notre dame montreal

Candlemas, The Presentation of Christ

Sermon preached by
The Revd Charles Royden

Rembrandt, The Presentation of Christ

The challenge of the Feast of Candlemas

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In the shops the Christmas bits have been put in the box and we have moved on to Valentines Day and Easter already. However as faithful Christians taking note of our lectionary we come this week to Candlemas, a feast sadly not celebrated by many churches these days. I say sadly because it is presents to us so many helpful themes.

The Feast of Candlemas is always February 2, 40 days from Christmas. but we celebrate it on the Sunday closest. It is on that date because in accordance with Leviticus 12:1 seven days after Christmas, January 1, we have the feast of our Lord's circumcision, then thirty three days after that, February 2 is the feast of his being offered in the Temple and the Purification of Mary after the birth. (See note at bottom of page)

I know this last week we had what is described as most depressing day of the year. Apparently the 27th is the time when bills arrive after Christmas, we haven’t yet been paid and the Inland revenue are causing people bother, apparently it all converges on this date. Well thank God for Candlemas then. It lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so it marks the day upon which winter is half over and we are moving towards brighter and better days. For that reason it has many pagan and rural associations, with practices such as groundhog day and predicting the weather.

At this time we remember Simeon and Anna greeting the baby Jesus as he is presented in the Temple.
And we have these marvellous words of Simeon

"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel." Luke 2:25-32.

In these words, Simeon sort of wraps up the Old Testament. The promised salvation has arrived, the Messiah is here. We can now start looking to the new age. Now for the Jews this is not true, the Jews are still looking for someone else, whilst we as Christians assert that the "Coming One" has come. As Christians we say with Simeon: "Our eyes have seen His salvation."

So Candlemas is a time of rejoicing that God has kept his promise and given his Messiah for the sake of the world. When we realise this we can understand how the group of Jews who believed in Jesus would have to move out away from the synagogue. The early believers were Jewish people, who had seen the fulfilment of the prophecies in Jesus and so now they were living in a new age inaugurated by the Messiah. Jews who did not acknowledge who Jesus was were left waiting for somebody who had been and gone.

But there is another side to Candlemas and these words of Simeon to Jesus and Mary. In our reading Simeon goes on to speak some chilling words of prophecy

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too." Luke 2:34-35

Candlemas has been described as one foot in Christmas and one foot in Easter, it is a watershed when we look back at the birth of Jesus and we look forward to the cross of Easter. Candlemas reminds us that Christmas is not an event for one day, but an invitation to a new life.

What does it mean for us ?

Candlemas reminds us that whilst the baby Jesus might appear vulnerable and cuddly, yet there he brings a tough challenge for us which will lead him to the cross of Easter.

Jesus preached a powerful and challenging message which we are called to follow in a life changing way today. We are called to be a holy people. That means taking seriously God’s call to what holiness means. Obviously this has implication in terms of personal piety and seeking to create lives suitable to be called Christian. Our reading today from Malachi calls upon those who worship God to put aside such things as adultery. More importantly there are imperatives placed upon us a Christian church concerning bigger issues.

It is to our eternal shame that the Christian church has been involved in the oppression of people of other different faith positions, different faiths, different colour skin, different sexuality indeed just about any kind of difference has been picked upon and minority groups have been bullied. So we who wish to stand alongside Christ must share his path to the cross and be prepared to stand with him alongside those who are not welcomed by others. Jesus was seen to be prepared to be judged by the religious establishment by friendship with supposed sinners.

So today for example our search for holiness must lead us to

  • concern for the oppressed and the poor
  • refusing to be a part of systems which oppress minorities
  • working for change in our world

This might mean that we have to become involved in things which people say do not concern us. There are many Christians who are dualists, they believe that religion should be concerned with saying our prayers, asking God to stop injustice might be OK but getting involved, being God’s agents in our world is opposed. We are sometimes warned that religion and politics should not mix, what a good job great Christians reformers never took that seriously.

This is why it has been important for us this year to be able to support as our Christmas charity the work of Mildmay, a charity working alongside people who are so often subject to criticism who are subject to HIV and AIDS. Here are Christians taking their faith to some of the most damaged parts of the world. How can we think that half of children aged 15 in South Africa will be dead by the age of 30?

Recognising God’s salvation in Jesus means that we have to live different kinds of lives. We are a part of that salvation of which Simeon spoke. We are called to share in that great work.

So we celebrate the light of Christ this Candlemas and we take the risk to stand out as lights in the darkness. We do this knowing the danger, that which took Jesus to the cross. This Candlemas, let us each ask God to challenge the thoughts of our hearts.

Charles Royden

In Jewish tradition women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and were not permitted to enter the Temple to worship. This was 40 days after the birth of a son and 60 days after the birth of a daughter. At the end of the 40 or 60 days, the mother was brought to the Temple or synagogue and ritually purified. Now she can go to religious services again, and generally go out in public. So we celebrate the ritual Purification of the Virgin Mary, the specified forty days after she gave birth to Jesus. In more recent times people will remember the churching of women after the birth of a child. Women were frequently not allowed into other people's home and were treated as 'unclean' until churching had taken place. It is an interesting paradox that giving birth to the Saviour of the world made Mary unclean according to the Jewish Law.