A Sermon for Candlemas

Candlemas is a lovely feast: outside of Easter and Christmas, it is definitely on the top of my list of favourites. Beautiful it is, but it is a bittersweet feast – there is sorrow there as well as joy.

The bitter:

Well, at the end of the service today we turn (physically) from Christmas to Lent and Passiontide as we gather around the font and turn from the crib beneath our altar, to face a plain, wooden cross. Candlemas marks the end of Christmas. After the service today our crib will be put away for another year. Next Sunday is the fourth Sunday before Lent: we put aside the festivities and turn our minds to more sober things: we put the tinsel away and get out the ash. 

This bitterness in the Gospel reading for today too: Simeon tells Mary that her child is destined for the falling and rising of many, that he will be opposed, that he will uncover the hidden thoughts of many, and that her sword will pierce her own heart. Mary is living out this turning from Christmas to Lent in a very personal way. On this day of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple Mary has no idea of what is to come. She has encountered angels and shepherds, she has experienced momentous events – things that would have been beyond her wildest dreams just a year before. She has become the mother of the Son of God, but she has no idea yet of what will follow when her child becomes a man: she doesn’t know about his controversial ministry of teaching and healing, about the miracles, or about his trial, his terrible death, or his resurrection. She has no idea that, one day, she will stand at the foot of the cross on which her son will die: today she is given a clue about the future – a warning that there will be hard times. This must have stayed with her during Jesus’ childhood and adulthood. From this time onwards, Mary was waiting for trouble and suffering, and it came, in the end. Today, Mary turns from her son’s birth, to his passion, and we turn with her. 

And then there is Simeon: an elderly man who has been waiting for long years for this momentous day, not knowing when it would arrive. Once he had seen the child, the Messiah, Simeon’s wait was over, and he was happy to die – his mission was accomplished, his life’s purpose was fulfilled. So Simeon also took part in this great turning from life to death. I think he would have died content, but death is always sad and he sounds such a wonderful person – people would have been sad for him to go.

The sweet:

Mary and Joseph were a faithful couple and today we remember their faithfulness in doing what was required of them in the Jewish Law. So, here they are in the Temple, bringing their firstborn Son, and bringing doves or pigeons for sacrifice. Today we celebrate their faithfulness, and we plant our footsteps in theirs as we, too, walk our journeys of faith – a faith transformed by their child.

And there’s Anna – a woman of great age for her time. We’re not told if she had been waiting in a similar way to Simeon, but we do know that when she saw Jesus, this small baby, she rejoiced: for her, this child brought hope: for her, redemption had come. With Anna, today we rejoice because this child is our redemption – in him we have life, hope, salvation.

There is a sweetness, too, in the completeness of this assembled group: here is a newborn child, here are new parents – Mary probably still in her teens, Joseph perhaps older, maybe even middle aged: here are Simeon and Anna – venerable, wise and faithful elderly people: here are women and men: here are the faithful, gathered together. 

Snowdrops: the Candlemas Flower

Candlemas falls on the pagan feast of Imbolc, which traditionally marks the beginning of Spring. Today our church is full of snowdrops – these harbingers of Spring. They are the Candlemas flower – originally brought to England by european monks specifically for their Candlemass services. Legend has it that they first grew in Eve’s footsteps as she left Eden – that turning away  from paradise. Also that they grew in Mary’s footsteps as she returned home from the Temple – the beginning of the story of the return. 

There are snowdrops and daffodils opening in our gardens. The days are drawing out, the darkness is receding – Spring might not yet be here but it is just around the corner: here, too,  is sweetness

Bittersweet

So, Candlemas is a bittersweet feast. It is a pivot both between life and death and between death and life. It is a day of completeness, of fulfillment, of joy and sorrow. All of our human experience is here – life in its fullness, life’s joys and sorrows, childhood, infancy, youth, middle and old age. Here is faithfulness and hope. Here is our loss of paradise and its return. And all this is held in God’s faithfulness and love – captured in the single moment of recognition in the Temple, but also lived out in human life in centuries past, and still with us now, in this moment as we gather with Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and Jesus, who is our hope and our salvation. God’s faithfulness and love are still with us – these are the things of eternity.

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