Malachi 3.1-5, Psalm 24, Hebrews 2.14-end, Luke 2.22-40
Today is a festival of the church with three different names pointing to three different things. All of these rituals date from before Jesus’ time and two give us a glimpse of life in first century Jerusalem. Many of you will know that the oldest name is ‘The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ and derives from the fact that Mary, as was the common practice in her time, would have presented herself in the Temple to undergo a rite of purification after giving birth; she would have sacrificed ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’. In traditional Jewish culture, a woman presented herself 40 days after birth for a boy and 60 days after birth for a girl. If a woman was considered ritually unclean for 40 days after having a boy, she must be very unclean indeed after having a girl to have to wait nearly three weeks longer.
As sensibilities changed, however, so the name of the feast has changed too, and it is now commonly known as ‘The presentation of Christ in the Temple’. Jesus, as the first born, is brought to the Temple to be presented to God; as the reading from Luke has it, ‘every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’, and his family, as devout people, were following this practice. The firstborn son was regarded as belonging to the Lord and had to be redeemed with an offering of money.
Today is also known as Candlemas, a festival which owes its origins to pre Christian festivals in Europe and Ireland. It is half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – it’s a cross quarter day and the mid point of winter. It also known in Europe and North America as groundhog day – the day when it’s possible to predict the rest of the winter weather depending on what the groundhog, or bear or badger does when or if it comes out of its winter hibernation. Prosaically, it’s also the day when the church blesses the candles for the coming year.
So here in our Gospel story we have four adults and a baby - let’s take some time to see what happened that day in the Temple.
Now we get to hear lots about Mary and Anna and Simeon so let’s start with Joseph. Over the last ten months or so he’s had a pretty tough time of it. First of all there’s Mary saying to him “Joseph, we need to talk” and then she drops the bombshell that she’s pregnant. I expect that many of you saw the BBC’s production of the Nativity Story in the days leading up to Christmas and saw how, understandably, Joseph reacted angrily to this news and carried that anger with him up until the time that Jesus was born. Now going through the Jewish rituals of purification and presentation I wonder what he’s really feeling – perhaps those doubts and uncertainties and anger well up inside him again – Did I make the right decision? Did I hear God correctly? My job is to make and repair things but this baby – it’s not mine, why should I care for him and his mother? I wonder how he felt if and when Mary told him what Simeon had said?
But there’s something of Joseph in us isn’t there? Don’t we get angry about things and ask God why he’s done them? Don’t we have doubts? Don’t we have worries because we care? But Joseph came to trust God in time just as we must do how ever difficult it seems at first.
But for the other three that day was to be special in so many ways.
Simeon was, I imagine, a bit of an institution around Jerusalem. Everyone knew about old Simeon, holy and fearful Simeon. He had everyone’s respect, and he had this wild claim: God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. So Simeon spent the rest of his life looking for salvation, waiting for “the consolation of Israel.” Simeon knew about “Advent-waiting.”
But on that day the Temple in Jerusalem would have been a busy place with many people changing money, buying animals and birds to make their sacrifices, there would be people worshipping and praying. It would have been so busy. So how would Simeon have known as he waited in the Temple that it would be this day among all others when he would see the Messiah – a Messiah that people expected to see as a full grown man.
Well Luke tells us that on that day Simeon was “in the Spirit” and so Simeon knew who the baby Jesus was when His parents brought Him into the temple.
Simeon held the month old baby Jesus in his old and failing arms, and he praised God for making good on His promise – not just His promise to Simeon, but to the nation: the Saviour had come to Israel!
So Simeon gives thanks to God in words that are sung day by day at Evensong the Nunc Dimitis. Simeon had seen God’s salvation at last in the form of a baby. And Simeon sees that this salvation is far greater that the Jewish nation expected – it was for all people not just God’s chosen nation. This Messiah would also be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles – to the nations, to all people” . . . . the glory of Israel would soon shine out to every tribe and nation.
God had come to His people, and through them, God had come for all people. This is what salvation looked like to Simeon that day: salvation was getting wider because salvation was now for the Gentiles. But Simeon saw something else that day, something not so obviously glorious. As Jesus’ proud parents stood by amazed at the glory God had brought into their poor lives, Simeon turns aside to Mary (so that the others in the temple would not hear this) and he whispers to her:
“Look, Mary, this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and he will be a sign of conflict, a sign that the secret thoughts from many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce even your own soul.”
So what did God’s salvation look like to Mary that day?
I think that it looked different than what Mary had probably thought of during the time that she was pregnant and in the month of new motherhood.
A sword to pierce her own soul: this was a term used for feeling deep, crushing pain and great sorrow. The angel Gabriel told Mary this she would bear the Son of God, the Saviour, the holy Messiah. The angel did not say anything about pain or suffering, about rejection, or a violent death.
Now I’m sure it was difficult for Mary as a young teenage mother to suddenly be given the task 10 months ago of bearing the Messiah: Imagine having to tell people the story of a virgin conception – gaining Joseph’s trust, and her family’s approval. But Mary had what we all need to get through tough times: the strength of the angel Gabriel’s message and support of those around her: her cousin Elizabeth, her husband’s commitment – this is more support than many poor single mother have today.
When you think about it, for Mary, it had only been good news up until now . . . . difficult news, but good news: you, Mary will bear the Messiah. And that good news would have got her through her difficult times.
But now, Simeon was telling Mary about a sword, a sword stabbing her through with pain. Her Son Jesus would show people for who they really were (no more secrets) – Jesus would drive a wedge between those who would follow Him (and receive God’s Salvation) and those would not. Jesus will bring division and pain, Simeon was whispering quietly to Mary. Some would accept Him, many would reject Him. And a few of them, whether Mary knew it or not, would kill Him – this new mother would bury her own Son.
We remember our other evening canticle – the Magnificat - sung by Mary during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. The words that tell us that “The Lord brings down rulers, the Lord exalts the humble.” Like the rising and falling described by Simeon. The world would reverse, and turn upside-down. Mary knew that – but she didn’t know that her own heart would fall one day, as she would watch her Son get nailed to a Roman Cross, hanging to die.
This is what salvation looked like to Mary that day: salvation would include great change and great suffering. Salvation would mean rising and falling – even for the mother of the Messiah. The consolation of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles will come, but at a great price, and Mary will not be immune from the pain.
But there is also hope in Simeon’s words to Mary: the word “rising” that Simeon whispers to Mary is literally the word for “resurrection.” No one was expecting Salvation to involve the death of the Saviour, but no one was expecting Resurrection from the dead either.
There is at least one more person in the temple that day who sees God’s salvation, and this is a surprise too. What did God’s salvation look like to Anna?
Anna was a widow, she was at least 84-years-old, probably with no consistent means of supporting herself, and she lived and worked in the temple’s public courts. Her work was to pray and fast, and she was held to be a prophet, speaking words of hope and challenge to the people (even though she was not allowed in the inner courts).
And when Simeon saw Jesus for who He really was, Anna saw Jesus too – and Anna told any one who would listen: this child was the redemption of Jerusalem! This old eccentric widow, penniless and living on the margins, proclaimed that salvation had come in Jesus.
And what of us enlightened Gentiles? What is salvation for us? I think that, for us, it is not about being certain and sure and invulnerable; it is about putting our trust in the God who loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. It is, as the writer of the Hebrews put it “the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
We are here today at a turning point where the Epiphany season ends, the crib is packed up and put away until next Christmas and the candles we will light at the end of the service and then extinguish represent that the Light of the World is now burning brightly inside us. We turn to look forward to Lent, Good Friday and the glorious Easter morning when we light the Paschal candle so that the light of the risen Christ may shine out again.
Today Christ brings the light of God’s Holy Spirit into our lives and wants us to take his message of salvation into the world. He wants us to be his light of love and salvation in today’s world. So what we can all do is to carry the light of practical love that burns in us into the dark places of this world: places of violence and fear, of poverty and starvation, of desolation and mourning. In Christ we have the challenge of being his light in the world. Let us rise to it.