February 2, 2020
[Audio file follows printed text]
Once upon a time, in lands far from here, among peoples that would appear strange to us now, lights appeared in the night. They did not have electricity back then, of course, and that means when night fell, it grew very dark, unless there was a cloudless sky and a full moon. Lights in the darkness meant many things: it could mean a house was on fire, either by accident or by raid. It could also mean, someone was waiting for you to come home, and therefore it meant love and companionship. It could mean, also, that something fun was happening, or something important, as it did on the evening before the fortieth day after Christmas. It meant that the Christians were on the move, gathering together in a solemn parade, to present themselves to God as Mary and Joseph presented their little Jesus to the temple. They carried candles because this little child was their light and their salvation, and they wanted to remember that the Christ always shines. One saint wrote: “Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.”
Like many things in the church, the symbolism overshadowed the reality of the festival. You have heard of the Presentation of Our Lord called Candlemas, among many other names. I had read that name here and there, and always wondered what it meant. But as the parades developed, they became more important than the true light. This, as I understand it, gradually turned into a time of blessing the candles the church uses for the year, much like we did at the children’s sermon. So the light shines, and shines, and we go back to playing with our pebbles in the dark.
So here’s a way to think of this feast, the Presentation of our Lord, as if God, knowing our darkness, lit a candle and held it out to us, presenting to us Christ, so that by God’s radiance we may see. Think of what it might be like to be in darkness, yearning for a candle, and then, almost out of nowhere, a light shines, and in that light you can see the smiling face of God. That’s what it means when Christ is presented—the light of God has come to you, to illuminate your world. It’s a beautiful festival, and now that I know more about it, I wish we celebrated it more often. But as joyous as it feels to welcome the light of Christ, Simeon also has a word for us: “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Simeon rejoiced at the Saviour, and he also said, more or less, “I can die now.” I suppose he did, too, after warning Mary that her Son, the very baby she was holding swaddled in her hands, also would die. A sword will pierce your own soul, too. I wonder if Mary also took these words and pondered them in her heart, as she took the words from Gabriel and the shepherds. There is sadness in this story, sadness at the darkness of the world, sadness that, as the writer of Hebrews said, Christ must endure our weaknesses, our temptations, our death. A sword will pierce your own soul, too, and even the Son of God could not avoid the sorrows of this life. There are other parades besides parades of joy—in our own neighborhood, you can see the passion parades at Holy Week. In Kentucky, men armed with AR-15s and semi-automatic pistols, masked, and carrying ammo clips were honored and feted by the legislature, but the peaceful crowd from the Poor People’s Campaign met armed guards who denied them entry to their own state capitol. Torch parades mean very different things, depending on the place and time they occur. Ask a Jew in German in the 30s, or an African-American man during Jim Crow.
Simeon turns to Mary and says, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.” The presentation of Jesus is also, in a way, his presentation to the Cross. Simeon quotes from the prophets, and the prophets proclaimed the Suffering Servant. This suffering servant presents God’s face to the world: a face like ours, in pain, abandoned, dying. This is a holiday between Christmas and cross, and brings together joy and sorrow. But because it brings us to the cross, it will also bring us to resurrection. Jesus will pass through death, and so, too, will we. And there’s something about that joy, that resurrection joy, that we cannot know without dying, just as you cannot sit too long in darkness without the light hurting your eyes. But the light is good; it’s worth the slight momentary affliction. It’s good to do right, to walk in light, even if it seems like nothing will change because of it, or that doing right won’t affect things. But doing right always changes something: it always changes the person doing it. Believing in the light always does something: it changes the one who believes.
Simeon and Anna were a long time believing and a long time walking, without much to show for it. Simeon was waiting on the Spirit of God—waiting and waiting, waiting and waiting. Nothing came for a very long time; yet he kept his faith and he kept on walking with God. He was righteous and devout, Luke says, a prayer and a doer. I think it was that length of time, that long disappointment, that prepared him for the day he met Jesus. And Anna—her faithfulness makes Simeon’s look minor league. She married, and her husband died after seven years. Then until she was 84, she spent her time in the temple, worshipping, fasting, praying, enduring, hoping. And she also spoke and praised God in the temple when Jesus came. She found the end of her struggle; her faithfulness was rewarded.
Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. Anna and Simeon’s souls shone like the sun. I can imagine Simeon’s bearded face smiling with joy, Anna’s stooped shoulders and gnarled hands reaching for the baby. Bright souls, welcoming the light that gave them light. Is the baby passing us by? Where do we go to meet Jesus? How can we make our souls flare in welcome?
We welcome Christ because Christ comes to us, to be presented to us. We welcome him in our hands at this table, because Christ comes to us here. We welcome him in the body of believers, because he comes to us in this gathering of people called here by God’s Spirit. We welcome Christ in our daily work, as we see each day his guidance to tend with care this world and its people. And when the times seem dark, and hope seems crushed, and all the people who seem to matter turn from goodness and service, we don’t give up because Christ comes to us anyway. Our light is the light of Christ, which nothing on this earth can extinguish. It feels good to know that Christ lives, and that because Christ has come to me, nothing can take God’s love away. As Luther wrote in the hymn: though they should take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day, the kingdom’s ours forever.
So never give up on doing right, though you feel that you are marching through darkness. When it’s really dark, and you feel that you will be lost consider that you are the candle Christ has chosen for this dark place, and that your shining is the light Christ presents to that part of the world. Sometimes that’s all the world needs, just a little faith, just a little light. Things can happen when Christ comes, even in times like these.