Candlemas

Sermon for Candlemas, Thursday, February 02 2017, 7:00 pm
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84; Psalm 85; Luke 2:22-40

One of the striking things about the early chapters of Luke’s gospel is how much goes on in and around the Temple; uniquely among the gospels, Luke gives us a picture of a complex and lively Temple community, to which the family of Jesus is significantly connected. Zechariah is serving in the Temple, offering incense in a busy ceremony carefully described, when he encounters an angel and is struck dumb. Later, we will learn that Jesus’ family travelled to the Temple every year, and we will hear the story of Jesus as a boy debating the elders there. And in today’s reading, we see the family coming to the Temple in accordance with another of the ceremonies of their community, the ritual dedication of the first-born son (and, as many have noted, Luke makes it clear that Jesus’ family is a poor family, making the minimal offering acceptable for those who could not afford more than a couple of birds). On the Temple grounds are two other significant figures, an elderly man waiting for the Messiah, who has come there “under the influence of the Spirit,” perhaps one of those strange people who wanders around talking to himself and comes into churches at inconvenient times; and an even more elderly woman who has apparently been living in the Temple precints as a sort of anchorite for most of her life. The Temple, for Luke, is a place of liturgy, life and prophecy, a busy place filled with all sorts and conditions of humanity. And the entry of the Light of the World into this place creates a sense not so much of disruption as of fulfillment. For Luke, at least, troubled and corrupt though the Temple system had become, problematic though its relationship with the occupying powers could be, questionable though the whole sacrificial system was, still there is a human impulse to worship, and indeed a human desire to debate theology, which are good, which are fundamentally necessary and beautiful.

Perhaps it is fitting that the feast we are celebrating today is also a complex and, in a sense, rather crowded one. The commemoration of this moment of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple is also the end of the Christmas/Epiphany season; it is also observed at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, another sort of hinge, which was celebrated long before the church existed. And this feast, thanks to Simeon’s brief mention of light, was able to absorb pre-Christian celebrations of the returning light of spring which took place at this midpoint, and become itself a festival of light—Candlemas, when the candles to be used in the church over the next year are blessed, when we remember that we live within two planes of being—the regular cycling of the seasons, the movements of sun and earth, the patterns of growth and decay in the agricultural year, but also the eschatological plane which intersects this cycle, which both inhabits and fulfills it, opens it out into eternity, the divine possibility unlimited by time.

Liturgy, light, prophecy, life, it’s all mixed up in this, and one of the things that makes this a rather lovely feast is that it is one of those days when we mix so many things together, when so many aspects of our human and religious experience are drawn in, and find fulfillment. With water and fire, we bless wax and string. We track the path of the sun and the shape of the year, and we celebrate all our odd human sorts and conditions, because—as the author of Hebrews says—God has come into the midst of the world of matter as one of us, as a body, an infant in a poor devout family in the middle of a complicated community.

And yet there is division as well as fulfillment. Simeon speaks of that too, the sword which will pierce Mary’s heart. And it is good that our stories give us this, because we have entered a frightening time right now, and it would not be right or possible, today, to celebrate the light simply, as if there were not winter at our shoulders. The infant will become a man who is a disputed sign, whose life and death will create a crisis of meaning. The one who would show us, in a human life, both the very nature of God, and at the same time the truth of what all human beings were intended to be, fully realized within the life of God. The one who would kneel to wash the feet of his friends, and tell us that this is what God does, this is who God is.

And it will become clear, as the story proceeds, that when ultimate love walks into a city, power fights back, with all the violence and all the hurt it can command. The sword of this division will cut within families and within the individual soul. It is a coming which will reveal, refine, and purify, as Malachi imagines; although perhaps not in the way that Malachi expected, not in power and judgement, but as the absolute horizon of love, and the response which this demands. The coming of God into his temple—the temple which is not just the temple in Jerusalem, not just a church or place of worship, but which is the entire world—will force each one of us into an ongoing struggle to choose rightly, to live justly, to purify our fears and desires, to learn a keen and accurate love, to kneel in service.

It as as urgent now as it has ever been. Like it or not, in this strange time we have suddenly entered, we are the resistance. We are the people who must hold onto love, who must stand against hatred and fear and apathy and—especially in Canada—the temptations of self-congratulation and complacency. It will not be easy. We will need each other, and we will need all the resources our tradition can give us.

And liturgy and ritual are a part of this, practices which help train us to be who we were created to be. We bless water and candles and resin and coal so that we can learn to bless and cherish and tend the whole world of matter, rather than simply exploiting it in our own immediate interests. We come together to this place, in all our odd sorts and conditions. We come like that crowd in Jerusalem, the very old, the very young, the poor and lonely, the hopeful prophets and those who cannot hope, and we kneel at the rail together in part so that we can learn to be community with those we did not choose but with whom God and the operations of chance have placed us. We come to learn to love our neighbours, for, in the words W.H. Auden wrote and then rejected, but which readers insisted upon remembering, we must love one another or die.

We have no sacrifices but our selves, our souls and bodies. We come to stand before God and each other and offer ourselves, even when we have nothing to offer, when the self is a small hard knot of pain, when the only thing we can lift up is our failure, our selfishness, our exhaustion, our grief. Even then. We come because God will still receive us, and feed us, and offer God’s own self back to us, in exchange for our very smallest, hardest turn towards the light. If that is all we have, it is enough.

For we have seen light in the face of a vulnerable infant, and we have wax and string and small flames and our fragile human bodies. We move from Christmas towards Lent and Good Friday, believing that Easter lies beyond them. In liturgy and community and life, tradition and ritual, in all our assorted human reality, in the precints of the temple that is our world, we dedicate our candles and our selves.