The Presentation of Christ (Candlemas)
28 January 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Malachi 3. 1-5; Luke 2. 22-40
The rabbis tell the story of a teacher, Honi, who lived some six hundred years before Christ. Honi was walking one day in the hills near Jerusalem when heavy rains forced him to take shelter in a secluded cave. He fell into a deep sleep for seventy years. They were eventful years during which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian army and the Jewish people forcibly taken into exile. Fifty years passed and still Honi slept as the Jewish people returned from exile. They built the second Temple and repopulated the land around Jerusalem. When Honi finally awoke all had changed – the landscape, the houses: everything. He managed to make his way to Jerusalem and found a Temple very different from the one he had known. He had been a famous teacher in his time, but everyone thought that he had died long ago and refused to believe that this confused and strangely dressed man was the revered Honi. Eventually they decided to put his claim to the test: ‘We have heard that whenever Rabbi Honi entered the Temple courtyard it immediately lit up,’ they said. So Honi made his way to the Temple and as he entered its precincts the whole area was filled with a brilliant light.
Honi, we might say, is a kind of Jewish Rip van Winkle. In the same way that Rip van Winkle, in Irving Washington’s short story, slept through the American War of Independence Honi sleeps through a momentous period of change in his people’s history. But when the Temple precinct lights up as Honi enters he is recognised by those who had doubted his identity. The story of Honi, though set long before, was probably written around AD 70 at the time when the second Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed by the Romans. Luke’s Gospel was written not long after this event as well; and although we cannot surmise that Luke knew the rabbis’ tale there are nevertheless points of connection between the story of Honi and the account of Jesus’s presentation in the Temple that we listened to in today’s Gospel reading. One connection, of course, is the location, the Temple itself. For centuries, from the time of Solomon some one thousand years before Christ, this building had been right at the heart of Jewish identity. It was the very dwelling place of God in whose sanctuary a continual round of sacrifices was offered. There were times, such as the exile of the Jews in Babylon that Honi slept through, when it could seem as though God had deserted his Temple; yet always there were prophets, such as Malachi the writer of our first reading, who urged people to remain faithful. Simeon and Anna lived in similarly difficult times for the Jewish people: their land occupied by the Romans and their religious practices and customs under constant scrutiny and threat. Yet Simeon and Anna remain faithful: Simeon, God-fearing, waits for Israel to be saved and is strengthened by God’s promise that he will see the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed, before he dies. So it is that the Spirit draws him to the Temple where Anna, a widow of eighty-four, has already been for many years, fasting and praying. Finally at the Temple arrives a baby brought by his mother and her husband, a baby whom Simeon takes in his arms, recognising the fulfilment of God’s promise that he would gaze on the Messiah. The Lord has come to his Temple. At this point there is another connection with the story of Honi. The people in Jerusalem finally recognise Honi because his presence fills the Temple with a brilliant light. Simeon recognises in the infant Jesus a light that will illuminate not only the Temple but the light that will reveal God’s will to all nations as well as bringing glory to Israel.
Towards the end of today’s Gospel reading we meet Anna, the elderly widow. Anna is usually an overlooked character in the large number of representations of this biblical episode in western art, a fact probably not unconnected with her gender. This tendency to exclude Anna has always seemed to me to overlook an opportunity to think about how we connect our personal encounter with the living God with our call to share the Good News of this God with others. We do need to encounter and to recognise for ourselves God’s chosen one, God’s anointed, as Simeon did. Yet faith shrivels if it is kept private: to live it must be shared with others. This is exactly what Anna does. Having worshipped, fasted and prayed for decades in the Temple she is spiritually released to tell the people of Jerusalem about the child who will bring the freedom that God has promised. Look at Rembrandt’s depiction of the Presentation. One reason I find this painting so moving is that, despite its title, it is Anna who is the dominant figure. Hands lifted high, she praises God for what she has seen in anticipation of the wider proclamation Luke tells us about, (speaking) to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Anna is a true evangelist.
We need to see ourselves as Anna’s successors. Our encounter with Jesus Christ this morning is in scripture and in the sacrament of Holy Communion. But will we be able to find spiritual release to speak to those around us, as Anna did to the people in Jerusalem? Will we have the courage and the faith to speak of a Gospel of peace and reconciliation in a society whose discourse continues to be dominated by the bitter divisions and antagonisms cause by the Brexit referendum? Will we have the courage and the faith to speak of a Gospel of justice and joy when daily we read of oppression and exile in Myanmar, the Middle East and East Africa? Will we have the courage and the faith to speak, unembarrassed, of a Gospel of costly love that is revealed on the cross, the sword that Simeon tells Mary will pierce her heart? For this is the Good News we proclaim, the Good News of a God whose dwelling place is no longer a Temple – or indeed an ancient Priory church – but the hearts and lives of those for whom he died and whom he calls to follow, revealing his light to the world that we serve in his name. To whom be glory now and to the ages of ages. Amen.