Sunday 2nd February – Clephane Hume

Candlemas 2020   Clephane Hume

Malachi 3; 1-4. Hebrews 2; 14-18. Luke 2; 22-40

Earlier in the week I passed a church advertising a Candlemas blessing of candles for the year. That was something new to me but I learned that they do it each year.

Candlemas. A time of light.

You could sum it up in 5 words, Presentation. Purification. Prophesy. Poignancy. Pilgrimage. But don’t get excited, I have more than that to say!

Today marks the end of the section of the church year, which began with Advent, and took us through the incarnation and the epiphany to today, when the light of Christmas concludes. In accordance with the practice of the time, it marks the occasion of the presentation of the baby in the temple. Only St Luke records this.

During the past few weeks we have been reflecting on the early days of Jesus’ ministry and baptism by John the Baptist. We hear little about his childhood, apart from the flight into Egypt and the time when he got left behind, remaining with his elders in the temple. The ‘infancy gospel of Thomas’ records some apocryphal stories about him creating birds from clay and breathing on them so that they took flight, but that is not a totally reliable source. Though I’d be curious to know if it might have inspired JK Rowling.

Thus we are now backtracking to the day of Jesus’ first attendance at the temple.

The presentation and purification. And it’s worth looking at the characters who were involved and some of their feelings.

Mary and Joseph had been ‘amazed’ at the stories of the shepherds but had perhaps settled into a routine of family life. Time moved on and the day came for Mary to be purified, forty days after childbirth. (There used to be a special Prayer Book thanksgiving service for that – the churching of women).

And Joseph in his role as earthly father would accompany her. So in accordance with the law they dutifully bring Jesus to Jerusalem, plus the customary birds for sacrifice.

At the temple they find two venerable worshippers, who, after a lifetime of dedication, recognise this baby as the long promised saviour. Simeon and Anna would know the words of the prophets, and be familiar with God’s promise to his people.

Hence acknowledgement of what the Lord had done, described in Simeon’s words, which we sing at evensong – the Nunc Dimittis – lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. A feeling of joy coupled with completeness. Readiness to go.

Mary and Joseph are again amazed, but for Simeon, this is the conclusion of a long life of waiting, the revelation of the light to lighten the gentiles. Perpetual light.

He was prepared to wait for years. We tend to want, and expect, instant results.

Simeon is a model of patience and persistence. Continuing in faith. Not always easy of course, but it’s part of our life’s path. We may feel anxious after Brexit, but as Shehadeh writes, ‘we cannot unpick our lives or the history of our nation.’ We may be scared by the spread of the coronavirus, but we have to carry on.

In the story, the Holy Spirit is also at work, inspiring Simeon and Anna. We too can have glimpses of that. Sometimes relatively mundane, at other times only apparent on subsequent reflection.

However, there was also prophecy and poignancy. The foretelling of what is to come.

Which points us to Good Friday and the sorrow of Mary. A life of greater than average parental worry for her. Uncertainty. Things beyond her imagining.

Bring confronted with the reality of one’s impending death is not easy. How long do you think I have? my friend asked me. That’s a question to which only God knows the answer. And Jesus always knew what his mission would be.  Maybe even as a very special baby. A short life, fulfilling God’s purpose.

He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect. Because, as St Paul puts it, Jesus was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. In other words, us. 

We are unlikely to be aware of what the future holds for us – probably just as well!

But in today’s uncertain times it’s easy to say that the way is unclear. Just as we take time to remember the holocaust, we hear of peace initiatives motivated by personal political ambition. Scary stuff.

Life is a pilgrimage and as I said already, we must persevere with faith and hope.

2020 has been designated as a year of pilgrimage and the new Fife Pilgrim way, Scotland’s first official waymarked route, is ready for walkers. It links Culross to St Andrews and passes several former sites of veneration. At 64 miles long, I will definitely not be attempting it, but there are welcome points in various places, for example the Norman church in Markinch. Over to our walking groups!

Returning to Candlemas. it is also the turning point towards the darkness of Lent. But a word of possible cheer, it marks the midpoint of winter. According to the calendar, not the meteorologists. There are many associated folklore weather predictions.

As the days get longer, we have light to sustain us through the shadows of Lent and on to Easter. In days gone by, when candles were the only source of light during the hours of darkness, they also provided a little warmth.

Now we use them in purely decorative ways, or to add perfume to our homes. And as a symbol when we offer prayers – the votive candle stands that are now commonly found in our churches

Light shines in other ways. I am constantly humbled by witnessing the response of people in extreme adversity who continue to make the joy of their faith known to the world. Who praise God for his goodness in the midst of a disaster zone, refugee camp or hospice. When others might sink into gloom and despondency they carry on, like Simeon and Anna. Which is thought provoking for those of us who live in comfort.

And that response is also a form of candlelight. Little lights of witness to the supreme light, God, shown to us by Christ, the light of the world.

And because of him, Jesus, whatever happens to you during the course of your life, the Lord God will be an everlasting light for you.

Candles flicker, may be blown out in the draughts at our west door.

The light of God can never be extinguished.

Shehadeh R 2018. Where the Line is Drawn. Profile Books. P 227

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