Sunday 3 February 2019 – Candlemas: the light of Christ in our lives
St Luke is a very gifted storyteller. The people who come into his Gospel seem so vivid and alive that we can picture them in our mind’s eye, and hear them speak, feel as they do. Just such a story is the one we’ve heard this morning. The day when Mary and Joseph, like all faithful Jews, went to the great temple in Jerusalem for the ritual associated with the birth of a child and to fulfil their obligation under Jewish law of making a symbolic offering of their firstborn son to God.
There are three other characters in the story besides Mary, Joseph and the baby. We are introduced next to Simeon. We only know him from this story in Luke’s Gospel. We are told he was upright and devout, in other words he lived his faith. And like all faithful Jews he watched and waited for the consolation of Israel, for the time when the Saviour promised by God would come into the world. Over the centuries the prophets had foretold the fulfilment, at some stage, of God’s promise. Maybe Simeon was pondering this very thing as he walked from his house and up the road to the great of Temple in Jerusalem. Was today to be the day of fulfilment?
And this is where we meet another character in the story. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon. So Simeon, trusting the thoughts which had come into his mind as he prayed and meditated, believed that he would live to see for himself the coming of the Messiah. The third person of the Holy Trinity which is God, can seem difficult to recognise and unexpected, he seems to vanish away before we’ve understood he is present. But the Holy Spirit is a way of expressing God in action in the world. So under his influence, Simeon went to the Temple. He could have gone to the market place, or to see a friend or anywhere else. But, the Holy Spirit guided him and he went to the Temple. And that was the day when God fulfilled his two promises to Simeon: he had sent the Messiah, the Saviour, and Simeon was just about to meet him. Then Mary and Joseph came into the Temple with Jesus. Again in our mind’s eye we can see the the Temple court, with its bustle of activity, the little group of people with the baby, seemingly like any other, and then that breathless moment when Simeon reaches out his arms to receive the Christ Child. Simeon gives thanks to God, recognising Jesus as the promised Messiah “I have seen with my own eyes the deliverance you have made”. The beautiful words of the song we know as the “Nunc Dimittis”: “mine eyes have seen thy salvation which though hast prepared before the face of all people” as it is translated in the King James Bible, “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” Then,and still under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Simeon speaks prophetic words. He foresees that not everyone will accept the Messiah, as he has. “Many in Israel will stand or fall because of him”. Those who are arrogant, uncaring and secure in themselves will fall, having rejected God’s strength, and those who are humble, despised, rejected, God will raised up from their lowliness. And Simeon also foresees suffering, particularly for Mary, the mother of the Messiah. She will suffer when she sees her son’s suffering.
As in our own lives, there is both lightness and darkness. Threaded through this story of light and hope there is the idea of sacrifice and suffering. The child Jesus was brought to the Temple as a symbolic offering to God of what any parent would hold most dear, their first born child. It is a way of saying to God “I give you my all, whatever the cost”. And God replies by giving his firstborn, his only Son, in suffering to save us from ourselves, to give us light and hope and a way back from our sinfulness to our rightful place in the heart of God.
Then, at the moment when Simeon is speaking, Luke tells us that an old woman called Anna came up to the little group. Immediately she too recognises the child, and gives thanks. Like Simeon, she is very much an Old Testament person. She has been a widow for many years and so her position in the society of her times was insignificant. Anna is a widow, and did not even have the status of a married woman. She was one of the weak and old and vulnerable in society. But Luke introduces her by her name and family: Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the family of Asher. And she had given all the years of her long widowhood, night and day, Luke tells us, to God, to worship and prayer. She is also, like Simeon, a representative of the patient faith of the Jews, attentive to the prophecies, waiting and hoping for the Messiah, trusting that he would come. And, lowly though she may be in her own world, God has dignified her as a prophetess, one who walks so closely with him that she can discern something of his ways. So Anna recognises Jesus for who he is and gives thanks to God and she tells everyone about him. And I think this is a characteristic of old ladies who live on their own, which Luke seems to understand. They are often very chatty and talk a lot when they get the chance!
So we’ve met all the characters in the story: the holy family, the Holy Spirit, Simeon and Anna. Is there anyone else? There is of course ourselves. We are there in the Temple too, watching what is happening, listening to what is said, faithful sharers again in Simeon’s joy, in his words of thanksgiving. And we are worshipping God here, now, as Anna worshipped in the Temple. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we have come here this morning and we too know that the light of Christ has come into the world and into our daily lives, to give us courage and comfort, guidance and hope. So let us help bring the brightness and light and warmth we have been given to all we meet as we go about our daily lives in the week ahead. Amen