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This Sunday is one when the Church traditionally celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is the story we heard in our Gospel reading today.
Until very recently, Christian women in many denominations would be “churched” about six weeks after giving birth – either at a special service, or as a special prayer said in the main service, to give thanks for a safe delivery and so on. It seems to have died out now, largely, I think, because the service was not transferred to the modern prayer books, and arguably because childbirth is so very much safer than it used to be. Shame, really – it would be a lovely thing to happen whenever someone appeared in church with a new baby!
For Jewish women, though, the ritual was also about purification. They would, traditionally, go to be purified forty days after giving birth. I am not totally sure what the process involved, but fairly certainly Mary would have had a ritual bath before going to the Temple to make her thanksgiving, and to present the baby.
The text says Mary and Joseph took a pair of pigeons to sacrifice – interesting note that, because that's what you took if you were poor; richer people sacrificed a sheep. And if you were really, really poor and couldn't even afford a pair of pigeons, I believe you were allowed to take some flour. But for Mary and Joseph, it was a pair of pigeons.
And they present the baby – they would, I think, have done this for any child, not just because Jesus was special. And then it all gets a bit surreal, with the old man and the old woman coming up and making prophecies over the child, and so on.
Actually, the whole story is a bit surreal, really. After all, St Matthew tells us that the Holy Family fled Bethlehem and went to Egypt to avoid Herod's minions, but according to Luke, they're just going home to Nazareth – a little delayed, after the census, to allow Mary and the baby time to become strong enough to travel, but six weeks old is six weeks old, and it makes the perfect time for a visit to the Temple. The accounts are definitely contradictory just here, but I don't think that really matters too much – after all, truth isn't necessarily a matter of historical accuracy.
Come to that, I don't suppose Simeon really burst into song, any more than Mary or Zechariah. Luke has put words into their mouths, rather like Shakespeare does to the kings and queens of British history. Henry the Fifth is unlikely to have said “This day is called the Feast of Crispian” and so on, or “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, but he probably rallied the troops with a sentiment of some kind, and it is the same here. Zechariah, Mary and Simeon probably didn't say those actual words that Luke gives them, but they probably did express that sort of sentiment.
Although I often wonder why it is that when Jesus reappears as a young man, nobody recognises him. We don't hear of an elderly shepherd hobbling up to him and saying “Ah, I remember how the angels sang when you were born!” But perhaps it is as well – it means he had a loving, private, sensible childhood. Which, I think, is partly why we see so very little of him as a child, just that glimpse of him as a rather precocious adolescent in the Temple. He needed to grow up in peace and security and love, without the dreadfulness of who he was and why he had come hanging over him.
But on this very first visit to the Temple, he can't do more than smile and maybe vocalise a bit. It is Simeon we are really more concerned with. His song, which the Church calls the Nunc Dimittis, after the first two words of it in Latin, is really the centre of today's reading. He is saying that now, at last, he has seen God's salvation, and is happy to die. The baby will be “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God's people Israel.”
“A light to lighten the Gentiles”. This is why another name for this festival is Candlemas. Candlemas. In some churches, candles are blessed for use throughout the year, but as we are no longer dependent on candles as a light source, it might be more to the point to bless our stock of light bulbs! Because what it's about is Jesus as the Light of the World. A light to lighten the Gentiles, certainly, but look how John's Gospel picks up and runs with that. “The Word was the source of life,and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” And John's Gospel reports Jesus as having said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.”
Jesus is the Light of the World, and that's part of what we are celebrating today.
We rather take light for granted, here in the West, don't we? We are so used to being able to flick on a switch and it's light that we forget how dark it can be. We had a brief power-cut last Saturday, and it felt very dark indeed! Even though we have a really good emergency lantern and, of course, torches on our phones. And candles, come to that – I make sure we have a supply of emergency candles, just in case.
Not that a candle provides very much light, of course – you can't see to read by it very well, or sew, or any of the things people did before television and social media, or, come to that, before houses were lit by electricity. But even a candle can dispel the darkness. Even the faintest, most flickering light means it isn't completely dark – you can see, even if only a little. And sometimes for us the Light of the World is like that – a candle in the distance, a faint, flickering light that we hardly dare believe isn't our eyes just wanting to see. But sometimes, of course, wonderfully, as I'm sure you've experienced, it's like flicking on a light switch to illuminate the whole room. Sometimes God's presence is overwhelmingly bright and light.
And other times not.
This time of year is half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It's not spring yet, but the days are noticeably longer than they were at the start of the year. There are daffodils and early rhubarb in the shops, and the bulbs are beginning to pierce through the ground. The first snowdrops will be out any day now. In the country, the hazel trees are showing their catkins, and if you look closely at the trees, you can see where the leaves are going to be in just a few weeks. We hope. Candlemas is one of those days we say predict the weather – like St Swithun's Day in July, when if it rains, it's going to go on raining for the next six weeks. Only at Candlemas it's the opposite – if it's a lovely day, then winter isn't over yet, but if it's horrible, Spring is definitely on the way. The Americans call it “Groundhog Day”, same principle – if the groundhog sees his shadow, meaning if the sun is out, winter hasn't finished by any manner of means, but if he can't, if the sun isn't shining, then maybe it is.
So it's a funny time of year, still winter, but with a promise of spring. And isn't that a good picture of our Christian lives? We still see the atrocities, the horror of terrorist attacks, the awfulnesses perpetrated by organisations like Al Qaeda and Boko Haram. We still see that we, too, can be pretty awful when we set our minds to it, simply because we are human. We know that there are places inside us we'd really rather not look at. It is definitely winter, and yet, and yet, there is the promise of spring. There is still light. It might be only the flickering light of a candle in another room, or it might be the full-on fluorescent light of an overwhelming experience of God's presence, but there is still light.
The infant Jesus was brought to the Temple, and was proclaimed the Light to Lighten the Gentiles. But, of course, that's not all – we too have that light inside us; you remember Jesus reminded us not to keep it under a basket, but to allow it to be seen. And again, the strength and quality of our light will vary, due to time and circumstances, and possibly even whether we slept well last night or what we had for breakfast. Sometimes it will be dim and flickering, and other times we will be alight with the flame of God's presence within us. It's largely outwith our control, although of course, by the means of grace and so on we can help ourselves come nearer to God. But it isn't something we can force or struggle with – we just need to relax and allow God to shine through us. Jesus is the Light of the World, and if we follow Him, we will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness. We will, not we should, or we must, or we ought to. We will. Be it never so faint and flickering, we will have the light of life. Amen.