A sermon preached at Evensong on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas) by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor
Today is Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Candlemas is the last day of the Epiphany season, and marks the end of 40 days since the birth of Jesus, when Mary and Joseph obeyed the law of God and took the child to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to God and offer a sacrifice. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary was required by the law to be purified following the birth of a male child; until that day, she could touch no holy thing. Yet on seeing the holy family, an old man called Simeon, who was there in the Temple waiting for them, and whose words are now famous and sung day by day by our choir in Evensong, praised God and welcomed the infant, cherishing him as “the light to enlighten the nations,” while a prophet called Anna proclaimed him the Saviour of the world.
Today, then, is an ending- the official ending of the Christmas season. Over the next few days, the crib scene, the Nativity installation behind me, and the Christmas tree in the West End, will be carefully taken down. But it’s also a beginning. Eliot and Ollie, admitted at the start of this service, are no longer probationers in the choir. This evening they begin officially as full choristers. Candlemas is a good day to be admitted as a chorister. A feast of the temple, it reminds us- as if we could ever forget- of the beauty of our surroundings, and of the privilege of serving God day by day in this place. “I will fill this place with splendour,” writes the author of our Old Testament reading, the prophet Haggai of the Temple that is to come, “in this place I will give prosperity”. Simeon, the old man who waits for Jesus and sees him there, is a person totally at home in the Temple. He has kept vigil there, he has maintained faithful service, his whole life, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and now that salvation has dawned on humanity with the coming of the child Jesus, he can, after all this time, in the words of the Nunc Dimittis, “depart in peace”. He has served God faithfully, day by day, in the Temple courts, while awaiting the peaceful era of God’s dominion, and now, with the arrival of God’s “salvation”, his task is complete.
Simeon’s story is probably less familiar to us than the one that comes before it, the Christmas story of the angel Gabriel, appearing to Mary, the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise, that follows, and the birth of Jesus. Yet the two stories follow a similar pattern. Both Mary and Simeon have been waiting, waiting in hope, for the crucial meeting of God with the world. They’re waiting for God’s promise to reach its fulfilment in their lives, waiting to experience God’s presence where they are, at home, at work, at prayer. Both are longing to see the child, and they watch expectantly for his arrival, Mary a young woman nearing the end of her pregnancy and waiting for the birth, and Simeon an old man reaching the end of a life of devout prayer and regular service in the Temple. Simeon is silent until he sees the child, which, like Mary the child’s mother, he takes in his arms.
In our society, we often see waiting as a negative thing. If we have to wait for a bus or in a queue, we often get impatient or frustrated- understandably. Counting down the days or the seconds to something- whether it’s Christmas or Brexit- has the effect of making us impatient for the thing to happen. But waiting can also be seen in a more positive way. There’s a kind of waiting which is attentive- like waiting for a child to be born. Or active- slowly building up a practice of something- from sport to singing- or even- in Simeon’s case- prayer- that gradually over time becomes a habit and something we’re really good at. It’s not about anticipating something so much as learning to enjoy the life already begun- gradually bringing to fulfilment the potential within us. It’s about discerning, amidst the things that hold us back, the gifts of God in ourselves and others, and patiently nurturing them and bringing them to fulfilment.
On the other hand, a time of waiting can be a testing time, perhaps if we’re waiting for an important piece of news, or the future looks uncertain. It can shock us into silence and fear. But the example of Simeon- and Anna- shows that we needn’t lose heart- that a time of waiting can also be a time of growth and deeper trusting in God. As a person whose life was consumed in waiting, Simeon may well have been the subject of ridicule, weak and lowly, unimportant as a person, seemingly with nothing better to do than hang around the temple all day long, while the rest of the world hurries on about its business around him. Yet because he waited, he was the one to recognise the Christ when he came amidst all the other hundreds, thousands of people who’d passed through in his lifetime- he was reassured by God’s promise in his life, watching and waiting, in the Temple courts, for its fulfilment, even as he himself became more and more frail.
St Ephrem the Syrian wrote in the fourth century that, as Simeon “was able to carry in his weak arms the very majesty that created things cannot endure,” so he knew that he himself “was invisibly being lifted up,” strengthened “by the all-prevailing power of the son himself.” The same Spirit who strengthened Simeon strengthens us, whether we’re young or old, revealing God’s presence in our lives, in all we watch and wait for. We have only to enter into the reality of Candlemas, to take the child Jesus into our own arms and open our hearts ready for the Word of God to pierce us, showing us our weaknesses and need of a Saviour, yet renewing the knowledge we carry within of God, the one who alone loves all people.