Sunday 31st January, morning, Candlemas
Revd Kate Tuckett
And so here we are, at the end of the Christmas season. Although over the season of Epiphany we’ve been following Jesus as a grown man, seeing him baptised, turning water into wine, and calling his disciples, here he is again 40 days after his birth. Jesus is taken to be presented at the temple by his parents who, as devout Jews, observe Hebrew traditions. There they meet two older people, Simeon and Anna who have been patiently waiting for the Messiah to come. Simeon takes the child and speaks the wonderful poetry of the Nunc Dimitis -- he can now die in peace because in this child he can see the glory of God, who will be a light not just to the Jewish people but to the world. It's a beautiful and resonant festival that marks the end of the Christmas season with lovely symbolism of revelation, encounter and recognition.
It’s also a festival of extraordinary bitter-sweetness --- as indeed so much of the gospel is bitter-sweet. Of course the Christmas stories have been marked by a thread of fear, of pain, of marginalisation – that terrifying angel, the strange pronouncements of Elizabeth and Zechariah, those smelly shepherds turning up. Certainly Mary has had to let go of any control of her life and allow God to lead her. And now, Simeon and Anna, righteous and devout, tell the new parents, exhausted and overwhelmed that this child of theirs is extraordinary. Mary and Joseph are, according to Luke, amazed. They may have whisphered to each other that there was something different about their child, but imagine being told by these two elderly people that your child will be the salvation of God’s people. Imagine Mary hearing too the prophecy that a sword will pierce her own heart, not understanding but noting the pinpricks of fear. None of this may have been what they wanted to hear.
But I want to leave aside Mary and Joseph for today, because the enigmatic heroes of our story today are these two elderly people who come out of the shadows of the temple. Both of them are approaching the end of their lives. Simeon has been hanging around the temple for a long time. It has been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. And Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, the prophet, widowed after only seven years of marriage and bearing the shame of that culture of being a woman without children, has made the temple her home. These are people who have known pain and isolation and longing.
The stigma and perhaps the isolation they would have known was not confined to their own age. Our society too devalues older people and especially older women, who are meant to inject botox into their faces to get rid of wrinkles, to spend a fortune on creams and potions, even to have operations to make their bodies perfect. But the example of Simeon and Anna turns all these cultural prejudices on their heads and show us that in terms of our ministry and discipleship the best is always yet to come.
The world may have disregarded and patronised Simeon and Anna – particularly Anna --- and perhaps particularly so because they were always in the temple praying. But because they have spent a lifetime praying, their prophetic words spilled out to Mary and Joseph.
They were in the right place at the right time. But, we sense, theirs is not a model of chance. They show us something about patience and humility. Simeon is ‘righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.’ Simeon grasps that God has wonderful things in store, and that these things are not going to be achieved by or even through him but that he will witness them. And when he has done, he can die in peace. His is an old age that understands that the future is always bigger than the past. Of course this is such a shift from the popular image of old age, that aging is a euphemism for dying. If life is a quest for health and wealth and control, then aging does of course present many obstacles. But the story of Simeon is a beautiful challenge to ask what there is to live for beyond the acquisition of goods, the accumulation of experiences and the postponement of death.
So often we hear people say that they would like to do something different, but it’s too late to change. If nothing else, the story of Simeon and Anna challenges us about what ministry – our work for God – is and who can do it. We see in Simeon and Anna the fulfilment of the life work of two devout people of faith. The Christmas stories are all about the spiritual awakening and the recognition of God become incarnate as a human being. Young and old are singing God’s praise. A young woman sings that her soul magnifies the Lord, for God has done great things for her, even as she faces stigma and fear. Angels sing Glory to God in the highest and good will to all on earth. Burly shepherds respond. We are ever too young – as in Mary’s case -- or too old -- as in Simeon and Anna’s case -- or the wrong sorts of people -- as in the shepherds’ case -- to turn into this song of the ages and participate in its transcending message.
It’s also a story about community. If we look at the people who gather in the temple, here we have a baby, two parents, and two elderly people who are unrelated to the parents or to one another. This strikes me as being a story of what church at its very best can be like, of young and old, male and female seeking faith and blessing and God together. Churches are one of the very few places today where unrelated people of different ages and backgrounds try to get along together. We can take some inspiration from this moment in the temple. We need one another to find our inspiration and our blessing. It’s often said that older people are lonely and isolated --- but so are younger people. The answer always lies in one another.
And finally, this is a story about suffering. Very few of life’s experiences are pure joy. Life is bitter-sweet. Even at Midnight Mass, as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, we say the Eucharist prayer, and with great poignancy, we make memorial of his death. And this festival more than any other is one at the balance of joy and lament, the sweetness of the birth of Jesus and the bitterness of turning towards the cross and Lent.
There is nothing sentimental about the prophecy Simeon gives to Mary and Joseph. ‘This child is destined for the falling and 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 heart.’ Jesus will turn Israel’s world upside down. His life will cause division and wounding pain to his parents. Simeon offers a wisdom that has known suffering, waiting, perhaps hardship and grief, but sees through them to beauty, truth and goodness.
Simeon and Anna didn’t spend their lives trying to cling onto control or acquisition or protecting themselves against the inevitability of death – indeed Simeon welcomes death as a blessing. They spend them preparing for the moment they would come face to face with God in Jesus. When this moment came they had the wisdom and the grace to recognise him. They were ready. They have waited in the shadows of the Temple, waited patiently in darkness. They have the wisdom brought to them through longing. And so we too may ask ourselves, what are we preparing for? What would truly fulfil our lives? And when it comes, will we too be ready?
This sermon uses material from:
Wells, S. (2011), Be Not Afraid, Michigan: Brazos Press