Sunday, 29 January 2017

Candlemas and Baptism: Light of the world

When Emma and Leon asked if Henry could be baptised on this particular day, as they’ll tell you, I jumped at it. It was, I assured them, an ideal day for a baptism – the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas.

Perhaps when you heard the words I just read from the Gospel you understood why. What was the story about? It was about two parents bringing their first born son for God’s blessing, and about his community of faith, or at least, two members it, welcoming and affirming him. And that’s what we have here this morning too, except that there’s a whole church full of people for whom Henry is the star of the show this morning.  The other difference is that Emma and Leon haven’t had to bring a sacrifice with them, as Mary and Joseph did, but frankly, that’s a profound relief. I really don’t know what I’d do with a pair of live pigeons this morning!

The feast of the Presentation of Christ marks the end of the Christmas season in the Church’s calendar. It began at midnight on Christmas Eve when we celebrated Christ’s birth, and went on throughout the next forty days or so until now as we’ve pondered, along with Mary and Joseph, what the birth of Jesus might mean, how it might change us. Today that season comes to an end as we hear this story of Simeon and Anna recognising a light in the infant Jesus which would light up the world, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel.” It’s that association with light which gives this day its alternative name of Candlemas, and it was traditionally the time when the candles that were used in church through the year were blessed. Often people would bring candles from home for blessing too. In an age before artificial light, the flickering light of a candle was all that stood between you and the darkness of the night. We rarely encounter real darkness now. It can be banished with the flick of a switch. For our ancestors though, light was a precious commodity. Candles were used sparingly, and valued highly. It’s no surprise that people wanted to have them blessed. They had spiritual significance as well as practical value, symbols of the God whose first act of creation had been to say “let there be light”.

In Jesus, Christians saw God making a new creation, bringing light again into a darkened world, light which even death on a cross couldn’t put out. In pictures of his birth, artists often painted him as literally light-filled, a “glow in the dark” baby – perhaps you had some of those sort of images on your Christmas cards? Of course, he didn’t really look like that but that was the only way of capturing in paint the inner truth they were trying to convey. This was the child who would light up the lives of those he met. This was the child who would come into the darkness of despair, loneliness, and failure, and transform them with glory, who would bring people out of the gloomy prisons of their oppression, into the sunlight of God’s love.

As Mary and Joseph approached the Temple to present their child there and make the sacrifice the law demanded, they didn’t seem to have seen more than a glimmer of this light though. Despite the angels announcing his birth and the shepherds coming to wonder at him, they hadn’t grasped the immensity of the change he would bring, and why should they have?  Of course their child was special to them – every child lights up the lives of its family and friends - but we often struggle to see beyond this. Try as we might we can’t imagine our babies as adults,  as High Court judges, engineers, actors, nurses, solicitors, software designers, shopkeepers, or whatever  their path through life will lead them to. For Mary and Joseph, imagining Jesus as Messiah must have been even more of a stretch. You know how it goes in the Life of Brian, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy…”

As they made their way through the crowded precincts of the Temple, then, they weren’t expecting anything special to happen. They were simply doing what the law required, what every family did. The Temple would have been full of people like them bringing sacrifices and prayers for all sorts of reasons. There would have been people debating, talking, praying, pushing and jostling, and animals too, being brought , perhaps noisily, for sacrifice. Who would notice one little peasant family in the midst of all this hubbub?

There is no logical reason why Simeon and Anna should have spotted them, singled them out. Luke doesn’t explain how they knew this child was different, other than that the Spirit of God told them he was. What we do know, though, is that these two elderly people had spent their lifetimes tuning into God, and perhaps that’s why, when it mattered, they heard and saw what no one else did.  Simeon was devout and looking forward to the moment when God would act, we are told.  Anna had spent most of her long life fasting and praying in the Temple. Both of them were people of prayer and people of hope, in the habit of being on the look-out for God, despite long years of waiting. And they had had to wait. They were old enough to remember when the Romans had taken over their land some 60 or so years before. Where was God when that happened, and in the dark years afterwards? While many might have despaired, Simeon and Anna held onto their faith, waiting, watching, living right, when the world around them seemed hell-bent on going wrong, listening for the voice of God. And on this day, because of that faithfulness, they heard it. This was the child. This was the one who would change everything, the light that would light up the world.

But what’s all this got to do with Henry and his baptism? After all, he really isn’t the Messiah… And yet, the promise of Christian faith is that the light of God which shone in Christ shines in all of us too, if we will let it. Today’s service, being Candlemas, will have a lot of candles in it. But candles are a part of every baptism service, as a reminder of that truth.  At every baptism service, we light our Paschal or Easter candle, the candle which reminds us of the story of Christ dying and rising on Easter Day. At every baptism too, we light a candle from it, for the family to take home, to keep, to light when they want to pray for and with their child. That candle reminds them of the light of Christ which burns in their child, maybe sometimes covered over, obscured, hard to see, maybe sometimes flickering and unsteady, but there nonetheless – a light that nothing can put out.

At this service of Candlemas, though, we will all remember that together. At the end of the service, we’ll all hold lit candles, and during the responses that close the service, we’ll blow them out, as we say goodbye to this Christmas season. That might seem an odd thing to do, but it isn’t a sign that Christ’s light has gone out, so much as that his light has gone in, that it has sunk in to us, becoming part of our lives day by day, night by night, guiding our footsteps and lighting our path.

We don’t know who Henry will be when he grows up, or what he will do. We don’t know what he’ll be remembered for. We don’t know what successes he’ll achieve, what failures he’ll have to deal with, what struggles he’ll have to face. But like Simeon and Anna, we welcome him today, and we confidently proclaim that the light of Christ shines in him, as it does in all of us, and that God holds him in the palm of his hand.


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