Feast of the Presentation
Candlemas: 1st February, 2015
The Right Rev'd Alison Taylor, Bishop of the Southern Region, Queensland
Malachi 3:1-4; Ps 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:10-11, 13b-18; Luke 2:22-40
I bring you greetings from the people of the Diocese of Brisbane, where I am a Bishop assisting our Archbishop Phillip Aspinall. I've got the suburban area of the city south of the Brisbane river, and the Gold Coast, right down to the New South Wales border and including the beautiful Gold Coast hinterland. I also look after our Anglican Schools Commission in Brisbane and our Parishes Commission.
As you may know, I was a priest here in this diocese till the beginning of 2013 and it is always a great pleasure to be back here in the Church in Melbourne, and a privilege to be here with you for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
I'll let you into a secret about bishops — we all miss having our own parishes. So it is a real pleasure to be here in this warm and faith filled parish this morning and to accept the kind hospitality of your Vicar Fr Hugh.
Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
On this day we remember Mary and Joseph's visit to the Temple in Jerusalem to present their child Jesus there. They are doing this on the fortieth day following his birth, as the Jewish law requires, and so Mary can undergo the postpartum rites of cleansing.
Jesus is a tiny baby, not yet six weeks old. Yet Luke's Gospel tells us that there are two people there in the Temple who immediately recognise who Jesus is and who welcome him. They are a prophet named Anna and an old man named Simeon.
We hear how Simeon recognises that before him, in this tiny baby, is the Lord's Messiah for whom he has waited so long.
We can imagine Simeon taking Jesus tenderly in his arms, and looking towards the light. Then, turning his full attention to God, he praises him for his gift to the world, the gift of his Son. Simeon feels that now he can die, fulfilled — he has seen the Messiah. He prays to God the words that have come down to us as the Nunc Dimittis. Which our choir is singing for us this morning.
- 'Master', Simeon says, 'now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
- for my eyes have seen your salvation,
- which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
- a light for revelation to the Gentiles
- and for glory to your people Israel.'
This is a joyful acclamation of God's saving plan through Jesus, that will extend to all the peoples of the world. Here is the love and truth of God, come as Light into the world.
Simeon to Mary
We can imagine Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph, listening in amazement to what Simeon is saying, to his words of praise to God about their tiny baby. The Nunc Dimittis makes extraordinary claims about who Jesus is: a light for revelation for the whole world.
But listen also to what Simeon goes on to say, to Mary. It is very sombre indeed:
'this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel... and a sword will pierce your own soul also.'
Jesus will cause the falling and rising of many as he challenges their privilege and security and questions their confidence and self-image. Many will oppose him, showing that they are blinkered, limited in their response to the God who has made them his people.
Simeon is speaking honestly and fully to Mary. So that she might know her son will confront the full horrors of humanity; and that she too should be prepared in her life for the shadows as well as the light of God. She too will suffer, as her son will. And this is so, as she suffers the shame of conceiving out of wedlock, danger as a refugee in Egypt, the difficulties of Jesus' public ministry, the horror of his trial and crucifixion, the persecution of his followers.
In Luke's gospel, Mary is often presented not just as Jesus' mother but as his most faithful disciple too. St Luke presents her as a disciple who has qualities we might emulate: qualities of faithfulness, humility and courage. Mary is a model for all disciples of Jesus, whether they are men or women.
We can be sure then that this sober advice of Simeon's is being directly offered to us too. Remember, the gospels are always about us, here and now. We to whom this glory has been revealed — we who indeed have the eyes to see and the ears to hear — we the followers and the believers in Jesus will — like Mary — not escape a share in his suffering.
On the Feast of the Presentation, each of us is encouraged to reflect on our own vocation to be like Mary. What might this involve? It might involve offering love even when it hurts, as Mary did. It might mean making peace even when we feel much more like making war; speaking for justice even when justice would be against our own immediate interests. It might include making an active commitment to something we believe in outside our own everyday concerns. Any of these things would mean being prepared to present Christ to the world around us regardless of the risks. And with the possibility of suffering for ourselves involved.
During this week, we've all heard a lot about whether Prince Phillip should or should not receive an Australian knighthood. I'm not sure what I think about this, but I do know that all the carrying on has had the unfortunate side effect of distracting our attention from the really remarkable Australian of the Year who has been named for 2015, Rosie Batty.
For me, she embodies so well the offering of love even though suffering is present too. You may recall that Rosie's son Luke was killed by his father at the cricket ground at Tyabb last year. Since then, despite her own terrible pain, Rosie Batty has become an advocate for victims of domestic violence, speaking publicly about her own frustrating experiences with the government bodies whose job it is to protect women and children.
In an interview last October for the magazine 'Monthly', Rosie spoke to writer Helen Garner about her upbringing in the English Midlands in the Church of England, though she has since been influenced by other religious traditions too. She says that, ever since the killing, 'All my thoughts and emotions [continue to be] consumed with Luke. With losing him. With what I'm not going to be able to share with him.'
But, she says, she is trying through all this, for her qualities of compassion, empathy and love to grow. Part of the reason Rosie has been named Australian of the Year is the effectiveness of her lobbying. Due largely to her efforts alone, the Commonwealth government has established a national action plan for tackling violence against women, with a total budget commitment of $26 million. But part of the reason for Rosie's award has been the enormous courage she displays, for that is what loving through sorrow requires. Courage, and that is what Mary had and that is our vocation.
We can see why the Feast of the Presentation has a bitter-sweet flavour. It is a pivot of the Church year between Christmas and Epiphany on the one hand, and Lent and Easter on the other.
When we come to celebrate Candlemas, we know Lent is just around the corner, starting this year on the 18th of February, and Lent is the season we devote to following the way of the cross, in the company of the Lord.
Life is complex and Christian faith and witness are not always simple. But Christianity is not a spectator sport. As long as we are receiving Christ's love and offering it, we find ourselves holding joy and sorrow in tension together. But Christ gives us peace, and keeps his promise of love, mercy and salvation.
So on this Feast of Candlemas, may we be like Simeon — dazzled by the light and the beauty of the Word of God made flesh, and may we be like Mary, ready for Lent as well as the Easter in our lives.
Thanks be to God. Amen.