02 February 2014

Knowing ‘the certain hour of maternal sorrow’
and waiting ‘for the wind that chills’

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

Patrick Comerford,

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 2 February 2014,

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple,

11 a.m., The Cathedral Eucharist

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

Setting: Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809), Missa Brevis Sancti Johannes de Deo

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

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ. This feast has been known to the Church by several names over time, including the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and we talk too of Candlemas, celebrated with this evening’s Candlemas Procession here in Christ Church Cathedral at 5 p.m.

This feast, forty days after Christmas, recalls how the Virgin Mary presents the Christ-Child to the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. And, because of the poverty of this family, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph bring two cheap doves or pigeons as their offering.

This is a feast rich in meaning, with several related themes running through it. We have the contrast 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 Candlemas is a feast day with a “bitter-sweet” nature. It calls for rejoicing with all in the Temple celebrating the hope and the promise that this new child brings. Yet Simeon 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 Christmas is meaningless without the Passion and Easter.

Candlemas is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season, the last great festival of the Christmas cycle. As we bring our Christmas celebrations to a close, this day is a real pivotal point in the Christian year, for we now shift from the cradle to the cross, from Christmas to Passiontide – Ash Wednesday and Lent are just four weeks away.

In this shift of mood, devotion and liturgy, we take with us the light of Christ, a sure promise that Christ is the eternal light and the salvation of all humanity, throughout all ages.

Traditionally, Candlemas is the final day of the Christmas season. The liturgical colour changes 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.

So let us take stock this morning of where we are. After six or seven years of the darkness of recession and austerity, the economists are trying to look for the 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. The majority of people are still going through anxieties and uncertainties.

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

Consumer reports tell us that many people are having their electricity cut off in their homes because they cannot pay their bills. Over 1,800 households or families have their gas or electricity supplies cut off every month as they find themselves under increasing pressure to make ends meet. As poverty hits home, the lights are going out across Ireland, the future remains uncertain.

I am reminded today of how Elizabeth was promised by her husband, Zechariah, that the child of her cousin Mary would, in the tender mercy of our God, be a light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and would guide our feet in the way of peace (Luke 1: 78-79).

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 onto 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.

Mothers who see their graduate daughters and sons unable to find employment in our economy.

Mothers whose silent weeping is not going to bring their adult emigrant children home from Australia.

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 long-term unemployment.

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

They know what TS Eliot calls “the certain hour of maternal sorrow.” Like the Prophet in his poem A Song for Simeon, they “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 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.

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 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.

Who will speak out like the Prophet Micah in this morning’s Old Testament reading “against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien,” and do not fear the Lord God (Micah 3: 5)?

But, oh, so often these mothers bear their grief in silence, are reluctant to bare their souls to the Church and Church leaders. So often we can pronounce and preach and teach. But do we always know the suffering in the dark behind closed doors? And do we teach and preach in a way that moves beyond being enlightening to actually bringing the light of hope, the light of the Suffering and Risen Christ to the broken-hearted Marys and Josephs all over this land?

Yet our Epistle reading this morning is a call not just to all in ordained ministry but to all in the Church to be “merciful and faithful” like Christ the “high priest in the service of God,” to be sacrificial in the service of those who are suffering and “are being tested” (see Hebrews 2: 17-18).

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.

The candles of Candlemas link the candles of Christmas with Good Friday and with the Easter hope symbolised in the Pascal candle. And so to paraphrase the words of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn that draw on Simeon’s prophetic words in the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, 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 now, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple ... a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


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.

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.

The Revd Canon Professor Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, on the Feast of the Presentation, Sunday 2 February 2014.

A Song for Simeon, TS Eliot

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

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