Sunday 2 February 2020: Presentation of Christ
A light to lighten the Gentiles
Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Context: a Service of the Word at a United Reformed Church where Duncan is a regular ecumenical visitor, around 30 in the congregation, mostly older well-educated people of a liberal evangelical outlook
Aim: to stress that Christ will not disappoint us
Symbols that speak
My first visit to this church was 1993 and since then we have had a fruitful ecumenical friendship. Friendship always involves sharing. I have received much from this community, so I want to share in return by telling you of something beautiful in the traditional Roman Catholic ceremonies of Candlemas. They also take place in Eastern churches and in some Anglican churches.
Today, instant electricity means that, in the developed world at least, we take light for granted. But the ceremonies remind us of the miracle of light in darkness. Sophronius, a sixth century Syrian bishop of Jerusalem tells us that ‘the candles are a sign of the divine splendour of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light.’
Today, on the fortieth day after Christmas, candles are blessed and carried unlit into the darkness of the Church. The priest then announces, ‘Let us go in peace to meet the Lord.’ And then, in the Gospel reading, we hear how Mary and Joseph brought the infant Christ into the temple where he was met by Simeon and Anna. So, who can we identify with in the story?
With whom do we identify?
Are we like Mary, who as Sophronius tells us ‘carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness?’ And he adds: ‘We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.’
Or are we like Simeon and Anna, two elderly people, grown old waiting for the longed-for Messiah, for the chosen one who would bring liberation and peace to a troubled world, longing for Malachi’s prophecy to be fulfilled? Like them, we may be looking for something better. We may be looking for something better for our church community, for ourselves, or for the disadvantaged people in our country. And, of course, it is much worse for people in poor countries with problems of hunger, disease, war or political repression. They too, like Simeon and Anna are looking for something better.
And the good news is that they were not disappointed in their longing for the Lord ‘to suddenly enter his temple’, an event foreshadowed in Ezekiel (43:5) where ‘The glory of Lord entered the temple by the eastward gate and the house of God was filled with his splendour.’ Or in Malachi’s prophecy, which was fulfilled as Mary and Joseph brought Christ into the Temple. Simeon and Anna recognised Christ as the light come into darkness of our world. They were not disappointed.
We are not disappointed either. Nobody who longs to see Christ is going to be disappointed. Jesus is present among us, but we only see him with the eye of faith. We believe that he is present in our worship and present in our everyday life. The Second Vatican Council sees this as ‘true not only for Christians but for all people of good will in whose heart grace is invisibly at work. Since Christ died for all … we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being united with this paschal mystery in a way known only to God…’ (Gaudium et Spes).
Good news indeed, but the coming of Christ can pain us, because he comes to bring about change that will be painful. Fuller’s soap was a harsh, abrasive soap and he comes as a sign that will be contradicted, especially in the present political climate of exclusion and greed. Following him will bring the fulfilment of what we always longed for, but, as Simeon foretold, he is ‘a sign that is rejected’ and, like Mary, for those who serve him, a sword will pierce their own soul too. Welcoming Jesus will bring us great joy but witnessing to him might cause us trouble!
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