Sunday, 3 February 2019

‘For my eyes have seen your
salvation, which you have prepared
in the presence of all peoples’

The Presentation or Candlemas … a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 3 February 2019,

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, The Presentation of Christ


9.30 a.m., Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Readings: Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning we are celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas. This feast falls 40 days after Christmas, and it is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It is a feast that is rich in meaning, with several contrasting images.

In our Gospel story (Luke 2: 22-40), we have contrasts between the poverty of this family and the richly-endowed Temple; the young Joseph and Mary with their first-born child and the old Simeon and Anna who are probably childless; the provincial home in Nazareth and the urbane sophistication of Jerusalem; the glory of one nation, Israel, and light for all nations, the Gentiles; the birth of a child and the expectation of death; darkness and light; new birth and impending death.

So what is going on in this Gospel reading?

Like all Jewish boys, the Christ Child was circumcised eight days after his birth, marking him as a member of God’s people. Then, 40 days after the birth of her first son, a mother could be purified before a priest in the Temple. Exodus required that every first-born boy be consecrated to God (see Exodus 13: 2, 12; Numbers 3: 13).

The expected offering was a lamb, along with a turtledove or a pigeon. But if the family was poor, two turtledoves or pigeons would suffice.

This family fulfils these religious expectations when they bring the Christ Child to the Temple in Jerusalem. But did you notice how this is a poor family? Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary are so poor that they bring two cheap doves or pigeons – the price of a sacrificial lamb is too much for the child who is the Lamb of God.

But, like Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna stand before God, in God’s presence, in humility and in equality.

Simeon is an old man who knows he is near his dying days. His words are familiar to many in the canticle Nunc Dimittis. He begins by saying that God is setting him free. He knows now that this child is the fulfilment of God’s promise not only to the Children of Israel, but to all children, all people.

Simeon blesses the family and tells the Virgin Mary that this Christ Child is destined for death and resurrection. He speaks in prophetic words of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will piece the Virgin Mary’s heart. His words remind us sharply that the birth and Christmas are meaningless without the death and Easter.

Traditionally, Candlemas is the end of the Christmas season. The liturgical colour is going to change from the White of rejoicing to the Green of ordinary, everyday life. This is the day that bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent, that bridges the gap between a time of celebration and a time of reflection, a time of joy and a time for taking stock once again.

This is an opportunity to take stock of where we are. After two decades of the darkness of recession and austerity, politicians and economists are hoping for light at the end of the tunnel.

For many of us, we moved long ago from a time of financial certainty that allowed us to celebrate easily to a time of reflection and uncertainty. Now, the debates about ‘Brexit’ leave the majority of us with a new set of anxieties and uncertainties.

The lights of Christmas and its celebrations seem dim and distant now. Now, at Candlemas, most people in Ireland are living very ordinary days with uncertainty, wondering how long we must remain in the dark, trying to grasp for signs of hope.

How Mary must have wept in her heart as in today’s Gospel story the old man Simeon hands back her child and warns her that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2: 35).

How many mothers are weeping in their hearts and clinging on to the rock of faith just by the end of their fingertips as their hearts, their souls, are pierced by a sword?

Mothers whose lives were held in slavery by fear (see Hebrews 2: 15).

Mothers who see their special needs children denied special needs assistants in our schools.

Mothers who see their children waiting, waiting too long, for care in our hospitals or to move from the uncertainty of hotel rooms or hostels to a house and a home.

Mothers who saw their graduate daughters and sons unable to find employment and have not yet returned home.

Mothers whose silent weeping is not going to bring home their adult emigrant children and the grandchildren born in Australia or the US.

Mothers whose gay sons and lesbian daughters are beaten up on the streets just for the fun of it and are afraid if they come out that our Church can only offer tea and sympathy, at best, but moralising prejudice most of the time.

Mothers whose husbands are on low pay or dismissed as mere statistics in the figures for poverty.

Mothers whose adult children are caught up in substance abuse and have lost all hope for the future – for a future.

These mothers know what TS Eliot calls ‘the certain hour of maternal sorrow.’ Like the Prophet in TS Eliot’s poem A Song for Simeon, these mothers ‘Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.’ And they know too how true Simeon’s words are for them this morning: ‘and a sword will pierce your soul too.’

If the Virgin Mary had known what grief would pierce her soul, would she have said ‘Yes’ to the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation?

And in the midst of all this heartbreak, these mothers still cling on to the edge of the rock of faith by the edges of their fingernails. Wondering who hears their sobbing hearts and souls.

If they had known what grief would pierce their souls they would still have said yes, because they love their children, and no sword can kill that. They know too their children are immaculate conceptions, for their children too are conceived in a love for their world, our world, that is self-giving and sinless. And they continue to see the reflection and image of Christ in their children as they look into their eyes lovingly. Is that too not a truth and a hope at the heart of the Incarnation?

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 lights of our hearts burning brightly 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 to be a light to the nations, to all of humanity.

Simeon is blind to poverty, ethnicity, religion, social class, place and time of birth – they are of no concern for Simeon, he sees the child as God sees the Child. In this Child, God is breaking down the barriers we have between one another and between us and God.

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, we can remind ourselves that this search will have no purpose and it will 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.

This feast of Candlemas bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent; links the joy of the Christmas candles with the hope of the Pascal candle at Easter; invites us to move from celebration to reflection and preparation, and to think about the source of our hope, our inspiration, our enlightenment.

Our third hymn this morning is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn that draw on Simeon’s prophetic words in the Canticle Nunc Dimittis. To paraphrase that hymn, as we watch and wait in our faithful vigil for Christ’s glory in that Easter hope, may our doubting cease, may God’s silent, suffering people find deliverance and freedom from oppression, may his servants find peace, may he complete in us his perfect will.

And so, may all we think, say and so be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Candlemas 2012’ (York Minster) by Susan Hufton … from the exhibition ‘Holy Writ’ at Lichfield Cathedral in 2014 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2: 22-40:

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

The Presentation in the Temple … a fresco in Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Colour: White.

Bidding Prayer:

Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people.

As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified according to the custom of the time, and we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory.

In this Eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.

So let us pray that we may know and share the light of Christ.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

Almighty and everliving God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the temple
in the substance of our mortal nature:
May we be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God
the dayspring from on high has broken upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (cf Luke 1: 78, 79)
(Common Worship, p. 306)

Preface:

And now we give you thanks
because, by appearing in the Temple,
he comes near to us in judgement;
the Word made flesh searches the hearts of all your people,
to bring to light the brightness of your splendour:
(Common Worship, p. 306)

Post-Communion Prayer:

God, for whom we wait,
you fulfilled the hopes of Simeon and Anna,
who lived to welcome the Messiah.
Complete in us your perfect will,
that in Christ we may see your salvation,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

The Presentation in the Temple, carved on a panel on a triptych in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Suitable intercessions:

In peace let us pray to the Lord.

By the mystery of the Word made flesh
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the birth in time of the timeless Son of God
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the baptism of the Son of God in the river Jordan
Good Lord, deliver us.

For the kingdoms of this world,
that they may become the Kingdom of our Lord and Christ
We pray to you, O Lord.

For your holy, catholic and apostolic Church,
that it may be one
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the witness of your faithful people,
that they may be lights in the world
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the poor, the persecuted, the sick and all who suffer;
that they may be relieved and protected
We pray to you, O Lord.

For the aged, for refugees and all in danger,
that they may be strengthened and defended
We pray to you, O Lord.

For those who walk in darkness and in the shadow of death,
that they may come to your eternal light
We pray to you, O Lord.

Father, source of light and life,
Grant the prayers of your faithful people,
and fill the world with your glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymns:

52, Christ, whose glory fills the skies (CD 4)
119, Come, thou long-expected Jesus (CD 8)
691, Faithful vigil ended (CD 39)

‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’ … a window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from The Book of Common Prayer (the Church of Ireland, 2004) is copyright © Representative Body of the Church of Ireland 2004.

Material from Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

‘A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ … a January sunrise at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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