Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Candlemas: 3 February, 2013
Fr Samuel Dow
Assistant Curate, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Friends this morning I gather with you as St Peter's new assistant curate. I bring with me greetings from the Diocese of Grafton and in particular from my former parish of Ballina and Lennox Head, and Emmanuel Anglican College. My wife, The Reverend Jasmine Dow, and I are delighted to be here in the city of Melbourne and commencing ministry in this, another wonderful place of our nation. In so doing I recognise that we also move into the land of the Kulin people and I acknowledge their elders both past, present and future.
When it was first announced in the parish of Ballina that we were to be moving to St Peter's I was pleasantly surprised at how much influence St. Peter's has had and the lives it has impacted, even those from as far away as the north coast of NSW. I had many tell me how this was their home church for many years and for others it was a story of how they worked in the hospitals across the road and came across to St Peter's on a Sunday for Mass. I am excited to be a part of this parish which has obviously held a long standing tradition of connecting with people and nurturing them in community both through word and sacrament.
However, as I am sure each of you would know, moving to a new place brings with it a deep sense of uncertainty, fear, anxiety and a disturbed spirit of change. While this can be a difficult and stressful time I acknowledge too the depth of blessing which seemingly always comes forth from change.
This morning as we celebrate Candlemas, or the feast of the presentation of Christ in the temple, we relive a soul disrupting change that springs forth from Jesus Christ and the establishment of a new kingdom of God on earth. Here too we encounter a change occurring in life. A change in world history, a change in the way God and God's people interact and a change which challenges us into action.
This morning we hear once again from the prophet Malachi, such powerful prophetic literature which we recall hearing some time back on the second Sunday in advent. A reading which evokes for us a sense of expectancy for change which God is about to bring forth in the world. In the context of Advent we read this as the expectant prophet coming to Israel as Jesus Christ is born into the world. Such is the power of this messenger of God that the people will be purified like a refiner's fire and restored to right relationship with their creator as was intended "in the days of old" as Malachi writes. During such time no one will endure and none can stand.
But then we come to Luke and a gospel which details closely the coming of a messenger of God, a great prophet king. Jesus Christ born into the world giving cause for the baby in the womb of Elizabeth to leap, stirring the Blessed Virgin Mary to sing out her song of exultation, a birth which draws together people from afar, rich magi to poor shepherds alike. Change is in the air.
However, while we do find here this change being made evident through one whom the prophet Malachi refers to as 'the messenger', do we really find in the gospel narratives this morning one who comes like a refiners fire and fullers soap? Do we find in this messenger of the Lord one who could possibly change the whole world commencing through the Levites, the line of priests?
Instead we once again find a complete opposite. Here a young humble couple bring their first born baby boy to the temple and present him before the Lord to the priest Simeon, as was customary for the old purification laws. We find in this narrative not just something that is done to and for Mary to make her ritually clean after childbirth, but a step of God made towards all those gathered in the temple, symbolising the change being made from the inside out. Notice here that it isn't just the rich meeting the rich, or the old wise ones meeting other elders, nor is it just 'men's business' in the temple. Here is found the collected people of God, old, young, infant, rich and poor, male and female, all recipients of God's blessings.
This juxtaposition emphasises to me the manner in which God operates in the world, not from the top down hierarchy demanding change as an imperial overlord but instead as a change from below. The power of humble love and compassion has no room for sacrificial institutional systems but transforms them into a new way of being founded on inclusivity of all.
We see Simeon the priest, and Anna the prophet, proclaiming God's glory coming into the temple in the child Jesus. Simeon, a faithful priest in God's temple on whom the spirit rested and revealed to him that his eyes will behold the one who will bring forth this change before his death. Simeon starts his song of praise with the words "Master you are now dismissing your servant in peace", acknowledging that he has seen the one who will bring this change. Simeon's song concludes with "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for Glory to your people Israel". In other words, this change and transformation isn't just for those elect people of God's nation Israel, but this is a universal change made for all people, no matter what their difference from the supposed 'pure people'.
But what does all this have to do with lighting and processing candles into the church? What does this have to do with us now as individuals and as the gathered people of God, this action which God has taken towards us in Christ Jesus so long ago? Certainly we have not that long ago celebrated the birth of Jesus, the great incarnation which Catholics see as the great mystery of God and find in it the power of God becoming present amongst humanity. In this time of Christmas we have used candles in our advent wreaths counting down the time to Christmas day and this great manifestation. We also perhaps lit candles as we sang Christmas carols together.
And if we also think ahead to the next big feast in the christian calendar we remember that we light candles at the great Easter vigil, reminding us of the light which has come into the world and overcame the depths of darkness through the resurrection of Christ.
But this festival of Candlemas is separate from these major festivals in the life of the church but at the same time it is caught up in both of them as central to its celebration. It is the birthing of new life physically into the world in Christ and also the overcoming of darkness to come. It is in part what is now for us as members of the body of Christ, whilst at the same time what is to come.
We light candles today as a symbol of that light about which Simeon resounds "a light for revelation for all people" acknowledging our own call to live out the light of Christ in our lives, following our vocations as baptised people of God to share this light of life and love with all people.
We light these candles too for those who cannot sustain light or who are prevented from celebrating their light of Christ, whether it be those who are excluded to the margins of our society and church because of their social status, their race or cultural backgrounds, their sexuality or gender. We hold the light for them too and we commit ourselves to carrying a light of change in our community and our lives.
So as we gather here today at St Peter's and hold the light of Christ symbolising our own obligations as God-bearers in the world, I am excited by what blessings God has in store for us. I am moved already by the depth of inclusivity that is St Peter's, but as we journey forward together in faith, particularly as we soon come to this penitential season of lent, I wait with expectant longing to see how God might change us to further the growth of his kingdom. Let us then hold our Christ lights high and be open to the Holy Spirit resting on us and bearing forth the fruits of change.