Candlemas is an ancient festival dating back to the fifth century when it was a feast for blessing the candles to be used in church as well as a commemoration of the encounter between Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and Simeon and Anna. We know very little of Jesus before he started his public ministry, and this Candlemas story is the last ‘snapshot’ we have of Jesus before we hear about him as an adolescent, confounding teachers and scribes in the Temple at Jerusalem. We are told that ‘the child grew’ and how we would love to know some of the details of that home and family, but, alas, the angels are gone, and the astonishing secret of this humble home remains unknown.
Candlemas is a bitter-sweet festival. Its looks over its shoulder to Christmas, but it also looks forward to Lent and Passiontide. And it is a strange encounter. All the characters in the Christmas story hurried to Bethlehem to see the Christ-child – shepherds and wise men with not a moment to lose, hastening to Bethlehem lest they miss their epiphany moment.
Then we have Simeon and Anna – and what do they do, they wait. They wait for Jesus to come to them. And He does. I like this aspect of the Christmas story, because it mirrors the waiting experiences in our own lives. Simeon and Anna have not rushed, but they have prayed and they have remained faithful, waiting patiently for God’s revelation, and it comes..it always comes, in God’s own time.
Simeon is better at growing old than most of us are. He doesn’t ‘rage against the dying of the light’, as the poet Dylan Thomas exhorts his dying father to. Rather than bewailing the light’s departure, he awaits the dawn. He knows what we have forgotten – how to wait. So Simeon and Anna bide their time – they dare not leave the Temple lest they miss their moment of destiny. Others must journey, but they must wait. Later in His life, Jesus will have many people seeking Him out, for healing, for cleansing, for forgiveness, for counsel, and ultimately, for betrayal, arrest, trial and death. But there are always also those who wait for Him to come to them.
There’s a brilliant book by W.H. Vanstone called ‘The Stature of Waiting.’ In it Vanstone concludes that our society and culture is totally geared to activity. We admire energy, activity, getting on with things, being self-sufficient, and we are critical of passivity and inactivity. This makes it particularly tough for us when we are ill or when the restrictions of the ageing process affect us, because we struggle to find value in being passive, in patient waiting. Vanstone then looks at the life of the incarnate Christ, who always balances activity with time apart with God, but is nonetheless very active, teaching, healing, journeying, preaching, until He reaches the Garden of Gethsemane, from which point on He is almost entirely passive, silent for the most part. Rather than doing things, He allows things to be done to Him. He becomes the one who is done to, as he patiently enters His passion. Vanstone concludes that there is a stature, a value, in being passive, in patient waiting.
Simeon and Anna are the last people in the Christmas story, and probably the oldest and the wisest. They embody the wisdom of waiting, the virtue of patience, the strength to endure. Maybe some people mocked their patient vigil. Perhaps there were those who poured scorn on Simeon and Anna’s prayerful waiting. But they are rewarded – they see their Messiah, the promised one of Israel. It is here in the Temple that Jesus’ ministry begins in a way, because He is truly recognised as a light both for Israel and for the world. And the road to Calvary begins in Simeon’s strange prayer ‘this child is set for the falling and rising of many.and a sword shall pierce your own heart.’
Simeon looks for ‘the consolation of Israel’ and Anna, even older in years than Simeon, was ‘looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’ She stands too in our day, for all who love Jerusalem and seek its peace. But the infant who is the pledge of Israel’s redemption will also multiply Israel’s suffering. Across the centuries Simeon’s haunting song has rung out, from the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 to the Jewish progroms and purges of the middle ages and beyond, to the Holocaust of the twentieth century and the acts of terrorism in the twenty-first. The promise of salvation is certain, but its complete fulfilment still seems far distant. And so we wait and pray, in faith. We live in the now, and the not yet. Between the first coming of Christ in human form on earth with the leaving of His Holy Spirit with us, and His coming again in Glory.
Candlemas isn’t just a festival for the blessing of candles. The light of Christ burns in each one of us, both to bless us and to make us a blessing to others. For the shepherds and the wise men, the light came early, for Simeon and Anna after a long wait, but it always comes. Candlemas says ‘Look – open your eyes, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, Jesus, the light of the world is here, now.’ He is with us and in us. He is present whenever we watch and wait on Him in prayer, whether we feel it or not, and He is present mysteriously in the bread and the wine, the Body and the Blood of the Eucharist. We perceive Him often at work in each other and in our church. And if, sometimes, the vigil seems long and you are weary of waiting, think of Simeon and Anna and be reassured. The light will come. There is stature and value in waiting.