Candlemas (Luke 2:22-40) is one of my favourite festivals. It has candlelight, a message of hope and promise fulfilled, and it comes as winter is giving way to signs of early spring, so new life is beginning to dawn. It also has the heart-warming scene of strangers delighting with new parents at the sight of their baby, just 40 days old. What’s not to like? And these themes are powerful and resonant ones for us.
We begin with the two elderly people: Simeon and Anna, both in the Temple when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus in to do for him what was required by the law. This was the requirement (Leviticus 12:1-8) of an offering being made for their firstborn son of a lamb and a pigeon. Alternatively, if they couldn’t afford a lamb, then they could sacrifice two turtle-doves or two pigeons instead. Within this there is a questionable practice of regarding women as being unclean and needing purifying after childbirth. This is compounded by the shorter period of uncleanliness applying to giving birth to boys (40 days) than to girls (74 days). So the rejoicing and the warm feeling excited by this scene has a darkness lurking which is itself brought under the gaze of this child. The light that shines, shines into this darkness too; the darkness of sacrifice and purity laws. More of that in a moment.
When Simeon sees the child he recognizes that this child is special and proclaims an amazing song of the fulfillment of promise, which as the Nunc Dimittis is familiar to many in its traditional form as used at Evensong.
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word…”
This child will bring the light Simeon has longed for, the hope he has longed for. His patience and his faithfulness have been rewarded. The same applies to Anna, who has worshipped in the Temple night and day. She seems to have been carrying a deep loss within her, having been widowed at a young age and spent the rest of her life around the Temple finding there comfort and support in her grieving. Another darkness, that of loss and unfulfilled purpose, dreams that never became, into which this light comes with love and affirmation.
This brings us to the second element I want to focus on, that of light shining in the darkness. It is a light that brings hope for all. While Jesus came to the Jews and was born into the Jewish faith, he expands the generous love of God to embrace all people. And it takes quite a while for his followers to realize this, but they do – not least in Peter’s vision of the sheet being lowered in a dream and being told to eat unclean animals, and Paul preaching to Gentile communities. This light, this hope is for all people.
More fundamental is the removal of the sacrificial system as a completely misdirected approach. In time the church came to see this as being the wrong way round. In Christ God has taken the initiative, always does, and in so doing builds a bridge. It does not depend on us. The grace at work in Christ removes the need for sacrifices because he opens the way to and from God: it is in because God reaches out to us that we are able to respond. Everything depends on God. All that is required is a heart that says ‘yes’. Even purity laws are removed because that access comes whether we are ready or not. God does not wait for us to be ready, to be acceptable, before taking the initiative. Indeed it is his initiative that creates the space for ‘worthiness’. So all that purity stuff is declared redundant. We can miss how radical and fundament a shift this is. The old covenant is made redundant. And it is announced right here by Simeon in his hymn. Salvation comes through God’s gift, not our actions. This is the light of hope for all people that shines at Candlemas and why we light candles as part of this service.
So faithfulness has been rewarded as Simeon and Anna see their longing for salvation fulfilled. And in this they see light shining in the darkness bringing hope for all in a new and radical way.
Thirdly, Simeon and Anna are able to let go. Now is the time that Simeon feels he can depart in peace. He can lay down the burden assured that the future is secure in God’s hands. Letting go is a sign of deep trust and all of us have moments when we have to do this, ultimately when we face our own deaths in hope and assurance of God’s promises fulfilled in Christ Jesus. New generations come behind us and there comes a moment when we become aware that the next generation has indeed come of age and is ready. We can entrust whatever it is to them. Things will be different and yet they too will be held in God’s grace and providential care. Damage is done when we cling on longer to control and power when it actually needs to be let go. This has multiple branches coming out of it, from needing to take time off, to allowing others to take the lead or share in the venture. I have seen over the years serious problems when someone will not let anyone else share the burden or indeed step aside so that another can pick it up. The more I work with young people and watch them grow the more I see that they do indeed come of age and God has blessed them and will bless them as they take up the reins, even if they need help and encouragement to do so. None of us are permanent and the stories of Simeon and Anna remind us that hope and blessing existed before us and will continue after us. We can trust God’s providence.
So Candlemas represents a radical shift in faith and understanding. It takes us to the fundamentals of faith that the initiative comes from God and in this we can have confidence and trust. God brings promise to fulfillment. Light shines for all and that sets us free to let go and trust in God’s unfailing goodness.
‘Now, Lord, your word has been fulfilled,
for my eyes have seen your salvation;
a light for all peoples.’