The flickering flame of Candlemas
St Luke 2:22 According to the law of Moses.
Can I say what a great pleasure and privilege it is to be here with you today and to bring the greetings and good wishes of my own congregation at Canongate Kirk, the Kirk of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle. At the risk of making me sound like Simeon himself, it’s over thirty years since I first entered this great chapel as an undergraduate when I joined the chapel choir and helped to ring the bells in the tower. In those days there were three distinct terms, Martinmas, Candlemas and Whit – those were the days – and I’m glad to see the word Candlemas is still tentatively linked to this semester, whatever a semester is. The flickering flame of Candlemas still burns after all, not least in this weekend’s marking of the presentation of Christ in the temple, the Church’s ancient feast day falling exactly forty days after the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
This year Candlemas almost coincides with another ancient tradition with particular relevance for new-born babies, Chinese New Year, which tomorrow ushers in the Year of the Pig. And according to that ancient tradition more or less as old as Christianity, those that are born in this, or any other, year of the pig are expected to be energetic and enthusiastic, hardworking, tolerant and understanding. Their prospects for higher education are said to be good, with careers beckoning in fundraising and teaching. They will lead busy lives, blessed with wealth and happiness, but in some respects might also be considered naïve and stubborn. I suppose these are assumed to be some of the characteristics of the pig and in gatherings all across China over the coming days of what is also known as the Spring Festival, and indeed in Chinese communities and families all over the world, they will be applied thoughtfully and expectantly above all to new born babies as their families celebrate their arrival and look to their future and speculate on how it will all turn out. Which brings us back to Candlemas and the presentation of Christ in the temple, the first visit that Mary and Joseph and the new-born Jesus make to Jerusalem. And waiting to receive them there in that holy place was Simeon. Waiting quietly in the shadows of the Temple, a hint of incense in the air, a shaft of sunlight perhaps from a high window, good old Simeon, upright and devout, waiting and wondering when a particular prophecy was ever going to be fulfilled, the old prophecy from the Book of Malachi that “Suddenly the Lord whom you seek will come to his Temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight…”
All his life Simeon had been waiting for that delightful moment, time after time, Candlemas after Candlemas. Although at first sight it seems to belong to the Christian tradition, Candlemas is all in fact According to the law of Moses. And According to the law of Moses it’s all to do with what is known in the Jewish tradition as the purification of women after childbirth. The Book of Leviticus, right at the very heart of the Old Testament Books of the Law, is very particular about the rules and regulations concerning both the Purification of women after childbirth and the Presentation of the first born. “When the time of her purification is completed”, it is written, “whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of the Lord’s presence a one year old lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. …if the woman cannot afford a lamb”, it is further explained, “she shall bring two doves”. In this tradition too animals and birds have symbolic significance, in this case not a horse, but a lamb, or two doves.
Now let’s go back to the second chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, where we hear that “after the purification had been completed According to the law of Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. And also to make the offering as stated in the law of the Lord: a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons”. But the law of the Lord you remember only required a pair of doves or pigeons if the couple could not afford a lamb, and obviously Mary and Joseph came into that category. So this whole episode is amongst other things a clear reminder of how ordinary they were, this young couple who had been chosen for such extraordinary things, too poor even to afford a lamb, with no reason to draw attention to themselves. And they were most definitely not revelling in any limelight here, for what they were doing was simply According to the law of Moses, nothing more, nothing less than doing what their Law required, their ancient tradition, after the appropriate length of time has elapsed, bringing their first born child to the Temple and making the appropriate offering.
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary under the law, St Luke tells us, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God. Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, he prays in the more familiar language of the Authorised Version, the Book of Common Prayer and the Church’s most ancient hymn the Nunc Dimittis, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
Simeon had been waiting for this moment all his life. Waiting and wondering and looking and longing. And he must have seen hundreds of first-born children brought to the Temple to do as the Law required; hundreds of tiny babies, hundreds of proud parents, coming through the Temple courtyards with their precious bundles, not to mention their lambs and their doves, all speculating as to what the future held for their child, what would become of him, what he would be like. Back in Canongate Kirk on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile we have baptisms scheduled for the next two Sundays, and those families will be exactly the same, thankful and thoughtful and careful. But that day as soon as Mary and Joseph came in thankfully and thoughtfully and carefully carrying the child and the doves, like so many other poor parents before them, Simeon knew in his heart that this was the one that he had been waiting for all along, a light to lighten the Gentiles, a Saviour of all people. And all According to the law of Moses.
Although the Nunc Dimittis is still very much part of our choral tradition, another old-fashioned hymn that has long since disappeared from the hymnbooks represents a setting of words by the 18th century poet William Cowper:
Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.
Candlemas is exactly that, a season of clear shining, a time when we recall not just the presentation of Christ in the temple six weeks after his birth at Bethlehem, but his instant recognition by Simeon as the light to lighten the Gentiles. And a time when we too can acknowledge those moments of recognition in our own lives, those times of illumination when we have known a particular sense of comfort or strength or encouragement that somehow seems to come from beyond ourselves and carries us through. Sometimes longed for and looked for, at other times unexpected and surprising, yet each time a recognition of God’s power at work in our lives. A season of clear shining, for which like Simeon we should always be on the lookout, and by which like Simeon we too can say in the fullness of time “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation”.
One thing I ask of the Lord, wrote the Psalmist, it is the one thing I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. Seek him and find him, and find it’s been worth the wait, all the days, all the terms, all the semesters, all the years; however long the flickering flame of Candlemas.
As by the sun in splendour
The flags of night are furled,
So darkness shall surrender
To Christ who lights the world:
To Christ the Star of day,
Who once was small and tender,
a candle’s gentle ray.
And now may God bless to us this preaching of his most holy word, and to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all praise and glory now and forever. Amen.