Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.
Candlemas, a day in the liturgical year when traditionally, bees wax candles are blessed, lit and brought into the church. It is also the last day of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It’s a pivotal point that marks a final look back to the incarnation of Christ and a look forward to Lent, Easter, and his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
There are nine principle feasts of the Christian year and some Christians would say that Easter is more important than Christmas, others would contradict saying Christmas was the beginning of the story and therefore the most important. For me, making that distinction would be like saying I love one of my daughters more than the other. Impossible because they are both precious gifts from God, and so have equal but different and unique places in our family, as do Christmas and Easter for all Christians. They both have different parts to play in our spiritual growth.
Christmas has given us four songs and each of them has come down into our liturgy. Mary’s song, the Magnificat from Luke 1, Zechariah’s song, The Benedictus, also from Luke 1, next is the song of the Angels, from Luke 2, the Gloria. All three are now incorporated into our Eucharist, a memorial of the Last Supper and at the heart of our worship week by week. The final song is that of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis, also from Luke 2, and this song has echoed down the centuries in the office of Compline, Evensong and now frequently at funerals. Today we concentrate on the Nunc Dimitis, Simeon’s song.
Simeon, in our gospel reading this morning, was waiting, and he had been waiting for a long time. He was a devout man who, through the Holy Spirit, had been given insight into God’s plan for his chosen people and Simeon was waiting expectantly for the promised Messiah. This old man must surely have been beginning to wonder just when it would come to pass.
Simeon could look back into Jewish history at all God had done for his people; from the time God described the Promised Land saying to Joshua. “Get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give you. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses”. The prophets, had referred to God’s promised saviour many times, and perhaps Simeon held onto these words of Malachi, “and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”. Simeon, prompted by the Holy Spirit, was in his spiritual home waiting expectantly as Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to do what tradition demanded.
Simeon would have seen many babies brought to the Temple to offer the designated sacrifice. Yet it was this child that the Holy Spirit revealed to him. As he held Jesus in his arms Simeon realised this was not to be a king like David or Cesar. Luke, highlighting Simeon’s foresight, unfolds for us the shocking truth that this king would turn the worldview on its head, causing a seismic change in the exclusive relationship Jewish people had with their God.
Suddenly the prophet’s words were falling into place; judgment and salvation were coming, and coming together. Simeon warned Mary and Joseph this redeemer, their little baby, would not do away with suffering but would share in it, and that his mother would suffer as a result. Simeon foresaw what the future held for this little family and for the nations; he could see the meaning of God’s house, the Temple, changing from a place to a person. Simeon was now at peace; the anointed one there nestled in his arms, was not only for Israel but also as a light to reveal the Nature of God to the Gentile world.
Simeon felt complete, now he could look forward, God had kept his promise.
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant rest in peace: according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation; which thou hast prepared: before the face of alll people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
Now the Gentile world had become part of God’s story.
There are several themes that run through our Bible readings today, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, we too present ourselves to God in his temple every time we come to worship. Mary came to be purified 40 days after giving birth, we come to be purified from our sin at the altar rail as we receive the body and blood of Christ. Mary and Joseph encountered both Simeon and Anna and found meaning in all they had experienced so far. The meeting of Simeon and Anna, of Angels and Shepherds all with amazing stories; and we meet to re-hear those stories of hope and light.
Becoming disciples and followers of Jesus, we received at our baptism several signs of what the Christian life and journey are about. The sign of the cross, that Jesus died for us; Water, that we have died to sin and are brought to a new life in Christ, the lighted candle, a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world.
These are, of course, what Epiphany is all about; an enlightenment, a revelation of what Jesus is all about. A revelation that sin and death no longer hold us hostage, because God’s Son really did become incarnate, and share in a human life as our brother, so that we might share in his eternal life, as a child of God.
Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas and Easter are inexricably joined together with flames of candlelight, cleansing, challenge, expectation, and songs of hope and praise. Truly, this Lord, Jesus came into the world to save sinners and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
No, we cannot compare chalk with cheese, and we cannot compare one part of God’s story with another, they are all woven into the tapestry of our journey with Jesus and with each other. Amen.
The Rev'd Mo Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 31/01/2021