Candlemas: the meeting of the young and the old

Revd Deacon Frances Hiller, chaplain to the Suffragan Bishop in Europe, draws our attention to some of the exquisite insights gleaned from Luke 2.22-40, the Gospel reading for Candlemas.

This week in the Diocesan Office my colleague Bron will take down the crib and pack away Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus for another year, as we leave Christmas behind us and we turn towards the beginning of Lent – the start of the journey to the Cross. Candlemas, also known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is celebrated this week. In some churches candles will be blessed and lit, and there will be processions.

Candlemas comes midway between the joy of the Christmas Festival and the suffering and darkness of Passiontide. It is a bit like a hinge in the Church’s year – a time for looking both backwards and forwards. We have been for some weeks in the season of Epiphany, celebrating the appearance of God, the manifestation of his presence among us. Some have been blind, others, like Herod, have felt threatened. It has been those at the edges, or on the outside, who have been open to the extraordinary signs of God.

Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to present him to God, for every first-born boy belongs to God. They bring with them a sacrifice, two pigeons, because they are poor. Mary comes also to be purified. After the birth of her child she was ritually unclean according to the Law. If you have read Leviticus chapter 12 you will know that if Jesus had been a girl, we would not be celebrating this feast until 14 March.

The story of Simeon’s revelation, when he realises that his long wait has not been in vain is surely one of the most beautiful epiphany moments in the New Testament. As he holds in his arms this living, breathing bundle, he knows that he has been set free. God has kept his promise, and Simeon has seen with his own eyes the Light of the World, a light to reveal God to the nations. He can now let go. But a chill must have gone through Mary’s heart when she heard his words ‘This child is destined … to be a sign that will be opposed… and a sword shall pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.35)

Simeon was not the only old person present. The prophet Anna was more or less a permanent fixture around the Temple, worshipping daily with fasting and prayer. Through all the long years she had never lost hope that her prayers would be answered. And when she saw Jesus she knew that that moment had come.

God is revealed to these two old people in the Temple, to Simeon, waiting patiently to die, and to Anna, one of the first to tell people about Jesus. She began ‘to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’ (Luke 2.38) Candlemas is a festival of aging well. Simeon and Anna waited patiently all those years for God’s fulfillment. They would not see the completion of this work, but they were full of hope for God’s future.

St Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth century hymn writer (who was also a deacon) wrote this about Anna:

Blessed are you, old woman, treasure of perception, for this ancient Infant met you. By your old age, he assigned youth its place. He polished a mirror and set it up for children to learn dignity.

No-one is too old to be a sign of hope and faith to the younger generation. The age profile of some of our congregations might be on the high side, but don’t be too dismayed! For how would we manage without the many Simeons and Annas serving across the Diocese with such faithfulness, giving with generosity their time, energy and experience?

As Mary presented Christ in the Temple, we are called to present Christ to the world, to reflect his light through the way we choose to live our lives.

As Simeon looked for the Christ and found him in the tiny baby, we are called to seek and to serve Christ in others.

And like Anna, the first witness to Jesus, we are called to witness through our lives, our words and our worship to the love of God in Christ Jesus.

candlemas pic

A Sonnet for Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

(Malcolm Guite)

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