St John’s, Upper Norwood
‘When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.’
The light of today’s Candlemas Feast, which marks the end of the festive season of Epiphany, invites us to reflect on the liturgical journey we have made together over the past 2 months, as one Church and one Parish community. Together, we have journeyed from the darkness of the beginning of Advent, with the hope of Christmas made real in the Baptism of Baby Zara on that first Sunday of Advent.
Towards the Christmas gift of Emmanuel, God-with-us, manifest in the warmth of the strangers gathered round the BBQ at the Winter Fayre; the joy of the refugee children in Queen’s Hotel receiving Christmas gifts from a whole community; and the expectant faces of a Church ready to welcome Christ at Midnight Mass. Now, today, we have arrived at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, where in the light of the candles held by the child servers here at St John’s, we see the light of the Christ-child again, who overcomes the taste of death for everyone. The same light of the Christ-child reflected in the faces of the elderly Anna and Simeon, who saw the consolation of a whole people in the face of the infant Jesus. In the season of Epiphany, told on 4 Sundays from the revelation of Christ to the Magi, to the manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ Baptism, to Jesus’ first miracle at the Wedding at Cana, to today’s Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, we’re invited to reflect together on this Epiphany season’s search for the signs and symbols of the incarnate Christ, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, in our own hearts, and in the hearts of all those in the world around us.
And it is Simeon, finally granted peace through the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, who sees the unification between God and People in the tiny child 40-days-old, who reminds us that a life lived after seeing and touching the revealed Christ, won’t necessarily be easy. Simeon looks at Mary, the teenager from a forgotten part of Palestine, who gives birth to the Son of God, and yet still asks for purification.
Simeon looks at Mary, the displaced refugee who gives birth to a child that she knows she has to let go, and tells her, ‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel…to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ After seeing the longed-for Christ, the Son of God, finally presented at the Temple, Simeon rejoices in a life found in death. After living with loneliness for too long as an abandoned widow in the Temple, Anna’s steadfast faith is rewarded with new purpose at the end of her life, as she is called to share the Good News of ‘the child who brings the redemption of Jerusalem.’ The Feast of Candlemas is a celebration of light, of love, of joy, and of eternal life, but it is also a story of sacrifice and obedience, of loneliness, of grief, and of death. Mary knew that in saying ‘yes’ to God, she would have to say goodbye to the Son she had borne in her womb. Anna knew that in saying ‘yes’ to God through a life of prayer and fasting at the Temple, she would have to say goodbye to freedoms she might have otherwise had. Jesus knew in saying ‘yes’ to God, he would also have to say ‘yes’ to death. For, as we heard Paul remind the Hebrews in today’s reading, ‘Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.’ Candlemas is a feast of light, but it’s also a reminder of the reality of what it means to live a life in the light of a human Jesus, whose Good News brought division like a sword, whose life’s purpose meant dying at the hands of the people he was sent to love.
‘See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me’, we are told in this morning’s Prophecy of Malachi, ‘and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’
I haven’t been at St John’s very long, but I can already tell that you are a people who, like the Magi, seek to follow the stars and signs of your own lives, in spite of the cost of that calling, and the reality of the social, political, and economic darkness in today’s world. You are a people who seek the mystery of the Christ revealed in the world today, not just in the hearts of people you call friends, but in the hearts of strangers, and those whom the Prophet Malachi tells us are often cast aside by the social order: those who are oppressed or discriminated against, those who are lost or lonely, those seeking refuge and asylum.
You are a people, perhaps, who know, like Simeon, that in return for the gift of seeing the face of Jesus, of having the incarnate Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, touch our lives, God asks to join together before the face of all people to be a light to the world, regardless of the cost of becoming that communion. ‘For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people, Israel.’
As Christians, we’re not asked to live a life for ourselves, but to live a costly life for the whole human family that Christ loves without exception. So, together, here at St John’s, in communion with churches around the world, because we have been drawn into the mystery of God, into the darkness of Advent, into the light of Christmas. Because we have looked for the signs and symbols of Epiphany, we are asked, like Mary at the Temple, to say ‘yes’ to being with Jesus at the heart of humanity, even when that might mean feeling the pain of the swords of human tongues and life’s loss and grief and facing up to the imagined swords of the darkness in our own psyche. We’re asked to say ‘yes’ to proclaiming the Good News like Anna, even after years of wilderness, or grief, or loneliness, or just a time in our life that didn’t seem very glamorous. We’re asked to say ‘yes’ to enabling the resurrection healing revealed to Simeon at the end of his life to be made real for each other in the world today.
Like Mary and Joseph, we gather with our tiny Jesus by the altar for the last time in this liturgical year, to be fed with the Body of Christ, and to be sent out in Communion, as a light that cannot be overcome by the sword of suffering. May we be a Body of Christ that continues to seek and reveal the gift of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, manifest in new and surprising ways in Upper Norwood, in the living faith of the children preparing for their First Communion at Easter, the bread shared with friends and strangers at The Hive, in the Meadow, and the Refugee Coffee Morning, in the joy of the new community who danced under the stars of the glittery lights at last week’s disco. ‘For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the Gentiles.’ As we prepare with Simeon to depart from this festive season, may we continue to be a people overwhelmed by the joy of the magi. May we continue to be a people surprised as at Jesus’ first miracle at the Wedding of Cana.
And, remembering Jesus’ Baptism, may we continue to be a people listening to God’s Baptismal call, each day becoming who we truly are together, offering our lives back to God in service of each other, so revealing the Christ-light to the whole human family, without exception. ‘For, together, our eyes have seen thy salvation.’ Amen.