Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: A Light to Lighten the Gentiles

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
31 January 2021
Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

As many of you will be aware, apart from three months last year, the Tower of Bolton Priory has been open for private prayer during this pandemic

Described by Simon Jenkins as “a glorious ante-chamber to the House of God” we were determined to keep part of the Priory open

Not least because it lends itself perfectly to prayer

To enhance the prayerfulness of the Tower we moved the votive candle stand into the Tower

A votive candle is lit each morning from which other candles can be lit during the day

In normal times thousands of people pass through our doors and light a candle each year

And this has continued during the pandemic

The light of Christ beckons people through our doors and this has continued, undimmed, despite our troubled time

Today is the feast of Candlemas

It marks the moment when Christ is presented in the Temple, forty days after his birth

It is conflated with Mary’s purification, echoes of which are still found in the Book of Common Prayer 

But in the medieval Church, there was a candlelit procession on this day before the Eucharist

Hence the name the “Feast of Candlemas”

But this candlelit procession has its origins in the story itself

In the reading this morning we are introduced to Simeon and Anna

They are two old people who have waited all their lives for this moment

It is a beautiful and touching story which concludes with the wonderful words of the Nunc Dimittis

Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word

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

It is the reference to the “light to lighten the Gentiles” that gives us the name “Candlemas”

But the phrase is not just the “light but the “light to lighten the Gentiles

In other words those who do not belong -indeed, this could be called the feast for non-belongers

Within an established Church particularly it is so easy to forget that Christianity is not just about “us”  

But those who are not us

Last week I preached about prisoners

Those on death row in the United States and the barbarity of the dying days of the Trump administration

Although the death penalty has been abolished in the UK our attitude to prisoners is little better

The chief inspector of prisons, recently found them to be in “deep crisis” “violent, unsafe and overcrowded”,

I am often struck by reference to prisoners in the Bible and the constant call for compassion

Paradoxically, despite these constant calls, we seem to care so little about those we incarcerate

In Matthews’ Gospel, Christ rebukes his disciples for not looking after those who do not belong

Stung by his comments, the disciples say When did we see you…in prison and [not] go to visit you?”

I tell you the truth Christ replied whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The implication from this passage is that Jesus himself is to be found in prison

One of the highlights of my Christmas was a card from a friend who had just been released from jail

Society wanted to heap the coals on his head

Jesus just wants him to belong – and Candlemas is just the time to remember that he does

But the story this morning also gives us another reminder as those who are also in danger of being excluded – particularly in this time of pandemic

The Christ Child is recognised by two very elderly members of society

Anna, is eighty four years old and Simeon acknowledges that, having seen the Christ Child, he can now die in peace

The story of Simeon and Anna remind us that the elderly too belong to the Church – they are not non- belongers by reason of their age – nor by reason of the virus

During the first lockdown, I rang up a member of the parish who is in sheltered accommodation

She thanked me for still thinking of her as a member of the parish – but of course I do

Society may have forgotten or overlooked the elderly

But Jesus just wants them to belong –

And Candlemas is just the time to remember that they do – whatever their age or disposition

The painter Holman Hunt painted a picture of Christ called the “Light of the World”

It is a well-known Victorian painting with Christ holding a lantern

Although the painting makes reference to John’s Gospel, it seems so appropriate for the Feast of Candlemas

If you look closely at the painting , you will note that the lantern has symbols of the world’s great faiths carved into the metal

Holman Hunt is making the point that Christ is for all men and women – whatever their faith

Not in a imperialistic way that we should be seeking conversion

But to make the, obvious, point that Christ shines for all men and women whatever their faith background

Which makes Candlemas extra-special for Bolton Priory as we welcome so many visitors from other faith traditions through our doors

That light – that candle – represents the light of Christ and beckons all of us whether we think we belong or not

Earlier this week, I had to pay a trip to the dentist to fix a tooth which had broken over the weekend

They had had a cancellation and as a result, I was unable to light the votive candle on the candle stand as normal after Morning Prayer

When I returned to the Priory, there had clearly been no one else in that morning and it made me think about the magnetic power of a lit candle

Once lit, the candle beckons others in to share the light of Christ and to offer their prayers

The same applies, not only to the Priory, but to our lives

If the light of Christ shines in our lives

Indeed, if it shines through in our worship and our prayers

Then everyone will feel welcome – outsider/insider, whether they think they belong or not

For Christ truly is “A light to lighten the Gentiles