Malachi 3, 1-5; Benedictus, Hebrews 2 14-end, Luke 2, 22-38
Christ is the World’s true light: We would see Jesus; Let all mortal flesh keep silence; I wonder as I wander
Candlemas, the double feast of the purification of Mary and, more important in recent decades, the presenting of Jesus in the temple, stands midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Together with Ash Wednesday, it falls more or less between two of the three major festivals of the church, Christmas and Easter. The Malachi reading points forward to the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One who, having passed the test of suffering himself as pointed out in Hebrews, will eternally oppose those who wish evil on their brothers and sisters and those who abuse the powerless and marginalised. Luke’s Gospel account of Anna’s meeting with Mary, the Mother of God, and with Simeon, also points forward to Easter, the crucifixion, and the piercing grief of Mary.
The ‘Purification of the Blessed Virgin’ recalls Mary going to the Temple for the Jewish forty-day ‘cleansing’ after child-birth, offering two doves, rather than the sheep of the rich, and five shekels. She would then be re-incorporated into everyday relationship with friends and families around house and hearth, much as Christian women were and still often are ‘churched’ after birth, before which time a good many people would not let the new mother enter their house. Echoing that resumption of free relating among females, Candlemas in Western and Orthodox Christianity became a time for all women in the community to meet together, to talk, enjoy, and eat – much as men would meet (and drink) at St Johns Tide in June.
But in contemporary church life the purification of women element has given way to the presentation of Christ in the Temple, relating him to his future community. Anna and Simeon are old, at the edges of synagogue life yet both Anna, patiently waiting for seventy widowed years, and the life-weary Simeon, immediately relate to the Christ child, to the face of God. Pictures commonly show Simeon and Anna holding or enfolding Him, almost like grandparents, with poor Joseph again an irrelevancy. Tales from around 300AD, based on the pseudo-Gospel of James, turned Anna into Mary’s mother, although given Anna’s age, 84, she’d have given birth at 70. Moreover, that takes away Anna’s status as seer and advisor for 63 years of daily Temple visits. Why give Mary a mother? Why remove Anna’s faithful independence? Rather rejoice that they met, Mary holding her child in whom Anna saw the face of God.
Relating is not always easy. Others’ needs may clash with our wants; honesty clashes with securing approval, fear of rejection cautions against our reaching out, grudges are self-righteously maintained. That’s not the relating Anna and Simeon did when acknowledging the child in Mary’s arms. Anna especially risked by-standers’ muttering about dotty old people seeing God’s face: but both spoke from their hearts.
Relations with kith and kin, with friends, fade not just through squabbles or gentler growing apart, but also through changed residence, death, dementia. A difficult experience may make us afraid to risk reaching out again. Isolation was the choice of Silas Marner, George Elliot’s embittered linen-weaver, after being falsely accused of theft. He became a miser, counting his gold. Robbed himself, life for this sad miser resumed when a golden haired foundling came to his door for, in relating to her, and to people from whom he needed advice regarding her upbringing, he became fully human again.
Holding ourselves aloof, in suits of armour as protection again the fear of loss, of trust, love, or life, is not the message of the presentation in the temple, nor of Mary’s reception – after an untimely pregnancy – into the synagogue ‘Mothers Union.’ Nor it is the message of Malachi, who bids us live with justice, relating to others as equal humans not subordinates. Fear is not the stuff of a life in Christ. Janet Morley, who wrote a book of Psalms in the 1980s, expressed this in what may seem both empty and courageous words:
And though there is no one to hold me
Yet I will hold my heart open.
We may long to repair failures or hurts. Sometimes that is possible, if the other person is here and willing to listen, but sometimes it seems not, which is hard. We all have tough periods, with no one to hold our hand or share a tear or a laugh, yet we are not alone. Nor, properly penitent over our failings, are we unforgiven for, irrespective of wrongs and hurts, we are all acceptable to God as we are and accepted by God as we are. Truly we know: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God: In the beginning was and still is the relation between Creator Mediator and Advocate: In the gospels young Mary, middle-aged Elizabeth and aged Anna interact lovingly. The Cross is the gifted symbol for the building of just, and just such, relationships, and for reconciliation through the re-presenting of Mary’s Son.
Gifted, yes, but just and enlivening relationships don’t just happen and stay perfect: we have continually to make an effort to live with both integrity and care, open to all. What’s so hard about that when God upholds us? What’s so hard when, as today’s psalm says: ‘lift up your heads ye gates, lift yourselves up, that the King of Glory may come in’? None of us are actually alone. We can, dare I say we must, risk holding our head up and our heart watchfully open to relate to any and all others. Receiving the gift of life in Christ gives us no other option: we love because he first loved us.
Holding the heart open and taking the risk of sharing a smile, offering a helping hand, listening when someone’s soul is scratching and heart flimmering while yet also holding our hearts open to recognise our own equally valid needs, pains and failings: Because there is someone to hold us, God in Christ and Spirit, we can relate to others with faith and hope and the love of our light-bearing Christ.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
The English Church, Heidelberg,
1st February, 2015