Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple 2023
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor
Thursday, 2nd February 2023 at 5.00 PM
Candlemas is a radiant feast. What’s not to love about a candle-lit procession, gorgeous renditions of Nunc dimittis, and a story about two people coming to the Temple to give thanks for the birth of a child? If Epiphany is the season of light shining in the darkness, it ends this day in a blaze of glory. Jesus is presented and recognised in the Temple—‘a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel’. The light of the world has come.
And drawn to this light, we see human fragility, human tragedy even, transfigured into beauty.
Take Joseph, who so nearly wrote himself out of this story, who, if we remember, planned to dismiss Mary quietly, here he stands as assuredly as any biological father; as guardian of the child, and husband of his Mother. He has a role; a less than conventional role, for certain, but he brings what is required by the Law, accepting his part, his place. So, St Luke, for one, has no problem describing Joseph as a parent, a father, even though in chapter one it is made clear that in biological terms he cannot be so. Here, as always, grace perfects nature—Joseph is made a father because he does not insist on being so.
And Anna, the prophet, the woman long-widowed; after decades in the Temple, fasting and praying, she finds her piety rewarded. Her life cannot have been easy; possibly rather lonely. As a husbandless young woman, who knows what unwanted-attention she might have faced? As she grew older, no doubt she grew more and more marginal, invisible—just another pious old woman at the end of a pew, muttering her prayers. Yet now she is speaking about the child to anyone who is looking for a better future for their troubled city. Her old throat is full of new words—words of redemption; of beauty and hope.
Two lives transfigured; re-kindled in the light of this child.
But if there is light to be seen in this child, a light that transfigures human lives—frail bodies, frail egos - Simeon also sees something darker—his own death, perhaps (Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace), and still darker hints at the future of the child (a sign that will be opposed… a sword will pierce your own soul, Mary.) Even something as apparently simple and spontaneous as taking the child Jesus into his arms is freighted—a moment to catch our breath. If Simeon was a priest, as tradition often has it, surely it should have been the sacrificial offering, the two pigeons or turtle-doves, that he would have taken hold of—not the child—surely not the child?
At this moment Jesus is taken, perhaps for the first time, out of the arms of his Mother; out of her protection. He will be finally returned to her arms, according to tradition, once he has (in Simeon’s words) revealed the inner thoughts of many—the rivalry, the injustice, the hatred that haunts the human heart. Once he has shown them, (shown us), in his own body, what we do to love, the inner thoughts we try to hide, the sin we struggle to acknowledge, then, only then, is he returned to his Mother’s arms, lifeless from the Cross—a sign that will be opposed.
It is agony—the agony of love and loss—an agony we recognise and sometimes share. It is the agony of Ukrainian and Russian Mothers and Fathers—the sacrificial cult of war, which is just the most extreme form of human scapegoating; projecting our rivalries onto any convenient ‘other’, rather than owning them, addressing them, repenting of them. These are the secret thoughts that he brings to light, for the falling and rising of many.
He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect—wrote the author of Hebrews—he had to become subject to all the same rivalries, injustices and rejections; all the same physical frailty and vulnerability—in order to be a faithful High Priest, to make the sacrifice that would offer atonement—a restored relationship with God and neighbour. So here he is, in the frailest of human flesh; an infant taken out of his mother’s arms, out of her meagre protection.
So where is the beauty in this? Isn’t this just human tragedy writ-large? The light of the world taken to be sacrificed, while pigeons coo, and a mother gasps at the agony to come? Awful in its banality. How can we celebrate this radiant feast?
We can, we should, because this is the light that goes there—that transfigures not just everyday human frailty; this light goes to the worst of us; the cowardice, the brutality, the awful expediency; the fragility that masquerades as human strength, but is really just fear, and greed, and jealousy—he knows these are strong emotions, but he knows they are not strengths. Here too is frailty that he will transfigure with his beauty.
We celebrate this radiant feast in celebration of the one who went from glory in the Temple to agony on the Cross—to be like his brothers and sisters in every respect; to be a faithful High Priest. The light that shines in the darkness will be obscured for a time, but not overcome. He will rise to confound our fears; to reveal the inner thoughts, for our falling and for our rising; He will rise, so that his radiance may finally be ours, when all our frailty is transfigured into his beauty.