The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
Today’s Gospel reading is the reading for Candlemas, which is actually next Tuesday. Candlemas, for the uninitiated, is an ancient festival dating back to the fifth century when it was a feast for blessing the candles to be used in church during the following year, as well as a commemoration of the encounter between Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and Simeon and Anna, known as The Presentation in the Temple.
Simeon’s well-known prayer called the Nunc Dimittis, as he holds the infant Jesus in his arms, has a Sunday night/Monday morning feel about it for those of us old enough to have gone to Evensong regularly on a Sunday evening. ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace’ yawnSunday’s observances are done, we can go home, sip our mug of hot chocolate, curl up and go to sleep. God is in His heaven and all is well with the world.at least until Monday morning when the cycle of work and worry will assail us again.
No, absolutely not. If our impression of Simeon is of a contented figure with an unequivocally comforting message then we’ve completely missed the point! The Song of Simeon as the Nunc Dimittis is known, ceases to sound like soothing mood music if we actually listen to what Simeon is saying about the child he’s holding. His words to Mary paint a much darker picture too, and the fate of Israel is not a sunlit highway but the valley of the shadow of death. The end may be glorious but the route to get there is the via dolorosa. The doom of Israel is contained in this baby, born to be Israel’s crucified King. And for Mary there is little comfort either, for the sword that will pierce her Son’s side will also pierce her own heart.
Many artists have attempted to portray The Presentation in the Temple, but the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini, in my view, truly captures the essence of the story. Looking at his picture, we can see the scene as for the first time. An unsmiling Simeon reaches out to take the infant Christ. The swaddling clothes look like burial clothes. Mary appears distracted, as if already pondering these things in her heart, and no one looks happy at what would normally have been a rite of passage that called for a party. At least two of the characters – the woman on the left and the man on the right – seem so disturbed by what Simeon has said that they are looking away, almost as if they cannot bear it. And Joseph (it must be Joseph) stares intently, almost angrily, out from the centre of the picture. He seems to say, ‘Do not for one moment suppose that you understand what is happening here.’ Simeon sought consolation for Israel, but there is a pain beyond consoling, as Mary found to her cost.
Candlemas is indeed a bitter-sweet festival. It looks over its shoulder to Christmas, but it also looks forward to Lent and Passiontide. Simeon is better at growing old than most of us are. He knows what we have forgotten – how to wait. 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. The thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians can also been seen as an expression of the insights of ageing. Paul has had to deal with a string of tiresome problems posed for him by the troublesome church at Corinth. It’s as if Paul is sighing audibly before reminding all those in the Christian family who have fallen out with one another over this or that contentious issue, what they should already know, that the most important thing, the ruling and determining factor, must always be love. The feuding Christians at Corinth needed to hear it as have Christians over the centuries and so do we. Maybe it’s a feature of the ageing process or at least of the maturing process, that we see so many of our preoccupations and achievements as ephemeral, passing, of no lasting value. Whilst I’ve been ill, Mike and I have watched far more television than is good for a person. For me, it’s a bit like wallpaper, I watch it but I don’t really absorb it. But for Mike, especially when I was really poorly, it was a source of extreme irritation, sometimes to the point where he would actually shout at the people on the screen telling them that their preoccupations were totally superficial and unimportant.
To those Corinthian Christians continually wrangling with each other, to those today preoccupied with posting selfies on social media sites or catching up with celebrity gossip, St. Paul is saying STOP. You’ve lost the plot. What’s really important is love. Not some soppy, romantic travesty, but the sort of love that is patient and kind, not envious or arrogant or boastful or rude. The sort of love that bears everything, that believes and hopes even when all seems hopeless, that endures all things, even when the going is really tough. The sort of sacrificial love that the infant Christ will have for the world His Father created; the love that will get Him crucified and break Mary’s heart.
And so 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 happening now 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 and His coming again in Glory. And in the meantime we have to make sure that we don’t, like those Corinthian Christians, lose the plot. In chapter 12 of his Letter to yet another of his Churches, the Church at Rome, St. Paul concentrates on what we do. Love has to be at the centre of what motivates us, and it has to be sincere, truthful. We have to be who we are and then become what God wants us to be. I am, of myself, an unfinished project, in the process of being transformed, in love, into the likeness of Christ.
Whilst we only see distorted mirror images that we cannot really understand, and if you saw the sort of unsmooth mirrors they had in the first century you’d know what Paul was getting at, of one thing we can be sure - faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’