This is the sermon I was supposed to preach today (2 February 2009) at a Service of Light in Saint Botolph without Bishopsgate in the City of London on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ (Candlemas) ... but the snow that has been falling across England since last night has covered Cambridge in snow, has led to trains and flights being cancelled, and has prevented me from getting to London.
Leviticus 12: 6-8 (The Law of Purification); Isaiah 6: 1-8 (I saw the Lord and his train filled the Temple); Haggai 2: 1-9 (I will fill this house with splendour); Luke 2: 22-40 (the Candlemas Gospel).
In the name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today we are marking the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This day is also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, or Candlemas. As you can imagine – with a name like Candlemas – this day was traditionally associated with candles and lights.
The story in our Gospel reading (Luke 2: 22-40) tells how Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth and dedicate him to God, according to the legal, financial and religious traditions of the day.
As they bring Jesus to the Temple, they meet Simeon, who had been promised “he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord” (Luke 2:26). This old man says the little child is to be a light for revelation to the nations – an idea that sparked a tradition of blessing beeswax candles on this day, Candlemas (Candle Mass), for use for the rest of the year.
Candlemas was the final day of the Christmas liturgical season, the day that bridged the gap between Christmas and Lent, that bridged the gap between a time of celebration and a time of reflection, a time of joy and a time for taking stock once again.
For many of us, not just in the City, but throughout this nation and throughout the world, we have moved from a time of financial certainty that allowed us to celebrate easily to a time of reflection and uncertainty.
This time of uncertainty is not just confined to people working here in the heart of the financial capital of Europe. We are going through similar anxieties and uncertainties in Ireland too. We once gave little thought to – or thanks for – the prosperity that came in with the Celtic Tiger.
There is a gallows-humour joke doing the rounds in Ireland by email and on Forums like MySpace and Facebook that asks: “What’s the difference between Ireland and Iceland?” And the answer is: “One letter and six months.”
Yes, the lights of Christmas and our easy celebrations seem to have gone out this Candlemas and given way to uncertainty as we try to grasp for signs of hope, and wonder how long we have to remain in the dark.
A few weeks ago, The Guardian symbolised this with a front-page report with the headline: “Lights go out across Britain as recession hits home. Electricity demand falls as economy slows at fastest rate since 1980” (The Guardian, 24 January 2009, p. 1). Consumers are turning off the lights as the National Grid predicts that over the next year weekly peak electricity demand is to fall by 600-1,000 megawatts, the equivalent of one large power plant.
The future is uncertain. I am reminded today of how Mary was promised by her cousin’s husband, Zechariah, that her child would be a light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death (Luke 1: 79). How she must have wept in her heart as in today's Gospel story the old man hands back her child and warns Mary that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2: 35).
So often it is difficult to hold on to hope when our hearts are breaking and are pierced. So often it is difficult to keep the light sof our hearts burning bright when everything is gloomy and getting dark. But Simeon points out that the Christ Child does not hold out any selfish hope for any one individual or one family. He is be a light to the nations, to all of humanity.
And as our leaders – political, social, economic and financial leaders – search in the dark for the hope that will bring light back into our lives, let us remind ourselves that this search will have no purpose and offer no glimmer of hope unless it seeks more than selfish profit. This search must seek the good of all, it must seek to bring hope and light to all, not just here, but to all people and to all nations.
The candles of Candlemas link the Christmas candles with Good Friday and with the Easter hope symbolised in the Pascal candle. And so, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16).
And now may all praise honour and glory be to + God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.