Sunday, 2 February 2020

‘For my eyes have seen
our salvation … prepared
in the presence of all peoples’

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 February 2020,

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)

9:30 a.m.: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2).

The Readings: Malachi 3: 1-5; Psalm 24: 1-10 or Psalm 24: 7-10 or Psalm 84; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple … a stained-glass window by the Harry Clarke Studios in Saint Flannan’s Church, Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas, is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It is a feast rich in meaning, with several related themes running through it – presentation, purification, meeting, and light for the world.

Jewish law required that every boy was circumcised eight days after his birth, bearing the mark of the covenant on his skin. But Jewish law also expected every first-born boy to be consecrated to God (see Exodus 13: 2, 12; Numbers 3: 13).

So, eight days after his birth, the Christ Child was circumcised, marking him as Jew and as a member of God’s people. Then, 40 days after his birth, he is brought to the Temple to be presented to God.

Parents were expected to bring an offering with them: a lamb and a turtledove or a pigeon. But if they were poor, two turtledoves or pigeons would do instead.

It is a sign of their poverty that the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph bring two cheap turtle doves or pigeons as their offering, probably bought in the courtyard in the Temple after they had changed their hard-earned Roman coins for Temple coins without the emperor’s image.

In this Gospel account, Simeon is an old and pious man who looks forward to the coming of the Messiah to restore Israel to favour with God, the consolation of Israel (παράκλησιν τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, paráklesin tou Israel, verse 25). The Holy Spirit has promised Simeon that he will see the Christ before he dies.

Simeon’s words are paraphrased in the canticle Nunc Dimittis. He begins by saying that God is setting him free, as a slave is granted liberty. Simeon knows now that he is free to die. God’s promises are being fulfilled, not only for Jewish people alone, for Israel’s glory, but for all people.

Through this child, God’s people are going to see God’s promises extended to all people or nations in the fulfilment of that promise to all people, the Gentiles.

Simeon then blesses the family and tells the Virgin Mary that this Christ Child is destined for death and resurrection. None of the beauty he sees for the whole world is going to come about easily. This child is going to suffer, so much so that Mary’s pain is going to be like a sword piercing her heart.

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

This Feast of the Presentation is also known as Candlemas. It is a feast rich in meaning, with several contrasting themes.

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.

Simeon’s words remind us sharply that Christmas is meaningless without the Passion and Easter. 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 or five weeks away.

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, there are a few points that are worth emphasising as we reflect on this morning’s Gospel reading.

1, All children are valuable before God. In God’s eyes, every child is a blessing.

It is irrelevant how rich or poor the parents are. God has taken on our human nature in the birth of Christ. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and now God takes on our image and likeness.

The suffering of every child is suffering that God understands.

We have seen the suffering of too many children and the piercing of the hearts of too many parents in the past week or two, from Bandon and Cork to Drogheda, and to Newcastle in Co Dublin.

There are no explanations, there are no ways of preventing calamities like this, and there are no ways of fixing what has gone wrong.

But if we want to know where God is in all these tragedies, God is weeping and crying, with the children and with the parents. Every life matters.

In Jewish law, the first-born son was presented like this as a reminder that God does not demand the sacrifice of the first-born, a superstition that was once prevalent in ancient religions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

God loves and values each and every child, because God knows what it is to be one. And God loves and values each and every suffering parent, because God the Father has seen the suffering of his own Son.

2, After a week in which we have been reminded of the horrors of Auschwitz 75 years ago, it is good to be reminded this morning that God’s promises to all humanity came through God’s promises to the Jews, and are fulfilled in this one Jewish child.

3, Class, social status, age, wealth, poverty, ethnicity, religious or language barriers do not exist in God’s eyes. The poverty of this family is very obvious to everyone in the Temple that day. But they are blessed by this old woman and this old man, Anna and Simeon.

God’s promises come in the most unexpected bundles, at the most unexpected times, in the most unexpected places.

4, As Simeon reminds us, God’s promises are not confined to one people. Christ has come among us to bring light to all nations, to the Gentiles.

The words used for all people (πάντων τῶν λαῶν, panton ton laos) in verse 31 mean nothing less than all people. The word used for the Gentiles (ἐθνῶν, ethnon) is not just referring to people who are not Jews in religious terms, but refers to people of all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

God’s promises are for all children, all people, all nations.

5, We are going to vote in this country in a general election on Saturday. It is a freedom that we enjoy in this country, it is a duty, a right, a privilege and a responsibility, and one we should exercise carefully and thoughtfully.

I have no right to tell you how I may vote next Saturday, and it would be wrong for me this morning to even hint at which way I may vote.

In Anglican liturgy we pray in the versicles and responses:

Let your ministers be clothed with righteousness
and let your servants shout for joy.

Those words are ambiguous enough to make no distinction between ministers in the Church and ministers in the Government. Both are set aside to serve, and politics must be affirmed as honourable lay ministry, serving the people.

It is important, then, in this final week of the election campaign, to ask politicians seeking election how they plan to serve people in the light of this morning’s Gospel story.

How are they going to serve the needs of children living in poverty?

How are they going to serve the needs of parents and families living in poverty?

How are they going to look after the needs of the elderly who look for consolation?

How are they going to be beacons of light all nations, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit and the rise across Europe of what is described as populist politics but is truly a cover for hatred and racism?

How are they going to respond to the presence of other people among us … the needs of refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers?

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

Two turtle doves … a detail in the Presentation window by the Harry Clarke Studios in Saint Flannan’s Church, Killaloe, Co Clare (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.

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

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 of the Day:

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 or Candlemas … a stained-glass window by the Harry Clarke Studios in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hymns:

193, In his temple now behold him (CD 12)
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten (CD supplied)
691, Faithful Vigil ended (CD 39)

The Presentation in a window in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Kilmallock, Co Limerick (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 is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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

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