Christchurch Wanstead, 8am
Candlemas is a sort of pivot or turning point in the church calendar. On this day, we look back to the birth of Christ, giving thanks, and we look ahead: to his death and passion, and ultimately to his resurrection. It’s time to remove any remaining Christmas decorations, and start thinking about how we might endeavour to have a good and holy Lent.
But first we look even further back. Our Old Testament reading this morning is from the book of Malachi. The book was written around the time of the second Temple, over four hundred years before Christ’s birth. Prophets writing at this time had a laundry list of things that were wrong, both with the religious hierarchy and with society in general. Among the more serious accusations were that people were engaging in oppressive social practices. Another repeated accusation was that the Temple sacrifices weren’t being done correctly: blemished or sick animals were being used, rather than the whole, healthy animals clearly required.
The name Malachi means “messenger of God”, and the message of this morning’s reading to the people of Israel is similar to that of other prophets of the time: it is a warning. “The Lord you seek will come to his Temple”. That time is to be a time of judgement: Malachi is quite broad-ranging in the list of wrongs, ranging from sorcery and adultery to paying unfairly low wages, failing to support widows and orphans — some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society at the time — and casting aside the foreigner.
The people of Israel are told that anyone who does these things and does not fear the Lord will be brought to swift judgement. “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Who, indeed? This is strong stuff. But the warning of judgement also carries a message of hope: the descendants of Levi, the priestly tribe, will be purified, refined. Then they will present offerings in righteousness — no more sick or lame animals — and the offerings will please the Lord. Ultimately, the Lord coming to the Temple will be part of the salvation of Israel.
Fast forward a few centuries to our reading from the Gospel of Luke, and the Temple is still there. Mary and Joseph are good Jews and when the time comes, forty days after the birth of Jesus, they bring the baby to the Temple and offer the appropriate sacrifice: a concessionary rate for poorer households, according to Leviticus, a couple of birds substituted for the lamb that more well-to-do families would be expected to provide.
So far, so normal: going to the Temple for purification after a birth, and presenting your first-born son to God, was a fairly ordinary thing to do — maybe even a bit like a christening would be today. But then something remarkable happens: Simeon takes the baby in his arms and starts praising God and prophesying. If you’re a fan of Evensong then you might recognise his words in the more traditional language:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace:
according to thy word.
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.
Simeon identifies that little tiny child from a poor family as the promised Saviour, not just for the people of Israel, but to be a light for all the nations. Anna, too, recognises the child and praises God — so it isn’t just one man, righteous and devout as he is, who sees Jesus for who he really is. This virtuous, wise old woman sees it too. This isn’t a fluke.
But Simeon and Anna’s joy is tempered by sadness. Simeon’s words to Mary are difficult: not only is the child destined to bring turmoil, but “a sword will pierce your soul too.” Here is another strong warning from a prophet, a bitter-sweet mixture of hope and pain, acknowledging the joy of the birth of Christ, but also ahead to his suffering and death on the cross.
At Candlemas we too look back to Christ’s birth, and ahead, through Lent and Passiontide to the crucifixion.
Mary went to the Temple to present her son to God and for the traditional rites of purification; Malachi also spoke of a time of purification, particularly of the priesthood. There are various passages in the epistles, though not in today’s readings, which refer to all Christians as a royal priesthood. What might it looks like, and what might it feel like, for God to purify our own lives today? The laundry list of things that are wrong in society still seems pretty accurate, for the most part: there are people who swear falsely and mislead others, people who cheat, people who put profit before paying their employees a living wage, and as a society, the amount of support we give to the most vulnerable is very low — especially if they happen to be foreign.
But there is more to consider: as Christians we believe that process of purification and refinement, of making-good, was completed by Christ on the cross. Redemption is a done deal, even amongst the mess and pain of life and death. That doesn’t mean the injustice we see doesn’t matter, but that it doesn’t ever have the last word. The sword that pierced Mary’s soul at the death of her son was also the salvation of the world.
That isn’t always obvious, and I’ll admit that at particularly dark times in my own life, I have struggled to see it, let alone believe it. Yet Simeon and Anna both rejoiced. They saw Jesus and knew him to be the Christ, the Messiah, and that was the reason for sharing their joy in that great light. So one important question for us as we prepare for Lent, even more important than the one about purification, is this: Do we see Christ in the world? How can we know and recognise Jesus?
Anna was a faithful woman, a woman of prayer and fasting, and perhaps it was her long practice at prayer that made her able to recognise Jesus as the Messiah when she saw him. Simeon, likewise, was a devout and righteous man. Luke says it was the Holy Spirit who caused him to know he would see the Messiah before his death, and the Holy Spirit that guided him to go to the Temple that day. Our predecessors in faith learned to recognise Christ by faithful prayer; by being aware of Christ’s presence when receiving his Body and Blood in the Eucharist; by diligent study and Bible reading; by concerted efforts to see Christ in every day life.
Heavenly Father, as we look back with thanks at the miracle of your birth and prepare ourselves for the journey of Lent, help us, like Simeon and Anna, to see your light and love, and to recognise and rejoice in the presence of your son Jesus Christ, through whose death and passion all our imperfections are redeemed. We ask this in his name. Amen.