Sermon for Candlemas 2022 – Fr Jeremy Haselock
The feast we celebrate today is a bundle of contrasts and opposites. Begging the question of intervening Ordinary Time and Lent, it has one foot in Christmastide and the other in Holy Week. Janus-like we look both backwards and forwards as the joy of celebrating Christ’s birth is touched with bitterness when, with the prophecy of Simeon, we are turned towards Lent and the Passion. We play, as it were, with the Italian words, amore and amaro – love and bitterness. The liturgy, with its wonderful readings, presents us with the stark contrast of a language of salvation and glory that is also a language of rejection and pain.
St Luke, from whose gospel we have just heard, gives us a multi-layered text. For his narrative and theological purpose, he needs to get the holy family somehow away from Bethlehem – Matthew had done that with the slaughter of the Innocents and the flight into Egypt and the return later. Luke gets the family away and to Jerusalem by introducing the motifs of purification and presentation – and in the process appears to be confused about two different religious customs. The first was the purification of a mother at the Temple after the birth of a child at which she offered two young pigeons or doves. The second was the presentation of the first male child to the Lord and paying the sanctuary a sum of five shekels to get him back – to redeem him.
But Luke isn’t primarily concerned with a factual account. What he tells us is that in compliance with the law, Mary went to the Temple for ritual purification after childbirth – in many ways this was something similar to “the Churching of Women” in the Prayer Book. The ritual prescribed the sacrifice of a lamb and a turtle dove or young pigeon. There was a sliding scale of sacrificial offerings in operation at the Temple to spare the poor too much expense. Unable to afford the lamb, Mary and Joseph took a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. With this tactful information Luke shows us that the carpenter/builder of Nazareth was by no means wealthy. Coming among us as a man, the Son of God may have been born “of the house and lineage of David” to fulfil that which was spoken by the prophets, but he was incarnate among the poor, the devout poor, those among whom the gospel was first to take root. The Christ of Luke’s gospel is always both divine and human and a trusting figure, ready to identify with the forgotten elements of society. Jesus’s own parents are among the devout poor, “Christ’s little ones”, those especially dear to him throughout his ministry.
The sacrifice for those who were not poor was a Lamb and, whatever we might make of the two turtle-doves by way of social indicator, a lamb was most certainly offered on this occasion – “O Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” In the presentation of this child a Lamb was present – a Lamb found in poverty and helplessness – the gift of the rich is there – the Lamb of God for us all. And it is this gift of a Lamb – the best gift of God in the midst of poverty that Simeon and Anna both recognise. No doubt they are representative characters – certainly representative of the pious hopeful ones in Israel, of “Christ’s little ones” also, but representative too of many who faithfully, quietly, and over many, many years follow the Lord – maintain their desire for God and their pattern of praying. We are often told that our churches are full of little old ladies. The 84-year-old Anna and the inspired word she was enabled to speak remind us gently of the special place of the faithful elderly. There’s much to cherish in the long years of patient prayer and struggle that someone like Anna represents.
The two most important theological elements in Luke’s carefully constructed narrative, the elements which provide balance alongside the contrast, are the utterances of Simeon – the Nunc Dimittis and the brief words to Mary about a sword piercing her heart. The Nunc Dimittis is almost a pastiche of passages from the prophet Isaiah about salvation, and Israel’s glory, and the light to the Gentiles. Salvations is for ALL –Matthew introduced the Gentiles via the Magi – Luke does it through these words of Simeon – we have glorious picture of the universality of God’s love – BUT – there’s always a BUT – there’s another side to it all as Simeon says to Mary “this child is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed¼. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This clearly looks to the Passion and crucifixion of Christ – he sees this special and unique Lamb brought to the Temple for sacrifice. From Luke’s point of view this rejection, this sign of contradiction, is no longer in the future – he knows what has happened over the previous 40 years or so since Jesus died – he writes with all that as past reality. The really curious line is about the sword piercing Mary’s heart. Pious devotion has seen the sword piercing Mary’s heart as she stood at the foot of the cross and saw her son die – but there is a problem with that interpretation. That picture of Mary at the foot of the cross, Stabat Mater dolorosa, is from John’s gospel, probably not at the disposal of Luke when he was writing. So that pious tradition isn’t entirely satisfactory. The most challenging statement to Mary in Luke’s gospel itself is where Jesus talks about his true family being those who do the will of God – he doesn’t come to bring peace, but will set son against father, mother against daughter. The demand of the gospel is placed upon everyone – Mary included – but in Luke’s view Mary has emerged successfully, not because she’s Jesus’ mother – but because she did the will of God. Mary has no special status as Jesus’ mother – her greatness comes because she believed the word of the Lord and obeyed his will. And that remains the challenge for all of us – rich, poor, high or low – matters not a jot or tittle in the kingdom of God – it’s doing the will of God. And it’s not always easy discerning that. The sword that Jesus brought wasn’t a literal one – but one that cuts to the heart and probes there to challenge the deepest assumptions.
So, there are many angles to this Candlemas story. There are contrasts and contradictions – a light proclaimed to all people, a glorious vision of God yearning for all people to be his – yet there is also the insight that walking in the way of Christ can mean the heart being pierced. In a moment we will receive the bread of life – a memory will be ours of the spear that pierced Christ’s side and ours, too, a sharing in the passion he endured – an amaro moment. But our reception of Holy Communion is also a recalling of the resurrection of Christ and a pledge of eternal life – a privilege and a joy and an amore moment. Our eyes have seen God’s salvation and we can only go out and bear fruit to the glory of the one and only living God – Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fr Jeremy Haselock