01 February 2015: Candlemas
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
Hebrews 2. 14-end; Luke 2. 22-40
When we moved to Bolton Abbey eighteen months ago, and began to explore our new surroundings, I found the Skipton by-pass baffling. Specifically the A59, our normal route to Skipton, disappears from the map at its junction with the A65, the beginning of the by-pass. It only reappears a few miles and two roundabouts later when the A59 and A65 once again go their separate ways. The Skipton by-pass is, in effect, both the A59 and the A65 – and a useful, if surprising, analogy for thinking about this particular day in the Christian calendar.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas. This festival marks the end of the Christmas period – forty days during which we have focused our attention on the birth of Jesus and on the gradual dawning of his glorious light on Jew and Gentile alike. We have rejoiced in Jesus as Emmanuel: God with us, God as one of us. Now it is time to have one last glance back at Christmas before, at the end of our worship, we turn our eyes towards the cross. For a short while we are travelling, as it were, along a spiritual Skipton by-pass, a section of the Christian calendar that is part of both the Christmas cycle and the Easter cycle. After today we peel off and travel the route which leads towards Lent, Good Friday, and beyond.
But at a more profound level we also travel today along a section of Judaism’s and Christianity’s shared tradition, where the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are part of a single stream for a time. As the aged Simeon, in our Gospel reading, holds the Christ-child in his arms the Jewish and Christian traditions merge, reminding us of a time before Christianity cut itself adrift from its Jewish moorings with the tragic consequences that have resonated down European history. Our Gospel reading this morning helps us to explore the ways in which the coming together of these different streams – Christmas and the Cross, the Old and the New Covenants – marks this day in the calendar.
When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem they do so in response to a deeply held reverence for the Jewish Law. Luke mentions obedience to the Law no fewer than four times in the space of six verses. There are clear echoes, as well, of the story of Samuel and the way in which his parents, Hannah and Elkanah, in a similar act of obedience, take their son up to the temple of the Lord at Shiloh to serve under Eli. These echoes enable us to place the story which Luke tells us within a long scriptural tradition of Jewish family piety. And it is to the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where God himself was believed to dwell, that Simeon, a righteous and devout man as Luke tells us, is prompted to go by the Holy Spirit. In what is surely one of the most moving encounters in the whole of scripture an old man takes a small baby in his arms and speaks the words which we often still refer to by their Latin name, the Nunc Dimittis. With the same piercing insight that was given to Eli when the child Samuel came to him in the night, Simeon recognises the preciousness of what he holds: a light for revelation to the gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. Here in our mind’s eye, is Luke’s representation in human form, an incarnation if you like, of a truth which Jesus himself enunciates in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel: I came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them. The Old Covenant nurtures and affirms the New Covenant in a moment of exquisite tenderness.
But Simeon’s words also remind us that the cross is already casting its shadow on today’s final section of our Christmas road. Mary and Joseph’s trip to Jerusalem and their encounter with faithful Simeon turn out to be a bitter-sweet experience for them, and for us. Simeon’s words to Mary are a warning sign that we are about to peel off on our journey to join the road that will lead to Calvary and the Cross: This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too. The final section of T S Elliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi, beautifully expresses the sombre conjunction of birth and death, Christmas and Good Friday, Old and New Covenant that Simeon’s words in the Temple evoke:
…… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
On Christmas Eve several hundred children and adults filled this church for our Christingle. It was a wonderful occasion and said something very important to me about how the message of Christmas, the birth of the Saviour of the world, still manages to penetrate the accretions of commerce and materialism. There are fewer of us here this morning, just forty days after Christmas, to listen to the harder truth that lies at the heart of Christian discipleship. This truth is that the birth of Jesus Christ cannot fully be understood unless it is viewed from the foot of the cross. As our brothers and sisters across the Middle East and in northern Nigeria bear daily witness, the path of suffering is part of our calling as Christians; a path which Christ trod and which we must be prepared to tread also. And commending Christ to our neighbours must involve us speaking this truth to them, however hard it might seem for us; however much they, and we, might want to cling on to the safety of the crib; however difficult and puzzling the paradox that without the Cross there is no real meaning to Christmas.