Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Eve of Candlemas 2013
1 February 2013 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
This great and beautiful feast of Candlemas points us both backwards and forwards in the Church’s Year. It points us backward to Christmas and forward to the season of Lent and Easter so soon to come upon us.
Backward to Christmas: because this marks the end of the Christmas season. Forty days after Christmas, the time for purification had come and the parents of Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem to present their baby to the Lord. They came to offer the sacrifices on behalf of their first-born child required by the law of Moses, to give thanks to the Lord their God for the gift of a son.
St Luke tells us not, as we might have expected, of the priests receiving the new-born baby but of two old people, Simeon and Anna, delighted to recognise this child as the one they had looked for and longed for, that Israel itself had looked for and longed for, the Messiah, the Christ. Simeon, old, righteous and devout, was looking forward to the consolation of Israel, perhaps to the peace of Israel, perhaps to its freedom from the Roman yoke. The Holy Spirit rested on him and had assured him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Now the Spirit led him into the temple. Simeon took the baby Jesus into his arms and uttered what have become the familiar words of the Nunc dimittis, recited or sung every day at Evensong since the English reformation and before that, in the Benedictine monastic tradition of our forebears, at Compline, the last office of the day, sung just before retiring.
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace: according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation: which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles: and for glory to your people Israel.
Three ideas predominate as we hear this great song: God has prepared for this moment, has designed it and brought everything together. This offering of Jesus, this presentation in the temple, recognises that God has from the beginning planned for the restoration of his people, for their salvation. Second, this planning, this salvation, is designed for all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles. We are, most of us, among the Gentiles to whom this revelation, this light, has come. And tonight we bear candles in recognition that the light of Christ has shone upon us and, by his grace, in us and can shine from us. But thirdly, it also reflects back on God’s ancient people, the people he has cherished as his own from the earliest days, the people who by their recognition of God and their obedience to him have made all this possible. And not just to the priests but to the holy, ordinary people who have longed for God: glory to your people Israel.
This song of Simeon gloriously brings together the key ideas explored in the narratives of the nativity both in St Matthew’s and in St Luke’s Gospels: first, God’s preparation, planning for this moment; secondly, access for the Gentiles, as in the Epiphany to the Wise Men; and thirdly access for the simple religious folk of God’s community, as in the first worshippers of the baby Jesus, the rough simple shepherds from the hillsides. Thus we look backward today to the story of Christmas and complete its wonderful narrative.
But is that all we celebrate today? No, we are on the cusp between the two great focal points of the Church’s Year. We look forward through Lent to the solemnity and wonder of Holy Week and Easter. To grasp the connection between this holy feast of Candlemas and the momentous events of the Christian Pasch in Holy Week and Easter we need to think for a moment about the principal purpose for which the parents have brought their child to the temple. It is to redeem him, to sacrifice to the Lord ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons’. The idea of redeeming the first-born reflects the pagan practice, and possibly that of the primitive ancestors of Israel, of killing first-born sons and offering their body and blood to God in thanksgiving and propitiation. There are clear references to this practice in the Old Testament. We see it most obviously reflected in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. According to the command of the angel of the Lord, Abraham took his beloved son, his only son Isaac, to a high place to offer him in sacrifice. He made an altar and bound him to the altar. He raised the knife and was about to strike dead his beloved son, when the angel of the Lord called him and stayed his hand. A ram caught in a thicket was sacrificed in place of his son Isaac.
The place of Anna, the old widow in the Lucan account we have heard, points to this story of redemption: we are told she praised God and spoke about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. St Luke perhaps sees and points to the irony of the forty-day old Jesus who is the Christ, the true and only Redeemer of the world, being brought to the temple so that he could be redeemed through the blood of the animal sacrifice. St Luke knows - and we too believe - that redemption cannot come from the sacrifice of bulls or of goats, or of turtle-doves or young pigeons. Redemption comes only from the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah, the ultimate sacrifice upon the cross, the ‘one oblation of himself once offered’, ‘the full, perfect and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.’
At this point in the Church’s Year we look backward to Christmas and forward to Easter. In our lives, we look back at the first Christmas and Easter, the great events of our redemption described in the holy Gospels. We must look forward as well, forward to the fulfilment of that redemption in the reconciliation of all people to God and forward to the fulfilment of our own redemption when we come at last to the joy and glory of heaven.
In the meantime, as we remember the candles we hold in our hands, representing the light of Christ shining in the dark places of this world, the light that the darkness could not overwhelm or overcome, so we recall our own responsibility to be with Christ and our ability in the power of his Holy Spirit to be both light and redemption for the world. That we can be, if we live in Christ and walk faithfully with him. As we come tonight to the Holy Eucharist, to the bread and wine which are his Body and Blood, so we come to be renewed and uplifted, to be strengthened and restored in him, so that in him we too can shine as a light to the world.