Sermon for Candlemas/Presentation of Christ in the Temple Luke 2:22-40

For mine eyes have seen…. Words from today’s gospel.

In the name……

Rembrandt was a genius at painting age. against a dark background, the aged characters of Simeon and Anna emerge. Simeon has taken the baby in his arms. Anna is standing at his shoulder looking down at the child. Simeon appears to be about to speak those words of the Nunc Dimittis: For mine eyes have seen…. and yet Simeon is not looking at the child. He appears to be blind, perhaps reflecting the artist’s own growing blindness. He seems to be lost in looking at something that we cannot see, looking to God, looking to the future, seeing what was in store for this child.

Simeon saw with faith, not by what Jesus looked like. We are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Faith is “Being sure of that which we do not see.” God calls us to have our eyes of faith opened by him. To see others, not by our sight which might lead us to criticise or dislike, but by faith to see them as children of God loved by Him.

In his poem, “A Song for Simeon” T. S. Eliot evokes many layers of paradox and contrast:

“Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.”

The divine Word is still only a tiny child, 40 days old, who’s not yet learnt to speak.

The joy of his birth is placed alongside the pain and death foretold. The beginning of a new life signals the end of a long life of waiting for the old man. Bringing together conflicting emotions, the collision of contrasting moments in people’s lives. We don’t live in isolation. We are connected to those around us, their lives intertwined with ours.

Eliot’s Simeon declares,
“I am tired of my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.”

The light and glory that the old man prophesies is not for him to see. Eliot picks up on the disenchantment of one who has been waiting for a decisive event. In his prophecy Simeon’s life becomes part of the future of the child and his parents, while their presence releases him from the burden of “tomorrow.” The intertwining of our lives brings both joy and pain, long periods of waiting and moments where truth is perceived. In the Incarnation, God involves himself in our human lives.

And what about Anna, that old lady who hung about the Temple night and day? Such people can be a bit of a trial when you’re in a hurry to lock up. Anna’s words are never recorded. Like those faithful ones who watch and wait without saying much. She was of the tribe of Asher, which had disobeyed God by not eliminating the Canaanites but living alongside them. All knowledge of the tribe disappeared when the Assyrians took over their land, until Anna. She represents people on the margins of society. She was married seven years with no children so she was probably barren, a terrible stigma. She was a widow, so she was poor as she had no one to maintain her. No man wanted to risk marrying a barren woman. She was female and so couldn’t even go far into the temple to worship God but had to stay in the Court of Women, where the Gentiles went. She became known as a prophetess, someone with acknowledged spiritual depth and insight. I wonder how many people sought her comfort and counsel. The authorities may not have regarded Anna highly but it seems that the people did. Anna, the remnant, was faithful. Her constant state of fasting identifies her as one in a state of mourning, not for her husband, but for the people of God. Pushed to the margins of society, God brought her into the centre of his plan for the salvation of all.

Simeon and Anna are both aged people; Probably frail and unable to achieve anything that counts on the economic scale but they are rich sources of wisdom. If you want to know what’s going on, ask the people on the fringe, like Simeon, Anna, old and young. Congregations often have Simeons and Annas; are they heard? We rightly seek to reach out to the younger generations but the Gospel offers salvation to all people so we shouldn’t alienate older people. But older people need to let go.

Letting go can be a problem. When we have worked hard to build a church, it can be painful to consider that God might want us to change things.

Over forty years ago I knew someone like Anna. Mrs. Gauntlet. She lived to 103. Three times a day she walked down the hill to our church in Weymouth: Morning and Evening Prayer, daily communion. I don’t recall any deep conversations – just the weather but she loved changes that would speak to young people.

The aged Simeon had invested all his years in witnessing the ritual of the temple, and yet now he welcomed its passing. Could you do the same?

For mine eyes have seen – not something new that does away with the old but something which incorporates the old – to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of your people Israel.

Our gospel is peppered with Judaism:

‘in accordance with the law of Moses’ v. 22
‘according to what is written in the law of the Lord’ v. 24
@according to the custom of the law’ v. 27
‘When they had completed everything in accordance with the law of the Lord’ v.40

Jesus’ family are devout followers of Torah but Simeon’s vision is wider.

Most Jews were looking for a Messiah who would trash the Gentiles, throw the Romans out and establish Israel as the greatest nation on earth. The rescue plan for Israel would be at the expense of everyone else. Simeon had grown up with this exclusivist world-view but the God of whom Simeon sang has made his salvation open to everyone. What do you see to be the implications for our theology today? EXPLORING LUKE’S GOSPEL  L. Francis & P. Atkins (Mowbray 2000) pp. 33f

As we leave the communion rail today, we will have seen and tasted the promised future. Taking bread and wine to our lips, we will have held the Christ child. With words and songs we will have proclaimed his presence. We may not get all the way to his future ourselves, not in this life but we will have seen it, and that’s enough. We can go in peace now.

For mine eyes have seen.

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