cross.

What might this mean? Naturally enough, we all share in the joy of Christmas, in the birth of the baby, in the presents and the good cheer; but do we share equally intensely in the pain of Jesus and his mother? One of the issues we need to face is a tendency to understand the drama of the Crucifixion in symbolic terms, not really thinking about the individual real people who suffered distress and pain. Whatever our way of understanding the purpose of the Crucifixion, we all hold in common the absolute conviction that the real, human Jesus suffered terrible pain and humiliation and was the subject of a judicial murder which his mother lived through.

And then there is Mary, who only flickers in an out of the Gospels, alluded to in Mark and Matthew, mentioned by her title in John and named in Luke/Acts

There is no justice in pain. Not only was Jesus the victim of injustice; but Mary and all those who suffer for what happens to their children have to accept what has happened. Our children do things of which we disapprove, or they hurt us and we simply have to accept. Love, in this context does not operate as a reciprocal relationship in which they love us because we love them; we love them so that they will love their children. Love is not a boomerang: it goes on and on and on.

But we are all too apt to be concerned with what is just and, even less realistically, what we think is fair. We cannot equate earthly justice and fairness with the divine will within which we live as creatures of our creator. We are all too apt to want to control our lives and when there is an earthquake, or even a snow flurry, we are thrown down from our pedestals of pride back into the ordinariness of creatures; but such a state of lowliness in our own eyes never seems to last for long.

That sense of precariousness and vulnerability and the warmth of being God's child, are all encapsulated in the candle. This is not a steady emitter like an electric bulb that can be switched on and off; this is not a prize winning object in the health and safety catalogue but an object with the potential to cause severe damage. And yet, there is something about the candle, about its warmth and light, that takes us beyond the purely functional. A candle makes us smile. To the Medieval world it was a necessity but to us it is an object from which the practical has departed; it is now a symbol of our involvement in sacred ritual.

The loveliness and precariousness of fire and light in the candle is a fitting metaphor for our condition. What we might think about between now and Ash Wednesday is the way in which we rank control and precision above a humble evaluation of who we are as creatures. We might do that in the light of what we know about Mary; but the danger is always that we will sentimentalise. We know so little about the Mother of Jesus that people tend to make her in the image they want. WE must be very careful of male clerics transforming pure humility into submissiveness. The teenage girl who said to God, through the Angel Gabriel "Be it done unto me according to thy word" also said of the Lord, to be made incarnate in Jesus: "He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek". If we are to form any true picture of Mary at all, it will be one of radical and unconditional commitment. Before chemists discovered how to make a lovely deep blue paint, Mary was portrayed dressed in red. I often wish it had stayed that way.

So in this time of reflection ahead, before we are embedded in the rhythm of Lent, we might allow the flickering candles we hold today in church to come with us into our homes where we can consider our lives in the flickering light of all that we know and even more of that we do not know; all that we control and all that we do not control; all that we feel entitled to and all that God gives us as pure gift.

All we know about Simeon is that God kept his promise that he would live until he saw Jesus; but there is another participant who comes briefly into the story and then is heard of no more. On the face of it, Annah had rather a bleak life, with a brief marriage and then an almost interminable widowhood. But she praised the Lord in the Temple every day.