Candlemas Sermon 2-13
Childbirth is a dangerous thing. We forget that now, we think of it as rather routine, but as last week’s episode of Downton Abbey reminded us: for most of history it was a threatening ordeal for both mother and child. There was always a very real danger that one or the other, or both, would not survive. For most of the history of the Book of Common Prayer, up until the last revision, there has been a service called the Thanksgiving of Women After Childbirth, also known as the Churching of Women. There was good reason to thank God for a safe child delivery, because it was by no means a certainty. But this service was really a Christian adaptation of an ancient Jewish practice, and it is the ancient Jewish practice that we are talking about today in the Gospel.
The purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one title for today’s festival. In Jewish law a woman who had just given birth to a child had to wait several weeks before she could enter the temple again.
What I find interesting is not that pregnant or infirm people are commanded to make a sacrifice to God after their deliverance, but that they are commanded to wait until after the crisis had passed before they do so. It is easy to want to worship God right when we think we need him, when we are in the midst of our suffering. What is far more telling about us though, is how we behave once things have returned to normal and the crisis has passed. Do we only respond to God when we need him, or do we respond whenever he asks?
The Church has traditionally held that Mary didn’t need to be purified after the birth of our Lord (being preserved from any stain of impurity), but that she chose to do so out of obedience to the law. Mary was keenly aware that this child was like no other, conceived like no other, and with a destiny like no other, but Mary did not consider being favored by God as an exemption from religious duty. Just because we may have been spared some calamity or in some way have been blessed by God, does not exempt us from the worship of God, but calls us all the more to it. So Mary was purified, but the purification was just one part of the law, for the law also called for the redemption of her first born.
This feast is also known as the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. Jesus, as a first-born son had to be presented to God. Jewish law required it, as a reminder that the Jewish first-born had been spared by God during the Exodus from Egypt, therefore they still belonged to him. He is a first-born son and therefore Mary and Joseph had to acknowledge that he belonged first and foremost to God, not to them. Joseph offered to the priest Simeon the prescribed sacrificial animals to be offered to God in exchange for the life of this baby boy. This was the law of Moses and we are told that Joseph and Mary did everything in accordance with the law.
According to tradition Simeon was an old priest. He had been doing this very same service of claiming first-born sons as belonging to God for years, perhaps hundreds of times. Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that this work he was doing would not be in vain, but that it eventually would lead him to see the messiah, the child that would actually be God’s very own. The first-born, not just of one man and woman, but of all creation. And here at last he was in his arms: the beacon of light that he had waited his entire life to see and the one child that would give all of that waiting and working meaning. When Simeon utters that Nunc Dimmittis, the “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” he does it for all of us who spend our lives working and waiting for God’s glory to be realized and seen. It is fitting that we often say the Nunc Dimmittis at evensong at the end of the day, because it is often only those brief glimpses of God’s kingdom that give us the strength and courage and peace that we need to go forward into another day.
Mary and Joseph were astounded at what Simeon and Anna said, not because they didn’t believe it, but because it confirmed what they already knew and could see. What a joy it is to have your faith confirmed by others; to have an experience that you thought only you had, be shared by someone else. How important it is to have that confirmation that other people see the light of God where you see the light of God. That is the beauty of Christian fellowship: to be able to stand together with others and say hat we have seen God here. That brings me to the third name for this feast: Candlemas. From ancient times, the Church has celebrated the light of God on this day, and the greatest symbol we have for the light of God is the candles we use during worship. You have probably learned by now that I really love candles, although I have to admit that I am glad I am not using them to light the rectory anymore. Since my arrival we have added the votive stand, which we dedicated on All Souls’ Day and the Memorial Torches, which we are dedicating this morning. Candles are something that we use here everyday in our worship of God. In the old Ritual Notes manual for celebrating mass it is made clear that mass cannot be said without at least one real flame burning on the altar. Artificial light is never a substitute for the real light, and as much as our worship may be a bit dramatic at times, this is not a stage and this is not a show. The God that we worship here is real, just as the candles we use are real. Part of the reason we go to church, I hope, is that it is a place where we believe we can encounter God, a real God. Now Candlemas can be a hard sell to get people to come to church sometimes. It doesn’t have any of the penitential lament of Ash Wednesday or Good Friday; it doesn’t have any of the joy or frivolity of Christmas Day or Epiphany. Its popular customs are largely forgotten and have mostly to do with this being the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It doesn’t stir us up and excite us, and maybe for that very reason it might have the most to say to us about our daily lives as Christians. The Purification of the Blessed Virgin and the Presentation of our Lord were done not out of desperation or delight, but out of devotion. They were done because God asked for them to be done and the people that did them had the will and the patience and the faith to keep listening to God, to keep observing his commands, and to keep working for his kingdom until by God’s light and grace they were allowed to see it. My report to you on this morning of our annual meeting 2013 is actually quite short and quite simple: Over the past year we have seen God’s light in this place; we have seen his salvation and we have tried to carry it into the world. We will try to do the same in the coming year. That is what God asks of us: to work for his kingdom, to look for his light and to share that light with the world. We will do our duty to God, just as Joseph and Mary and Jesus did their duty, just as Simeon and Ana did their duty, and we will do it out of devotion. We will honor the tradition that we have been given, so that we like them, may be so lucky to serve God, to see his salvation, and to depart in peace.