Let me summarise the readings in a sentence: Malachi foresees the challenging coming of the Messiah; Luke tells us of two people, Simeon who went to the temple, saw the Messiah, and died soon after, and of Anna, who recognised who this 40 day old baby was and witnessed to others; and Pauls tells us of some everyday consequences of the coming, dying and living again of that Messiah as he details the demands and joys of living in the faith, hope and love. That last reading is the reading set for today, but not for Candlemas which falls on Tuesday but which we celebrate today. Corinthians 13 reminds us that witnessing to others by our faith hope and love, as did Anna, is our current responsibility. Moreover, we usually only hear this wonderful passage read when two people are pledging to each other before God and their guests. The couple don’t hear much of it, as they are anxious or overwhelmed, and the guests are wondering if and how the groom will manage this bit or the bride the other: it’s good to remember it is a model for all lives, our own included.
So what is Candlemas? In a nutshell, the Festival is the recognition of God, born in love and given in love for all, the recognition of God, the Light of and for the world, shining in the face of a little baby held in the arms of two ordinary old people in the Temple. It falls roughly half way between Christmas and Easter, and the ‘Purification of the Blessed Virgin,’ to use the formal title, 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. In very early pre-Biblical times, the first child may well have been offered and killed as a sacrifice, but thankfully for women who had carried the baby and delivered it, or the father who watched, that no longer happened: I heard a story of just such an event in Borneo, done in the 1920s by a Muslim-influenced seer or shaman, and told to me by Perusa, the next born who was spared.
After the Temple visit, Mary would have taken her baby home and thereafter 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 or in some traditions not approach the altar for Communion- which seems a particularly unfortunate exclusion at such a time. 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 element gives way to the presentation of Christ in the Temple, relating him to his future community. Anna and Simeon are old and living at the edges of synagogue life yet both Anna, patiently waiting for seventy or eighty-four widowed years, and the life-weary Simeon, immediately relate to the Christ child, to the face of God. Simeon, who knew he could enter the sleep of death once he had seen the Messiah, speaks the words which we regularly repeat in Evening prayer or Compline, words which in that latter rite are enfolded by ‘Save us O Lord while waking and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace.’ That ‘watch or witness with Christ,’ is imagery taking us beyond Simeon’s song, an imagery which points us in the direction of Anna’s witness. Depending on the text, she was either 84 or closer to 104 – and given she was of the tribe of Asher, Jacob’s eighth son, of whom Moses said: ‘your strength will equal your age.’ Strength reaching out to others was Anna’s practised gift for she, like her Hebrew Bible sisters Deborah and Hulda, was a prophet. On seeing her Christ, ‘at that moment she came and began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem:’ like other followers of the adult Jesus, she is driven to share the good news of but the coming of one whom she would understand from Malachi would oppose sorcerers dabbling in magic for their own benefit, adulterers and all who do not keep solemn promises, liars, those who exploit those working for them, or exploit widows orphans and outsiders. She knew the future before Jesus’ ministry began.
For almost all, however, complete acceptance of who Jesus is, and complete discipleship, had to be shown through his ministry. The fact that his parents were startled to be told such things about this baby by Simeon and Anna, or later when Jesus went to the Temple by himself to talk as a fledgling adult with scholars and his parents again didn’t understand, is a sign neither of parental stupidity or mistaken identity, even though they had experienced Gabriel, the shepherds, the wise men: but how often do we know something of God yet act as if we’ve no idea! The light of Christ shone when Jesus entered into the active part of his ministry – and it is then that Mary his mother recognises and supports her son’s ministry at Cana, just as she knew him as her Lord when meeting with the other followers in that upper Room in Acts 1.
For us, the light of Christ has to be shared to illuminate our own path – ‘your word is a lantern to my feet and a light on my path,’ as psalm 119 outs it- and to light the path of others. A light hidden, a faith which does not witness through love and justice, is a selfish light. At this tipping point on the way to Easter, let us commit to sharing that light in the way we live our lives.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping