Here’s the sermon preached by the Rev Jonathan Livingstone at St Oswald’s on Sunday 3 February for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas). Jonathan is Associate Curate at St Mary’s, Hamilton and St Andrew’s Uddingston.
Today we celebrate Candlemas, otherwise known as the Presentation of the Lord. It is a significant day in our liturgical calendar as itencourages us to turn our thoughts from the joy-filled realisation of God-made-man at Christmas to Christ’s sufferings and trials as He approaches the Cross. It prompts us to be conscious of drawing near to Ash Wednesday when the Church worldwide will begin its journey through the sombreness and gravity of Lent to the jubilant celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. The season of Lent is of course still a few weeks off but Candlemas signifies a turning point in our life of worship.
Luke tells us of Jesus being taken to the Temple by his parents both for Him to be presented as the first-born male and for Mary to go through the purification ritual which were customs of their time. Forty days after his birth, his parents are performing their duty to offer a sacrifice to the Lord.
On entering the Temple the young family meet Simeon. Simeon was an elderly Jew – devout and pious – who spent much of his time humbly in prayer and devotion in the Temple and it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. Prompted by the Spirit to go to the Temple on this occasion as soon as he saw this baby he knew exactly whose presence he was in.
Simeon knows that in this child God has kept God’s promises; that through this baby God has acted once and for all to reconcile all people to Himself, to bring glory to the persecuted and peace to the world. The hopes Simeon has carried with him all his long life are being fulfilled before his very eyes, for he sees in Jesus the promised salvation of God that has been foretold by the prophets. Listen again to the words of the prophet Malachi and hear the promise Simeon was waiting for:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you will seek will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed he is coming, says the Lord of hosts (3.1).
As a devout Jew Simeon would have been familiar with this teaching and others like it, and on this day, at this time, in this Temple, He has come face to face with its realisation.
What a profound encounter we are witnessing here!
But, as is so often the case in life, the joy and jubilation of this encounter is not the full story.
For although Simeon obviously had foresight as to what this baby’s future would hold we know from hindsight that this child is to suffer – he will be mocked and ridiculed. Beaten and betrayed. He will be mercilessly persecuted…, hung up on a filthy Cross…, and brutally murdered. Yes, Jesus is to be a comfort and joy to many but He is going to suffer – and suffer more than Mary and Joseph can ever imagine at this stage in their little boy’s life.
Simeon knows that Mary is to walk alongside her son and watch at every sorry turn so it is no wonder he tells her, ‘A sword will pierce your own soul too’ (2.35).
This is her son whom she loves dearly and tenderly. And because of that unconditional love for him she will feel his pain, she will wipe away the blood and sweat from his brow, she will cry herself to sleep at night and crash to the floor on her knees weeping and wailing at all the pain that He will endure.
For this is a mother’s love for her child.
This is a father’s love for his child.
A lover’s love.
A friend’s love.
In fact, this is the kind of love we are all called to participate in as sons and daughters of God, for as Paul teaches us in his letter to the Romans we are to, ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those weep’ (12.15).
This love means we weep with our sister when she has been betrayed by her husband and finds herself without a home;
This love means we sit by our friend’s bedside comforting them as they approach the end of their life and we fight to stay awake through the wee small hours of the morning;
This love means we feel the pain of those who labour in unjust and dangerous conditions around the world, longing there was more we could do to bring about even a little justice and equality.
For this is costly love.
This is love that demands of us to share the heavy load our neighbour is carrying.
And to do this for our neighbour requires us to face our own pain, for we cannot truly show compassion to another without an authentic and real understanding of the suffering our neighbour endures.
This is especially challenging as we seem to live in a society that all too readily attempts to numb the feelings of pain in life. Current research and statistics tell us that we, in the West, live in a society that is more reliant on alcohol and drugs; on materialism and consumerism; instant gratification and greed than any other society in history – and these distractions help us to numb the reality of suffering we face. But as the Croat theologian, Miroslav Volf, once wrote, ‘If the absence of pain in our own life is our highest value we will lack the courage to struggle against pain in the lives of our neighbours.’
Now this is not to say that we should run towards suffering or go looking for it. I’m not advocating a sort of theological masochism – for very simply put Jesus Himself exclaimed that He came to give us life and life in full abundance. But if we can acknowledge and learn from our own struggles and hardships surely we will be more equipped to walk alongside those who long for empathy, compassion and understanding from us.
And when we do that it is at those moments we are truly being a light in the darkness. We are shining the light of Christ.
This may sound clichéd or trite but in reality that is not the case.
Just think back to times in your lives when in the midst of pain or struggle someone has been there for you to share the hardship, to offer you comfort or advice or a listening ear… or just to sit with you whilst you cry. These relationships, these connections truly matter and in them we find genuine comfort and healing.
When we truly get alongside another person in their moment of pain we can each offer a little hope, a little comfort and a little peace.
And this is exactly what Candlemas is all about.
Christ was born on earth to be a light to all the nations throughout all ages. And He calls each of us now to be a light to all whom we encounter in this often dark world.
So, each time you see a flame flickering in the dark:
I urge you to remember Simeon who recognised and proclaimed exactly who Jesus was;
I urge you to walk alongside others in the way that Mary walked with her son from the moment the angel foretold his conception to the day she witnessed him hanging on that cross.
I urge you to believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that when you reach out to another in compassion, in empathy and in love you are seizing the opportunity to be a light in this world…, you are seizing the opportunity to show a little of who Christ truly is to your neighbour.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.