February 2, 2020: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Candlemas

February 2, 2020: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

    From the Gospel according to Luke, “(Simeon said) my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     In the rhythm of the Christian liturgical year, today marks the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, also called the Feast of the Purification of Mary. This feast recalls Mary and Joseph’s visit to the Temple to present their child Jesus on the fortieth day following his birth, as Jewish law required, and for Mary to undergo the postpartum rites of cleansing. And in today’s reading about that Temple visit of long ago, Luke speaks of a resident prophet named Anna and a man named Simeon who immediately recognized and welcomed Jesus. Taking the child into his arms, Simeon turned his voice toward God and offered praise for that “light for revelation” that has come into the world.

    Based upon Simeon’s words, his profession that Jesus is the Light of this world, that light for, and of, revelation, the Church has marked this day with a celebration of light: the Candle Mass, during which clergy bless candles to be used in the year to come. Coinciding with the turn toward spring and lengthening of light in the Northern Hemisphere, this Feast Day is all about shadows and light. Candlemas offers a liturgical celebration of the renewing of that light and life that comes to us in the natural world at this time of year, as well as in the story of Jesus. As we emerge from the darkness and deep of winter, today’s feast reminds us of the perpetual presence of Christ our Light in every season. So, now you know the origin of today’s Candlemas celebration! And yet, its message goes way beyond the blessing of candles.

     Throughout scripture, light and darkness are often described as opposing forces in this world. Old Testament readings portray the people of Israel as dwelling in the light while Gentiles, typically, dwell in darkness. In the gospels, God’s people are described as those who walk in the light while evil and betrayal lurk in the dark. It’s all rather cut and dry in scripture: Our lives – our thoughts, words, actions – everything we do as individuals and as communities and nations either fosters light or darkness. And that comparison rings true for us still today.

     See, much of contemporary life seems fixated on light and darkness; either/or; black or white with very little room for grey. We describe financial problems and worries for the future as dark days. We pray for leaders and those who can influence the lives of others, especially the poor and needy, hoping that elected officials will see what? “The light”and then choose to do that which is right. When our particular situation begins to improve, we might say we can see light at the end of a darkened tunnel; although, in my life that has usually turned out to be an oncoming train. Spiritually, we might speak of the dark night of the soul – those gut wrenching moments in time when God seems strangely silent and distant – times when grief, worry, stress, and heartbreak cause us to call out to God in frustration and anger, in sorrow and anguish. Everything in life seems to be about either embracing light as a comfort, or darkness to be shunned and feared; it’s one or the other.

     And yet, it is important to grasp our lesson from Luke’s gospel, with all its affirmation of light and blessing actually unfolds in the midst of darkness. In Hebrew tradition, the presentation of children and the rites of purification typically occurred in the early hours of the morning – just before dawn. Often, the only visible light in that vast Temple came from the flicker of an occasional lamp or candle, and shadows loomed everywhere. People would come and go from the midst of those shadows; from places we might consider to be of no importance, or easily overlook.

Luke speaks of a widow, a devout woman, a prophet, a mystic who, for the past seven years, has spent day and nightin the Temple praying for her family, her nation, and the world; praying for a redeemer and for redemption. Perhaps, Mary and Joseph heard Anna’s faint prayers wafting from the shadows. Off to another side, Simeon, (Simon as some call him), a devout and righteous man, just happened to come to the Temple at that particular moment. Luke says that Simeon came to the Temple every day and prayed for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Messiah and that the Holy Spirit had told him he would not see death until the Christ had come. Simeon enters the Temple that early morning and begins his prayers. And soon his prayers, along with those of Anna, quietly fill the darkness when, again from out of the shadows, Mary and Joseph carrying the child, Jesus, enter the scene, and suddenly life on earth was, and is, forever changed!

     See, the writer to the Hebrews says that this child presented at the Temple is he who came to redeem the whole world; God made flesh, made like us to experience all of life – the light and the dark - as one of us, as “God with us, Emmanuel.” And, the Prophet Malachi affirms, this child, this Messiah, comes to help and redeem not the just, but rather, those oppressed by their own sins and the sins of their nations. And in time, the Church which, at first, believed God’s promises were solely for the people of Israel, came to understand that God is God of all flesh, all creation; the God of light and darkness; the God of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female; that God is always at work redeeming all who will believe regardless of who or what they are, or from where they came, or what time of day or night it is, that God is often revealed in the stranger among us, those Annas and Simeons who come into our lives; that God always does the unexpected.

     In this Feast Day of the Presentation of Christ, this Candle Mass, darkness births light. And I find that hopeful because like me, I think most everyone here has experienced both light and darkness in everyday life. See, this Feast Day affirms the Creation Story. It affirms that God is God of the light and of the dark; that God made them both and pronounced both of them good. For the truth is, beloved, light means nothing without darkness. We cannot understand the grace and joy of walking in the light without those times of darkness, of not knowing what it is like to have no sense of where we are heading, just as we cannot appreciate the beauty and peace of darkness if we cannot fathom that God is present in all things and at all times. Like Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, through our own experience of darkness we can understand and see the world in new ways, and sense the presence of God guiding us through things seen and unseen.

     And thus, this Feast Day reminds us of the incredible grace of God – the God who is present in light is also present in darkness, and even more wonderful that God not only redeems light and darkness, but in Christ, God redeems allpeople. 

     And that brings us to a deeper aspect of this Day. For all its beauty and affirmation of God’s creation – the simple beauty of candlelight that illumines darkness – the Church is forever challenged by those words of Simeon, “to be a light to enlighten the nations, and to be the glory of your people.” That is who the Christ is in our story from Luke and still is today. And, beloved, we, who carry his name, are called to do and be the same: to live lives that enlighten our communities and nation, and proclaim and demonstrate the transforming glory of God. The Feast of the Presentationproclaims the grace-filled truth that God not only redeems light and darkness, but in Christ, God redeems all people, - people like you and me - and our lives should proclaim the same.

    Candle Mass, The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, both challenges and affirms that which we have prayed together at the end of every Eucharist these many weeks: “May Christ be so manifest in us that our lives may be a light to the world.” By God’s grace, may that be true in us today and always. Amen.