“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Words from today’s gospel. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
Candlemas is a strange festival- more than any it is a festival that points to the realities of our life and our world.
All the other major Christian festivals tend to be focussed on one particular part of the Christian story with its own emotional colour- in Advent we wait, at Christmas we are held in joy, at Epiphany we celebrate the openness of God’s message of love, in Lent we turn towards the sorrow of our human failings and the pain of our world, at Good Friday we see the worst we can do to each other, at Easter we realise that our tiny lives are not the whole story and at Pentecost we learn to trust that we are never on our own,
I spent a day last week at Tymawr convent and was struck by the huge bare Christmas tree in the chapel-devoid of light and decoration – yet at its tip was a solitary star. It summed up for me what Candlemas is about- a festival that holds darkness and light together- both the hope and joy of the Christmas season- and the anticipation of suffering in Passiontide.
In the gospel reading today we hear about Simeon and Anna who have spent their lives in prayer and longing. Simeon is an old man- he has seen his dreams and hopes fulfilled in a tiny child.
And his prayer is pure poetry. It is the description of a faithful man who has been praying – day in, day out in the temple. He has seen the despair of his people – held in miserable captivity, persecuted, longing for deliverance but not daring to hope or even wonder how that deliverance may come. Through his life has been faithful and he has never stopped praying or hoping. And he can let go into death.
But we do not stop here in this story and sail off into the sunset. This hope that Simeon finds is not sentimental, or simply a moment of sweetness. In the wonder of realising God’s promise of love and salvation, Simeon also foresaw the pain that this love would bring. He says to Mary:
“Behold this child is set for the falling and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against and a sword will pierce your own heart.”
C.S. Lewis says, “To love is to be vulnerable and the only place where you can be perfectly safe from the dangers and perturbations of love is hell where there is no love”
I have been re- reading T S Eliot’s poem “A song for Simeon” and have been struck by how he holds together the darkness and light, the hope and fear, the faith and ambivalence that is our human experience. It is a real meditation on what Simeon might be wondering and praying- Just listen
“The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us thy peace”
And towards the end of the poem
“According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
Nicholas Lash, a Roman Catholic theologian reminds us that the birthtime of God’s hope always occurs in the darkness before the dawn- the birth of the Christ child is in the literal darkness and the darkness of rejection by all around him. And the birth of our hope in the resurrection happens in the darkness and loneliness of a dark cold tomb.
If our faith in Christ and the salvation he brings are to mean anything, then we have to go on believing in the incarnation of God’s love even when we cannot always immediately see it – even in the darkness. Even when our trust feels like those first magi in the words of Eliot, “The voices are singing in our ears that this is all folly.”
But Christian faith is not about creating positions of certainty, defensiveness or control – a position that seems to reflect the life of our government at the moment. It is more about holding onto the peace of God when you have nothing else, even when everybody else and even you yourself perhaps think your faithfulness is nonsense, and that God’s love is an illusion. Our faith is about staying faithful just as Simeon was faithful.
Holding on in hope is a gritty experience- we are buffeted by the circumstances of our lives, and the misery of the world from which we cannot escape. But I find it a huge comfort to realise- that however hard we try- if we try to find a path to the daylight of hope that does not lead through the darkness of Gethsemane and Golgotha, then we are living in hopeless fantasy. That type of trust and faith is a long way from the aspirations of the prosperity gospel that assures you of a rich and happy life as long you believe in God. Everything we read in our gospels suggests that there are not such easy paths.
God’s birthtime is always in darkness- and darkness can hold surprising hidden joy and splendour. Candlemas is a winter festival of birth and light and new life. It’s a story of living and dying, striving to hope and to live hopefully even when tangible hope seems far off. It’s about living with questions, of living with the mystery of not knowing the answers.
This festival asks us to look into ourselves and out into our world at the bleak places that we find- and to trust that these places of darkness do not have the last word. Because God is truly with us, among us and that our deliverance and the deliverance of our world are possible through the self-giving transforming love that is God.
I’ll end with a poem by Jan Such Pickard who was once leader of the Iona Community.
In the dark days:
under rain-heavy clouds,
among broken branches,
on sodden earth,
the snow drops light their candles
A flame that cannot be put out
by darkness or gales or doubt
In the salt wind,
rooks buckle like broken umbrellas:
as the bare tress
heave a great sigh,
the snow drops tremble
But their flame cannot be put out
by darkness or gales or doubt.
Perfect, as though carved
in green-veined marble,
life pulsing through tissue
delicate as the eyelids
of a sleeping child,
curved like small fingers, holding on.
Their flame is steadfast:
It is full of hope and new beginnings,
Darkness or gales or doubt
cannot put it out.