Every year Jessica and Maria and I make a calendar for our family and friends, with a family picture above each month, and the dates on the calendar pre-printed with not only the major days of the year, but also some ecclesiastical dates (such as Ash Wednesday) and the various birthdays of members of the family. We have been doing this annually since Maria was born, so now these calendars, which most people have kept over the years, are also a record of her growing up. The 2005 calendar is full of baby pictures, 2010 of a five year old, and so forth. These calendars are tailor made by an online company, and are inevitably unique to us.
Every year we mark our birthdays, and with increasing age make less of it, although pausing to celebrate the greater milestones, often with a mixture of pleasure and poignancy. For time waits for no-one, and the relatively modern marking of anniversaries and birthdays is, metaphorically-speaking a two-edged sword. Many years ago, birthdays were not so much observed, but seasonal festivals were, and a stroll down the high street reveals that birthdays have been subsumed into the seasonal rollercoaster that encircles every year. Religious festivals have been supplanted or supplemented by dates on which to celebrate mothers, fathers, grandparents, dead people (Halloween) or helping others (‘Red Nose Day’). There is nothing wrong with this: it simply serves to keep our calendars full as we are propelled through the year with annual events to remember, commemorate, celebrate, mark, and spend money on. Mammon has developed its own liturgical cycle, and the card and gift-shops follow it religiously. So Ash Wednesday will be completely subsumed by Valentine’s Day this year, falling as they do on the same day.
As well as telling us how many days to next Sunday there are, or what date to write at the top of the page, our calendars remind us of which secular, religious or family festival is approaching. As we near someone’s birthday or wedding anniversary, we think of them, perhaps pray for them, at the very least we remember them, and they become real for us, if only for a day or two.
Some calendar dates are written in for us, printed nicely on the calendar itself, while we write in others ourselves as appointments that we and others might need to remember to keep. We have diaries as well as calendars, on paper or electronic, into which we enter the schedule of our upcoming life. Some people have very full diaries, while others have no need of a calendar because if you are lonely, every day seems the same and marking the passing days is an agony too far. Are you someone who sighs with relief to see a day in the calendar that is ‘empty’, or do you long for more events in your diary?
Think of Simeon and Anna in our reading today: There wasn’t much in their diaries. If they had diaries, they would have said – ‘Go to Temple to pray’ each day. And on another day – ‘die’ - quite soon, most likely. Perhaps like Archbishop Cranmer in that wonderful morning prayer collect, Simeon would have been thankful, as many of us are, that the Lord ‘has brought us safely to the beginning of this day’. But on each day Simeon could well have written ‘meet the Messiah – tbc’. Or if he’d had an iPhone, he could have put it in ‘repeating appointments’, end date, not known. Simeon had an appointment with the Messiah, he just didn’t know when. Like we all do, in his wake.
Calendars speak to us of human interaction, appointments with others, invitations to accept, dates to remember that relate to friends and family. Calendars keep us busy as well as recording how busy we are. A full calendar indicates a network of relationships, with others and with God. For another kind of calendar is the liturgical calendar. Christian communities have observed holy days (holidays) for centuries and the ‘calendar’ is the list or chart of when they fall and whose feast day they instruct us to commemorate. Liturgical calendars are still very much in use today, and contain two kinds of holy day: those which always fall on the same date, such as Christmas and All Saints Day, and those driven by the date of Easter such as Good Friday and Pentecost. The festival we celebrate today – Candlemas, or the ‘Presentation of Christ in the Temple’, is located precisely at 40 days after Christmas. Because, since at least the year 354 AD Christmas has been celebrated on December 25th, then 40 days later has to be February 2nd. By convention we move it to the nearest Sunday, which means this year we are slightly early. But it is 40 days after Christmas because Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, and after 40 days, Mary and Joseph, following Jewish liturgical calendrical tradition would have gone to the Temple at Jerusalem to redeem their child – to ‘buy him back’ from the Lord, as it were. The tradition has carried forward into the ‘Churching of Women’ after childbirth still found in the Prayer Book. So, we can have no doubt as to when this happened, once we have agreed by convention when his birth was. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is, of course, not known, not even the year, so all these dates are literally-speaking, only relatively accurate. But there’s the joy of calendars and the liturgical year – it all makes everything hang together in a coherent way.
So for example, you may have noticed that the year divides into quarters, which reminds us the old tradition of quarter days. Starting with Christmas – December 25th - this gives us March 25th as the feast of Jesus’ Conception or, The Annunciation, so March 25th becomes a quarter day, used until not so long ago as relating to the end of the tax year. It is also known as Lady Day, and Mothering Sunday is connected to it in some senses. We know from St Luke that John the Baptist was six months older than his cousin Jesus. So this gives us his birthday as June 24th – the Birthday of John the Baptist, or Midsummer Day – and in Russian Tradition, the equivalent of Halloween, ‘St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain’ by Mussorgsky illustrates the witchcraft associated with the date. And if John was born on June 24th, then he must have been conceived 9 months earlier which gives us, yes you guessed it, the Conception of John the Baptist in September. Except that’s not a thing, as they say. Instead, in September, we get Michaelmas - St Michael and All Angels.
On Quarter Days servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due. They fell on these four Christian festival dates roughly three months apart and also, as it happens, close to the two solstices and two equinoxes. The significance of quarter days is now limited, although leasehold payments and rents for land and premises in England are often still due on the old English quarter days.
Fixed or moveable feasts - all the dates in the church calendar remind us of the story of our faith; the accompanying ‘lectionary’ tells us what scripture to read and say together, and instructs and invites us to come together to mark the day. Communities that live and pray together have extensive liturgical calendars to follow, because they meet together. At the same time the calendar is an invitation to meet together to pray and share fellowship. So calendars are actually all about relationship, whether they have photographs of family members on or not. Our relationships are punctuated by dates, and the calendar is what carries our relationships onward from day to day, from year to year. And of course, we mark important dates in our relationships – wedding anniversaries, birthdays – we are not just marking time, but celebrating past, and future, in a present day. And, if it is a birthday, hopefully it is a present day!
Yet no matter how busy we are, or how full are our calendars, time marches on, and everything we do or plan to do, or have done, needs to be placed in perspective against the eternal, divine timeline of God. Astrophysicists tell us that before the Big Bang there literally was no time, and that there may yet be a context in which there is no more time left. This is not so different from the idea that the ‘end of the world’, however nigh it is, will transform time and space into something else, something incomprehensible to us here and now. Our calendars map out our little zone of time, keeping us busy, but are almost meaningless in the great scheme of things. This is not something to be depressed about though, but is rather something to be humbled by. When we see our calendar on the wall, headed by the year and month, and perhaps with a nice picture too, we see our lives in detail, but we can also be reminded that we stand before our calendars in awe of God, under whose creative loving gaze, everything ‘which is, already has been’; and that that which is yet to happen, is already happening to God; and perhaps even more profoundly, what we consider to have happened in the past, is still real to God, who seeks out the past, present and future simultaneously. This is why praying for the dead is absolutely fine, and not pointless. Because to God, they are not dead. For God the Trinity is not only three persons in one, but past, present and future, three times rolled into one, too.
So the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, is as real now as it ever was and ever shall be. It is, like incarnation, birth, passion, crucifixion and resurrection: an everlasting moment in time – a there and then that is a forever, here and now, and yet still to come. As it was, is now and ever shall be. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 28/01/18