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Candlemass 101 – No/thing is Ordinary

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1 Kings 17:8-16     John 2:1-11

 

There’s something so powerful about light isn’t there…?

There is an Advent tradition in the Collins household of daily family reflections. We would light a candle for each child saying “the light of G-d coming into the world”, eating a little chocolate, and telling a story, or part of the nativity, and saying a blessing.

It’s a lovely thing which captured the children’s imagination when they were very young. A moment of quiet, reflection and ’otherness’ (only a moment – they were young children, and there could be arguments).

But on the last day of Advent, Christmas Eve the children would be sent out of the room, and Rachel and I would fill the table with candles, line the windows, cover the tables with all sorts of candles.. the room would be filled with light.

As the children return – and of course this is really magical when they are only just beginning to understand this – the single candles, “the light of G-d coming into the world”, had been transformed into something like this!

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The sense of wonder, awe and beauty is a thing to behold… the light overwhelmed us, disorientated us, and surprised us.

Next week in our Family Service we will celebrate Candlemass, a celebration of light; to remember the presentation of Jesus at the Temple following his birth, and the responses of Anna and Simeon.

Candlemass has been observed by the Church as far back as the fourth century, so it is a deep and rich part of the Church calendar. It also represents a turning point in the calendar, when our focus shifts from Christmas … and towards the Season of Lent, and the Passion of Easter. The pagan celebration of Imbolc, rhymes with us – the turn from winters bleak chill to the first anticipation of spring.

Traditionally, worshipers would bring new candles into Church to be blessed and used in the homes; a light from God illuminating our homes and lives. All kinds of superstitions have arisen about this… (don’t spill the wax!). Once again light becomes the powerful metaphor for hope entering a chaotic and unpredictable world.

And maybe in our chaotic times.. where hate-speech seems to have a presidential seal of approval, where the church has once again put its head in the sand over sexuality and gender, and where the other and the different are regarded with increasing prejudice, then maybe the simple symbol of lighting a candle; refusing to follow the dark agenda of fear, reminds us of the arduous task of resistance, imagination and the surprise of love.

I say surprise deliberately…. because within this special moment in the Temple I want to suggest a profound question is presented to us. It may be an obvious question, (or not?) A question which asks…

 ‘what are we looking for when we look for God?’

But first a little history;

According to Jewish custom, the firstborn child belonged to God, and so at an appointed time – 40 days after the birth – the child must be taken to the temple to be blessed, a sacrifice would be offered, (which would essentially ‘buy back’ the child), and at the same time the Mother would be purified.

Despite the rather unconventional conception and birth, Mary and Joseph, were observant and faithful Jews, so it made perfect sense for them to follow this custom. And they did.

Indeed, they may have wondered if the oddities of Mary’s birth story were fading into memory? With vivid dreams; angelic visitations; last-minute travels; magical stars; shoddy hotel bookings and hordes of shepherds wandering in and out … maybe all that strange stuff was behind them?

Well, not quite! Yet another surprise was awaiting them, another strange chapter in this bizarre birth narrative. We will hear the story next week that as Mary & Joseph enter the Temple they are met by two older people Anna, and Simeon. (and things are going to get weird again…)

Simeon and Anna are part of that long tradition within Judaism that had the intuition of a ‘bigger plan’ from God. An audacious whisper of hope that God would send an ‘anointed one’ to redeem God’s people. The prayers of Anna and Simeon joined with the subconscious prayers of all Israel, ‘How long Adonai, how long?’

They have both devoted their lives to serving in the Temple, Anna had remained in the Temple for decades) and prayed ceaselessly for the coming Messiah – the chosen one. They were looking for a light to come, a sign.. but had no idea what that would look like.

Waiting, watching, waiting, listening, waiting, hoping, waiting….

 

But what were they waiting for? Who was the redeemer to be? Who were they anticipating?

Certainly the messiah image in many people’s minds would point to God triumphant, worshipped by all, established in the Temple so that all the nations could see. Their God – ‘the one God’ – governed the universe; the God of Glory.

Yet when an ordinary couple enter the temple with their child, (as many couples would we imagine), something clicks. Something is different. Anna and Simeon see something – they make a connection.

In hindsight – as ever – there might be hints…. ‘See the young woman is with child’, told Isaiah; not, (as we often assume), a reference to Jesus, but a simple, hopeful affirmation of the blessing of God in the continuation of life. Glimmers of hope peeking through the ordinary things.

But surely God would redeem God’s people in triumph? A King maybe, in the line of David? Or some cosmic vision, or a climactic wrapping up of history, a final vindication for these oppressed people of God?

Whatever Simeon and Anna might have themselves imagined, we can ask ourselves – would it have been this? An ordinary looking couple, with an ordinary looking child?

What was it that gave them the vision to see something different here? What could they see that so many had not seen? What had inspired them to look into the ordinary and to see the heavenly?

When we celebrate Candlemass next week, we will recall this beautiful encounter; with its evocation of Expectation, Devotion, and Hope …

But what other words could we add? Maybe ‘Surprise’, ‘Questioning’, , ‘Incredulity’ ‘Shock’, ‘Disappointment’ ‘Consolation’, ‘Peace’, ‘Improvisation’ ‘Discernment’?

Simeon and Anna had the vision to see something beyond their own expectations, they looked for God, they waited for God, they hoped for God… but in the final act of their drama – they discovered God in the most unlikely of places.

They could be at peace, they could know consolation, they could anticipate that hope was being fulfilled….

Not fulfilled full stop, but instead being fulfilled… a process was only just beginning to work out. Rather like our own lives – never settled, always evolving, a story being told and discovered.

They recognised that the long-awaited redemption was somehow embodied in this baby, it would not be an instant vanquishing act. No this was something different.

It would take time, it would take care – and nurture…

And when we begin to understand that love, and humanity, and hope, and the divine collide together in bodies – just like our bodies – then pain would inevitably be part of that redemption picture;

Simeon understood that whatever might happen next, this drama would contain sorrow, loss and grief. Mary, as with any devoted parent, would not see this story fulfilled without a piercing to her heart. (Such vivid words which leap from the text into the various sorrows of our own lives).

So, in a series named ‘21st century Anglican’ we have to ask, what does this story suggest today?

What was it that Anna and Simeon could see/ And what is it we are invited to see? Some 2000 years on this dramatic scene still asks us questions… maybe the most simple and profound questions of all…

‘what are we looking for when we look for God?’

Are we limited by our own imagination – our expectations? Does God have the space to surprise, or is God constrained by what we want? What is happening in America right now and the imposition of the religious right?

‘what are we looking for when we look for God?’

Is it inside the Church? In our songs, worship, hospitality, and Eucharist? In the Sermon, bible study and prayer?

Maybe….

Or is the kingdom in the more ‘Ordinary?’ At the bus stop, or in the checkout queue at Morrisons? In geriatric wards, or in our schools and friends, or prisons, or in the smiles of our own loved ones…

Maybe….

Maybe throughout the world whenever anyone stands against injustice? Where the poor are lifted up, and the hungry filled with good things? When communities come together, when the homeless are sheltered, when love is fostered…

Maybe…

In nature, diversity and wildlife? On mountaintop awe, the hollowing absence of a desert, or the unique rhythms of waves on a seashore.

Maybe…

In art, music, in food and drink, in the fabric of life? In the substance of paint on canvas, lines of poetry on a page, in the melodies of music in our ears.

Maybe.

Or in the vocabulary of doubt, absence & silence; in the spaces beyond knowing or understanding, in the un-containability, in darkness and disorientation.

Maybe.

In the surprise of water turning into wine, or the provision of flour – and life – to an exasperated and desperate widow, (who I notice clearly hadn’t received the memo from God!)

Maybe.

What are the limits to where God might be found, who of us can contain the Spirit of God’s life – surprising and disappointing, cajoling and inspiring?

Where do you look for God, Where do you discover God, are they the same?

That seems to be the subtle challenge of this story, the task that is given to us; to see God in the ‘ordinariness’ of our own lives; and to finally understand that, with eyes and ears and hearts that see the Spirit of God moving, there is never really anything that is ‘just ordinary’.

Maybe God is turning up all the time; in the event of love, compassion and mercy; in the sacrament of body and blood. [1]

The Spirit revealing over and over again, that the real ‘Glory’ we speak of is not grandeur and power, but is weakness and mystery; that Christ enters our lives and drama, (as with Simeon and Anna)… in vulnerability, hope, and wide-eyed, child-like wonder.

Candlemass reminds us that Christ never arrives as we expect. We cannot ‘know’, cannot apprehend, cannot contain. We can only delight in the glow of this light; which arrives within the veil of mystery, yet clothed in flesh.

This light, entering the fabric of our lives – reveals heaven in the ordinary, and transforms the mundane into something beautiful.

Amen.

 

 

GS Collins

29 Jan 2017

[1] Chauvet, Louis-Marie, Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. (Pueblo Books, 2001)