Virtual Parish Mass, St Paul’s, New Southgate
Sermon by Christopher Ward, Reader
“A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel”
Some words we heard today from our Gospel reading. May I speak in the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What a difference a year makes! On the equivalent Sunday in 2020, with the sun shining brightly outside, Fr Guy Pope presided and, having started the service by blessing our candles, led us in procession round the church. Many of us kept our candles lit after the procession, creating a wonderful vision of light across the church. Today, we gather in very different circumstances, but I want us once again to share that vision of light.
Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, is a celebration of great antiquity; it has been celebrated in Jerusalem since at least the 4th century. The Presentation is the third of the public revelations of Jesus, but it differs significantly in character from the other two. Earlier in his Gospel, Luke describes the visit of the shepherds to the manger. Matthew describes the visit of the Wise Men. Both of these speak powerfully to the divinity of Jesus. But the Presentation is different. The event takes place in the grandeur of the Temple, not in a humble stable. And the principal event, the actual Presentation, passes off with virtually no comment from Luke; it seems to have been, from the point of view of the priests in the Temple, just another first-born boy and his parents going through the various rituals prescribed for the circumstances in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus. This I think points to the knub of the difference; this is a human family, an observant Jewish family. Jesus would grow up like any other Jewish boy of his generation, doing similar things and sharing precisely the same joys, sorrows and challenges. Amongst its many messages, the Presentation itself speaks to Jesus’ humanity.
Sometimes I wonder if we reflect as much as we should in our worship on the humanity of Jesus, as distinct from His divinity. Our reading from Hebrews explains the importance of that humanity. Because Jesus became like us in every respect, he judges as a merciful high priest who understands precisely the contexts of our actions. And as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”.
But in the margins of this human act, Jesus’ divinity is also recognised, but not by the official channels, a sign of what will come when Jesus begins his ministry. It was Simeon, not the priests in the Temple, to whom the divine nature of Jesus was revealed in all its breadth and depth, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon also foretells some of the characteristics of what Jesus’ ministry will involve. And the prophetess Anna, too, realised the significance of this baby to the future of Israel and spoke to it. I find this a remarkable example of how God speaks to those who are faithful to Him.
So in the Presentation and the events surrounding it we see Jesus – still a helpless baby, revealed for all he will be. It is a proclamation of Christ – Messiah and Priest, Lord and Saviour. He is the light who became human and came into this world to dispel sin and darkness. For this reason, traditionally at least since the seventh century, candles have been blessed at Mass this day that will be used throughout the year, hence coining the term “Candlemas.”
And now, let us look to the light I am holding, a simple candle burning in a rather battered and very modest candle holder, clearly one that has seen much use. But it has some special significance for me. When Virginia and I moved to London, nearly 50 years ago, in our first house we inherited a shed packed with items that the previous occupant had dumped there. Nothing else remained in the property apart from the light bulbs. Most of the shed contents were fit only for the bin, but amongst them was this candle holder. It has since brought light into our lives on quite a number of occasions, typically during power cuts.
But I think it also speaks to us today in the context of our celebration of Candlemas. The light shines brightly, as we are bidden to shine in the world, to the glory of God. We are the earthly inheritors of what Simeon saw in that baby in the Temple. And the light of that candle shines just as brightly as it would in the finest silver candlestick. For me, this candle holder is a metaphor for us and our faith – modest in what we can offer and battered by what life has thrown at us we can, nonetheless, through the grace of God, shine to His glory.
And my choice of a pink candle is quite deliberate. There are two occasions in the church year when we use pink candles in our worship. One is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, and the other is Laetare Sunday, also known as Mothering Sunday, the third Sunday in Lent. In each case, they are a sign of hope, that the sombre penitential mood of the season will soon be lifted by the breaking in of light and joy. Today, I offer you this pink candle as a sign of hope, that the sombre purple that is the world will be changed by the light of Christ.
When Simeon and Anna saw that baby in the Temple, they were filled with light and hope. May this candle be a similar sign of hope to us today as we go out in the world, to shine to the glory of God.