I wonder what it is that you miss most in this time of lockdown? There are so many things that we used to take for granted which we now appreciate in a new way. There was the relative ease in which we could make a decision simply to meet family or friends. We popped round to a neighbour, met up in the city for a coffee, travelled across the country or even booked a flight and boarded a plane. Meeting together was just something we did. Prior to March 2020, meeting someone was not fraught with necessary rules, regulations and risk assessments designed to protect one another and ourselves. I miss meeting those I love. I miss meeting those I pray for and care about. I miss meeting you.
The feast of Candlemas is all about a meeting. This meeting took place many centuries ago and yet its legacy reaches beyond time and space, shaping the lives of millions of Christians across the world and down the ages, continuing to shape our lives today. In the Eastern Church, Candlemas is called ‘the meeting’. The meeting in which we now play our part is a meeting between God’s old and new covenants, Christmas and Lent, light and dark, nativity and cross. It is a meeting between the infant Jesus and old Simeon and Anna. St Luke describes Simeon as righteous and devout, Anna as a prophet who never leaves the temple but worships there with fasting and prayer night and day. They have both been watching and waiting and praying for God’s Messiah. When he recognises the child, Simeon prophesies that Jesus will suffer. But in his famous speech that we know as the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon also calls Jesus a light for all people. It is for this reason that the Church made the feast into a feast of candles. Traditionally, many churches would celebrate with a joyful candlelight procession culminating with a blessing of all the candles to be used in the year ahead.
The posh name for Candlemas is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Through much of Christian history, the feast has been neglected. This is a shame because as Bishop Michael Perham writes in his book, Glory in our Midst Candlemas does three things. It reminds us of the important Gospel story that we have just heard. It brings to an end the traditional 40 day celebration of Christmas. It points the Church in a new direction, moving the focus from the birth to the death of Christ, turning us from contemplation of the significance of Christmas to anticipation of the events of Lent, Holy Week and Easter. So if like me you still have your crib scene up at home, Candlemas is the day to pack it away for another year.
In the hymn by Bernadette Farrell that we will sing today, we cry out to God in our deep longing for the light of Christ:
Christ be our light! Shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness.
Christ be our light! Shine in your church gathered today.
This past week, we have reached the tragic milestone of 100,000 deaths across the UK from Covid-19. We remember before God those who have died and all those who know and love them. The pandemic continues to be a time of great darkness, fear, isolation and grief. In truth we find ourselves longing for light. Yet as we wait for the light simultaneously we hold aloft the flickering lights of our candles not in our own strength but in the strength and hope of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
In inviting the nation to pause, pray and remember, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York remind us that God knows grief and suffering. So it is that we can draw strength from this Candlemas day as we look backwards to Christmas and the birth of Emmanuel, God with us and forwards to Good Friday where on the cross ‘Jesus shares the weight of our sadness’. We can find strength too that in the hope of the resurrection that we will celebrate at Easter, death is never the last word.
But let’s not get ahead of the story. These last few weeks, the Gospel readings have been about the life of Jesus as an adult: his baptism, the call of the first disciples, the first miracle at the wedding of Cana. Today we focus again on the baby Jesus. We see powerlessness and vulnerability not only in a new born baby but also in the old man and woman who wait for him in the temple. The light of the world is found in and through vulnerability. The light of the world is found in fragility and dependence. The light of the world is found in faithfulness to God’s call and to God’s promises.
In this time of global pandemic, we have discovered afresh our vulnerability, powerlessness and fragility, our need for one another and our inter-dependence across the world. Many people have also rediscovered or indeed discovered for the first time their need of God. As Simeon and Anna met with Jesus the Messiah, may we prepare to meet Jesus light of the world when he comes to bring us to eternal life. Amen.
Rev Canon Nikki Arthy, Rector