Sunday, January 31, 2021

Darkness...You shall not pass!

 Text: Luke 2.22-40

 I love this story.  I love it because it contains the words of the Nunc Dimittis so beloved of all Evensong devotees.  But I also love it for a personal reason.  Mary and Joseph are presenting Jesus in the temple because the Law, the ‘teachings’ of the Scriptures, required that every first-born son should be dedicated to the Lord. 

I too am a first-born son.  And when, about 20 years ago, I went to my parents to tell them that I planned to become a priest, my mother got a little emotional.  She said, “I’ve never told you this, because I didn’t want to put you under pressure.  But when you were born, and were initially very sick, I prayed to God with all my heart.  I prayed that if he would save you, I would dedicate you to him and for his service.”  So, for me, this story of Jesus’ parent’s dedicating him to God has special resonance for me.  As we so often discover, the Bible’s story is our story too.

But that’s not the main focus of this particular story. Today is Candlemas…and it’s all about the light!  In the middle of winter, at a point which is more or less equally between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Christians of the Northern Hemisphere gather to light candles against the darkness.  In times past, candles from parishioners’ homes would have been brought to church, to be blessed as a sign of Jesus the light to the Gentiles, and then carried back to burn brightly through the year.  The church’s own stock of candles, for its altars and chandeliers would have been similarly blessed at the same time.  Today, with our electric lights, and our year-round banishment of darkness, we don’t perhaps feel the sense of deep winter that our forebears did.  We don’t perhaps get the symbolism of being lights in the darkness as easily as they did.

But the symbolism is there, especially made real to us by the words of Simeon, when Jesus was presented to him in the temple.  “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel”.  Jesus called us to be lights in the darkness, but Simeon recognised that Jesus himself was the Great Light, the one from whom all our small candles of faith are lit.

I’ve spent quite a few words, over the last few weeks, encouraging us to think of ourselves as lights to our community and to our world.  Today, I want to focus on the Great Light himself, and especially on what Simeon’s powerful words convey to us.

First of all, Simeon tells God that he now ready to die…  “Lord, let your servant depart in peace…” he says.  Why?  Because his eyes have seen God’s salvation, in the form of the infant Jesus, cradled in his mother’s arms. 

Now, this is important.  Simeon does not gaze upon Jesus’ death – although he knows that Jesus’ end will indeed pierce his mother’s heart.  But that’s not his focus.  He says that he has already seen God’s salvation in the form of Jesus himself.   This observation should bring us up short.  It tells us that whilst we rightly commemorate the death of Jesus as a vital part of the history of salvation, it is the life of Jesus which also has the power to save.   Jesus did not only die for our salvation:  he also lived.

What does this mean?  It means that we are encouraged to let our focus drift sometimes away from the Cross.  There is a tendency, in some parts a Christian teaching, to place all our hopes, all our stories of how God has saved us onto the Cross.  But the Gospel writers don’t just focus on the death of the Lord.  They also recount his life, his teachings, his sayings, his actions.  They show us the Jesus who ate with sinners, and who welcomed children.  They show us the Jesus who included women, and who counted a Zealot freedom fighter as his friend.  They show us the wisdom of a man who could stop the lips of religious teachers, and debate the philosophy of Truth with a Roman leader.  They show us a wronged man who could forgive his tormentors, a wise teacher who's guidelines for living bring life itself.

The Great Light does not only burst out of the tomb, on Easter morning, it also bursts into the normal, everyday life of everyone it encounters.  He brings wisdom and healing everywhere he walks and talks – and we find salvation and healing in his teaching. 

It is for this very reason that the church’s calendar takes us so carefully, and so systematically, through all the major events in Jesus’ life, and through all his major teaching.  We are not invited only to linger at the Cross, or even the Tomb.  They are important parts of the story, but they are not its complete focus.  The church’s calendar also takes us to the nativity manger, and into the desert of temptation.  It walks us beside the Sea of Galilee, and into the crowd of hungry people fed by two fishes and five loaves.  Through the Gospel stories we sit at Jesus’ table with other sinners, and at the feet of Jesus with Mary and Martha.  Jesus saves us, heals us, through every one of these encounters…and invites us to save others in the same ways.  The Great Light calls us to be lights, too.

So, on this Candlemas, we mark the end of the season of revelation, of Epiphany.  We pause at the midpoint of winter, and we declare to the darkness, like Gandalf on the bridge, ‘you shall not pass’.  Even in the depths of winter, even in the depths of a pandemic, Christ’s light shines.  Hope is present, life is present:  Jesus is present.  

And we, the bearers of the light, the followers of the Way, we will carry the presence of Jesus into the world.  Christ’s light has been borne to the Gentiles, glorifying the people of Israel from which it came.  But this light is now ours.  We choose to let it shine.


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