What do you want more than anything else? What do you long for, right from the very centre of your being?
It is almost as if in our Gospel reading today we have come full circle in the Christmas story. We find a man, named Simeon, who is longing for the messiah. His deepest desire is for the promise that God made to his people that he would save them to become a reality. And as we find him in the Temple there is a sense that we have been here before. Because right at the start of the Christmas story, before Jesus had even been conceived there was another man in the Temple full of desire for God. Not on that occasion this Simeon who is filled with the Spirit, but Zechariah the old Temple priest. You remember the story I am sure: Zechariah was faithfully going about his ministry in the Temple, watching and waiting and hoping and praying for God to act.
At the time of the incense offering as Zechariah was going about his normal duties at the altar, the angel Gabriel (a messenger of God) appeared to him and announced to him that his wife, also senior in years, was to bear a child, and his name was to be John, and he was to be the herald, preparing the way for God’s new work in the world. As Zechariah waited in hope in the Temple, the angel announced that his waiting would soon be over. And in that incredible story, right at the opening of the Gospel of Luke we found in the faith of Zechariah, his watching and his waiting come to fulfilment in the birth of his Son John.
Now today we are back in the Temple again, not this time with Zechariah, but instead with Simeon. Zechariah and Simeon symbolise for us the long line of faithful men and women who have fashioned there lives around the framework of God’s promises. Waiting was not, for them, an idle way of passing the time, it was an active hoping and looking for God at work in the world around them.
In Luke’s Gospel these two stories in the Temple act like book-ends either side of the great story of the birth of Jesus. And so this second book-end, which we hear today, brings to an end the presentation of the Gospel narrative of the birth of Jesus by the writers of the Gospel of Luke. When we next encounter Jesus in the Temple he will no longer be a baby, he will be a young man coming of age, astounding the priests and the teachers with his knowledge as we heard on the First Sunday after Christmas. But today, for a final moment on the last day of the Christmas season, we are back in the first year of his life again.
Before Jesus’ birth an old priest Zechariah sees through the birth of his own son John a sign that God is doing a new and wonderful thing for his people. Now as Jesus is presented in the Temple it is Simeon (who has waited all his life, longing for God to act as he had promised), who is able to exclaim “Now Lord I am ready to die in peace, your word has been fulfilled right here in front of me.” With joy at seeing Jesus he cries out with the words of the canticle which are said here in this Church every evening at Evening Prayer; the canticle that many of us know as ‘Nunc Dimittis’.
Joseph and Mary have come to offer a sacrifice in the Temple as a symbol of them offering their son for the service of God. A wealthy couple in those days would bring a lamb and a turtle-dove to be sacrificed, or if doves were not available (because they are migrating birds) pigeons would be offered in their place. To the rest of the onlookers in the Temple on that day, this couple was just another provincial family, who had come to Jerusalem to keep the Jewish religious law. Joseph and Mary are not doing anything remarkable in Jewish custom. And yet Simeon, through the eyes of faith sees something extraordinary going on which everyone else is missing.
I wonder what we would make of Simeon and Anna, the characters in this story, if we met them today. Simeon certainly sounds like an interesting man. The tradition of the Church presumes that he is old, but we don’t know that for sure. What we do know is that he has powerful experiences of God at work in his life that have led him to believe that he will not die before he has seen the Messiah.
In my imagination I wonder whether he has ever run to the Temple before, having a sense that the Messiah will be there, but finding that he has been mistaken. How many times before has he been disappointed when his sense of hope that God would act has bubbled up to overflowing only to come to nothing? How ever many times he has run into that Temple in the past things are different today. Just as Zechariah sensed something when he saw his own baby son John, now today Simeon experiences something of the holiness of God as he sees the baby Jesus held in the arms of his mother, convincing him that God’s new thing is beginning.
Anna, who is watching all of this take place, and listening eagerly just wants to join in, and as Simeon praises God, she does the same and draws others into what’s going on by repeating the things that Simeon is saying. But there is an uncomfortable reality behind Anna’s situation. She is of a great age and her husband has died, and she never leaves the precincts of the Temple. That sounds very holy. But Anna almost certainly doesn’t leave the Temple because she is homeless, she has nowhere else to go. It may be because she had no children, or that she did have children but was rejected by them when they grew up in a society without any social security system at all. For whatever reason, the Temple has become her home, not only out of personal preference but because she has no other option.
As I imagine Anna I think about the bag lady who I used to meet wandering along King Street in Newcastle every morning near the Diocesan Office, clutching all that she owns, in vivid conversation with herself. I think that if Anna lived in this Church night and day she might make many of us feel rather uncomfortable, and we would probably have introduced incense in our services to clear the air. One thing is absolutely clear, if God is doing a new thing she is not going to be left out of it. And so as Simeon praises God she does the same, and encourages others to join them.
Throughout the books of the Old Testament we hear stories of many men and women watching for God to act in their time. Hoping for change, waiting for the coming of his Kingdom. In our first reading we heard the longing of the Prophet Malachi, for this day when the Messiah would appear in the Temple. Zechariah the faithful priest, Simeon the expectant lay man, Anna the homeless prophet: through these three people we see glimpses of the different characters and personalities who have dedicated themselves to ordering their lives around the hope that God’s promises will be fulfilled. As we look around this great Church of St Peter today we see another set of faces, of people who are striving to do the same.
What fascinates me most about both of these stories in between which the nativity of Jesus is nestled, is that there is absolutely no certainty at all that Zechariah and Simeon and Anna have got it right. We read the text with hindsight, indeed it was written in that way, but at the time they did not know what was going to happen next. When all is said and done all that is in front of them is a baby – not a prophet or a king or a messiah. Yet they have faith to believe that this is the start of something new. And that, of course, is the point of both of the stories.
The traditional name for the festival that we celebrate today is Candlemass. It always occurs forty days after Christmas Day (the 2nd of February, which this year was yesterday), and it signals the end of the Christmas season. In medieval times Candlemass was the day on which priests blessed special candles which were given to parishioners to burn in their homes. I was at a Eucharist yesterday morning in one of the parishes in the City of Newcastle where candles were blessed and lit in exactly that way. For the people of the past in the northern hemisphere, who did not have our luxuries of electricity and gas, Candlemass was a powerful festival of hope in the cold and dark of winter. It would have been a particularly powerful symbol of hope because by the beginning of February people living in the northern hemisphere have begun to see – albeit very slowly – the lengthening of days, and the first signs of spring. So there is a real hope that winter is coming to an end.
Just like those candles being lit in the darkness of winter-time as people wait for and begin to experience the hope of spring, the baby Jesus shines out to Simeon, just as the baby John shone out to his father Zechariah – shining out in hope for the future. At the heart of the Christian tradition is the calling to each one of us to do the same.
The first Christians (the earliest followers of Jesus) were known as ‘Children of Light.’ Light in the darkness has been a profound image of the power of the Gospel and the loving work of God in Jesus for 2,000 years. At the heart of the celebration of Candlemass we remember not only that Jesus has ignited a light in this world which can never be quenched, never be darkened. We remember too, that it is through us (his ‘Children of Light’) that that light will continue to shine here in this community of East Maitland.
Right at the beginning of our re-creation in Christ, with all who have been baptised into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus we were called to ‘shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father.’ I will be saying those words six times next Sunday over the six children who are being baptised in our last baptisms before the Lenten fast.
This festival of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemass, on the last day of the Christmas season, reminds us that God has entrusted to us the gift of the light of his son, not only for ourselves but for those around us as well. All of us who have been baptised are children of God, Children of the Light. God calls us to be a candle-people. People who burn with the light of Christ in the darkness. People who burn with hope, like those ancient Candlemass candles in the winter of this world.
Today we remember that we are called to be people like Zechariah, and Simeon and Anna, who frame our lives with the deepest desire and expectation to see that God is at work in our midst, and to point others to that reality. We shine as light in the world, and we hold on to hope, for ourselves and for those who live around us.