Sunday, 3 February 2019

Sermon at Candlemas . . .

Candlemas was actually yesterday, but the lectionary allows us to celebrate it today, so we will. It’s the last day of the Christmas - Epiphany season, and in fact it’s also one of the days people took to predict the end of winter. Here’s an old rhyme:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
If Candlemas be cloud and rain,
Winter be gone and not come again.

I’m sure that rhyme is the fruit of long years of observation and experience, so there'll be some truth in it. And if it reminds you vaguely of something else, that’s because February 2nd is also Groundhog Day in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the USA. If on that day a groundhog comes out and sees its own shadow, there’ll be six more weeks of winter; but if it can’t see its own shadow, that’s a sign that winter’s pretty much over. The custom probably came to Pennsylvania from Germany, where it referred to badgers rather than groundhogs. Whether it works as well in the USA as this side of the pond I couldn’t comment. But over here, bright and clear sunshine at the start of February can be a sign of a prevailing continental theme to the weather, so there’ll be low temperatures and sharp frosts. Cloudy conditions suggest that Atlantic weather systems are in charge, so we may have some mild south-westerlies bringing an early start to Spring.

Fat chance this year. And it’s not foolproof anyway, as another shrewd rhyme reminds us:
A farmer should on Candlemas day,
Have half his corn and half his hay.
In other words, make sure you’ve still got some fodder laid in, because no-one should never be fooled by an early splash of spring weather into thinking winter’s over and done with. It’s usually got a trick or two up its sleeve - like another Beast from the East, perhaps.

'Groundhog Day' for most people is perhaps more likely to remind them of the 1993 film than the Pennsylvanian custom. Bill Murray played a weatherman who seemed doomed to live Groundhog Day over and over again, until he found a sort of redemption. But what bearing has any of that on the Christian feast of Candlemas or the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple? Not a lot at first sight - but maybe there’s the sense of being on the crux of things; Candlemas is a watershed point in the Christian year. And we might also think of Christ the light of the world releasing us from a sort of Groundhog Day spiral of repeated failure and sin. Simeon and Anna in the Temple saw the sign that something new was about to begin: the winter of the people’s separation from God's mercy and love was over.

Only Luke out of the Gospel writers tells this story. Keeping the customs is one of his themes, and here Mary and Joseph are doing what law and custom require of them; as a first-born son their son is deemed to belong to the Lord, so they must bring him to the Temple, present him there, and buy him back with the sacrificial gift they offer in his stead. They brought the poor person's offering of a couple of pigeons or doves.

Surely every parent wonders at times like these, like a special birthday or a Christening: “What lies ahead for us as a family, what will our child grow up to be?” In the Temple that day were two people who could read the signs and tell the parents of this child. Like those unknown people who made up those old rhymes about the weather, Simeon and Anna had been around a long time; they had a wealth of experience, the harvest of years of watching, waiting and hoping. And now Simeon says: "Lord, now you can let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation." We sing his words as the Nunc Dimmitis at every service of Evening Prayer or Compline; and I think Luke set them down with that intention. This is a great canticle of faith, structured like one of the Psalms.

Candlemas has a pivotal role in the traditional Church calendar, as the end of the great Christmas season. My article in the magazine this month describes being in Krakow at a time when I thought Christmas was over, and finding that there it was still in full swing. But then Candlemas turns our thoughts from the gift of the Christ child to what it is that child will do; and by tradition it has been one of the days when we revisit our own baptism vows and are be re-presented to our Lord. 

A few years ago I attended a conference at which the then presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States was a keynote speaker. Her talk was quite compelling and moving, and part of her message was something that up till then hadn’t really occurred to me - that every time we come to the table at Holy Communion we are consciously remaking our baptism vows and placing them at the heart of our lives.

At one level I knew that was true. After all, Paul speaks about our being baptized into the death of Christ (and dying to our old selves so as to gain new life in him) - and the Holy Communion is our close encounter with that death. This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you . . . poured out for you, as one communion song puts it. Here we are consciously brought into the presence of our crucified Lord, brought to the foot of the cross, and to the sacrifice only he could make, once and for all.

But what I hadn’t considered was that my baptism vows are something I should be living every day. Maybe I’d thought of them more as one-off promises made once as an act of membership. But we are baptized into the death of Christ so we can receive his life and put that gift to use, and every act of Holy Communion remakes that connection. Let’s think a moment about those promises made at baptism, or made for us: we promise to repent of our sins, to renounce evil, and to turn to Christ.

I try to follow the rule of Francis of Assisi. I'm not all that good at being a Franciscan, but I do have a rule of life to guide me and help me structure and discipline my life as a Christian, and I think I'd do a lot less well as a Christian without it. I feel it's one way of taking those baptism promises seriously. My rule of life is my way of trying to follow the Lord, to present my life to him as an offering. And while a structured rule won't be for everyone, all of us should I think be constantly considering how best to offer ourselves to God.

And that must involve repenting of our sins: in other words, being honest about our failures and doing our best to correct them, and wanting to do better, to grow in holiness and obedience (and remembering that sin isn't just naughty things we do, more often it's all the good stuff we pass up on doing). Then renouncing evil: doing what we can to make the world a better place, by opposing the things that are bad, things like greed, selfishness, prejudice, injustice, hurtful actions and words -opposing these at three levels, if you like: within our own selves, within the places where we live and work, and within the wider world. And lastly, but most importantly, turning to Christ, because we won’t manage any of that on our own; to do all of this we need to be taking Christ as our example, depending on him as our Saviour, and coming regularly and prayerfully to him as our Friend.

Today Simeon speaks of the light to lighten the nations: Christ whose glory fills the skies. He could see that the long dark winter of our souls is over because this child is given; that the spring of God's mercy is newly begun, and all the world will share that light and mercy and saving love. That’s the story we’ll be following through the next few weeks of ordinary time, and then on into Lent, as we walk with our Lord the way of the cross. The message of today is simply this: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”. For he did, and he does, and the child blessed by Simeon and marvelled over by Anna now calls me and you to shine with the light he brings, so all the world may see and know his love.

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