Sunday, 4 February 2018

Candlemas: light & darkness; flames & ash

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral, 2nd February 2018

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is perhaps one of the most beautiful, intriguing and mystical of the festivals of the Church.

It is also bittersweet.

It is - all at the same time - a time of rejoicing and recognition, of the fulfilment of longed for hopes and warnings of pain ahead.

What a claim it is that the simple candle can catch the beauty and mystical depths of the Presentation of Christ, reflected in the name Candlemas.

The candle gives light. Light shining in the darkness connects us to the opening of St John’s gospel and the promise of the triumph of light which the darkness cannot overcome. (John 1.5)

How will Jesus Christ the light of the world guide us through the darkness? Candlemas doesn’t give glib answers. As Mary is told, ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul too, Mary’. (Luke 2.35) A candle gives light and warmth, but it can burn us too. Christ, our light, will go through dark times and will be with us in ours.

An extinguished candle leaves an ashen wick: it speaks of mortality. The life and light with which we shine out in the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ will one day end in dust and ashes.

So too, Candlemas pivots us from the light of Incarnation towards the ash of the beginning of Lent.

Yet, we live hope-filled lives, knowing that the promise of the Resurrection of the Body is the promise of a transformed life in the life of the world to come and eternal life means we shine with Christ’s light in the here and now.

Many lives lack light.

Many people wait attentively and patiently, some knowing what they seek, and others not knowing at all. Yet, instinctively, when they see they recognise.

We celebrated the Conversion of Paul just last week: he was searching for those who bore the Name of Jesus; to kill them not join them. The light of Christ shone, it blinded him, it disorientated him, and he saw the light for what it was: the light that shines in the darkness, the true light that enlightens everyone. (John 1.9)

This light shines out in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ and it challenges and transforms lives.

This light shone out from the cradle trough of Bethlehem;
in his presentation in the temple;
in his baptism in the Jordan;
in water made wine at the wedding feast;
in his healings on the streets of the towns of Galilee;
his feeding of the crowds on the mountainside.
It shone out even at his darkest hour – when Mary’s heart was pierced with a sword –
an Hour that John calls the Hour of his glorification.
This light shone in his resurrection and ascension, and as the Spirit was poured out upon the disciples in the Upper Room.

This light is creation’s light, the uncreated light of God: ‘let there be light’ (Genesis 1.3). As Simeon declares: he is ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel’. (Luke 2.32)

 For Simeon and Anna representing God’s first called people, the Jews, that recognition comes in the Temple, not just in the synagogue or on the streets of Galilee. He comes in the prophetic tradition of Malachi, one to cleanse and give light to the temple.

It is not the last time Jesus will visit the temple. Across the Gospels the temple is somewhere Jesus returns to. Indeed immediately following Luke’s account of the Presentation Jesus is back as an adolescent and is found in the temple with the teachers of the Law.

Luke’s Gospel ends in the temple, because after the Ascension of the Lord we read that the discples ‘returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God’. And as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, they continued to pray in the Temple: ‘day by day, as they spent much time in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts praising God and having the goodwill of all the people’ (Acts 2.46, 47)

The temple was where the light of God had emanated in Israel, and this light was now to shine through Jesus Christ. This makes sense of Paul’s assertion that the human body is the temple and dwelling place of the Spirit, for Jesus cleansed the earthly temple as his own body was a temple to be raised in three days too.

Christ opens the way for the Gentiles, the second called people of God, to know the way to the Father in Jesus Christ

Candlemas today brings us to present ourselves in this temple; this place of encounter – to receive into our bodies his body and to ponder with Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, and one another the light and darkness, the life and ash of our lives.

And after the communion we will get up, bodily, and move in procession to the Lady Chapel. There we will stand, informally, as the choir sings Simeon’s words.

Christ comes as the Dayspring from on high, the light to dispel the darkness and to enable us to reimagine who we are as men, women and children created in God’s image and likeness.

We stand as those who have received his light, in baptism and Eucharist, and now shine it out and we pledge ourselves to ‘shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father’ (Baptism liturgy).

We stand with his Mother, Mary, and ponder all these things in our hearts.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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