Saturday, January 31, 2009

Homily for Candlemas

The party’s over! Or has it just begun?
For us today Candlemas marks the end of Christmas tide, with all its joy and celebration…
It's the day when we return, in my Scots Great Grandmother's phrase, "To old clothes and porridge" after the high solemnities that we've enjoyed.
For Simeon too, it marked an ending…but for him this end is exactly what he has been waiting for. It’s more like the conclusion of an extended Advent; he has known that God’s Saviour is on the way, but not when he would arrive…so the sight of that little group in the Temple, one family among so many others, is the answer to a life-time’s prayer.
That, of course, is what the Nunc Dimittis is all about.
The words are so familiar to most of us, through their constant repetition at Evening Prayer, that it’s easy to lose sight of the impact of the experience for Simeon. He has waited for so long and, being human, he probably despaired at times. Would God’s promised Saviour truly arrive in his lifetime? Perhaps he’d just imagined that God had spoken to him. But, whatever his feelings, he kept on waiting faithfully.
Something for us to learn from him perhaps…
I certainly find that there are times when belief is easy, when God feels very close, and his plans very clear. But against those must be set other periods when he seems conspicuous by his absence, when prayer feels as if it might simply be an empty waste of time, when the plans which I was so sure were God-given seem likely to be just another one of my mad ideas, after all.
That’s the time to remember Simeon, waiting day by day, with no apparent difference in any of the outward circumstances of his life, but hanging on to the hope against hope that God was about to act decisively to change the course of history. Time to remember, and to rejoice that his faith was rewarded by the sight, touch and sound of his infant Saviour.
So Candlemas is the time when the party began for Simeon…with a revelation of the reality of Jesus.

It’s a bittersweet reality, of course, which reflects the season’s position on the border between Christmas tide and the Lenten journey towards of Holy Week. God’s salvation will be costly, not only for Jesus, but also for those who love him. So, instead of offering Mary congratulations on her fine son, Simeon greets her with words of mystery and foreboding
“a sword shall pierce your soul also”.
I wonder if she remembered them as she stood at the foot of the cross weeping. But that is a thought for another day…
We’re at a cross roads, but not yet moving down the new path ahead.

Meanwhile, in the Temple the crowds come and go…so many of them oblivious to the earth changing drama which is being played out. That little family were surely unremarkable in their external appearance. Small wonder that they came and went almost without comment . So many babies were presented, so many mother’s released from their ritual seclusion…who was to guess that now Malachi’s prophecy was being fulfilled, that the Lord was indeed coming suddenly, unexpectedly, into his own temple.
All those who came and went in the Temple that day were ostensibly intent on honouring God, but in their focus on the task of worship, they missed his presence in the baby brought by that unassuming couple with the turtle doves.
His arrival among us is often equally unnoticed, equally unlikely. We may be looking in one direction, expecting him to speak to us in ways he has used before, and miss him altogether. It’s been easy over Christmas. We’ve had a clear focus for our devotions, and even a place to come and wonder at the Christ child in the manger.
But any day now the crib will be put away…the star has gone already…all trace of Christmas tidied up so we can get on with the serious business of life in another year. The party’s over…perhaps.

But, if it is, then there’s really no point in ever having celebrated. The child in the manger gave us a focus for the 40 days of Christmas tide, but now the task of sharing his love and light with a needy world is handed over to us.
I want to end with a story, of a wealthy man who, centuries ago, built a church on his estate, for the benefit of his workers. The construction took many years, and the villagers were delighted when at last the word went round that all was complete and they could hold their first service in their own church. But, on the Saturday when the scaffolding came down and they went to see for themselves, they were appalled to discover that the building had no windows. A deputation was sent to the landowner, with the sad news that the builders had messed up.
“Not at all” he said
“I asked them to miss out the windows. When you come to church, you will each have to bring a candle with you and the more of you who come, the more light there will be. If the whole village comes, there will be no corner of God’s house left dark..and when you leave you will carry the light of your worship out with you to your homes once more”
That’s what we have to do…Like Simeon, our eyes have seen God’s salvation, present in the babe of Bethlehem and in the altar in bread and wine. Now our task is to carry his light to the nations, to show ourselves transformed by it so that we can shine in the darkest places. That sounds very grand and splendid, but most probably it will involve nothing more, and nothing less, than treating those around us with every- day love and courtesy. I suspect this will be quite enough of a challenge for me…but I need to try, or the party really will be over.

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