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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Monday, 1 February 2010

Candlemas sermon throughout the benefice

This sermon was preached three times yesterday, with various local additions depending on the church
The readings were Malach1 3, 1-5 and Luke 2, 22-40. I got the poem and some of the commentary from Roots.

Poem for Candlemas


by Susan Skinner



A candle flame floats

on the mind's eye:

A light from long ago

when old churches breathed

the sound of plain chant

in Rembrandt shadows.



The burnished flame holds

its shadow cone and burns

our winter days to spring.

As we meditate

its gold becomes a flower

of light that drinks the dark.



Now the flame sits

like a silent priest

in a long robe.

True to itself,

it bends but does not lose

its shining shape.



We pray to sit lightly

on our days and find

the shape of God's truth.

Our breath holds his movement,

Our mind holds his silence,

Our heart holds his light.



Luke emphasises the devout Jewish background of Jesus. His parents bring him to the temple and observe the usual ritual for their own purification. The old title for this event was 'The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary' and it is now celebrated as Candlemas or the Presentation of Christ at the Temple, as the idea that women need to be purified after childbirth is now outmoded. These three names reflect three strands in the celebration;

• looking back to the nativity, in thinking about Mary’s first visit to the Temple following the birth of her son.

• looking forward to Easter, as we are reminded in the words of Simeon of the ultimate purpose of Christ’s coming

• and looking at our present situation; at this time of year there are a few shoots of green, snowdrops and daffodils start to emerge, but we will still benefit from the reminder of Christ the true light – for revelation to the gentiles and for the glory of God’s people.







That’s the link to candles, which traditionally would be blessed on this day. Our churches are now lit with electricity so the candles’ only purpose is to point to Christ. The main point of the narrative from Luke 2 is that the infant Jesus was brought to the place of worship by his parents and was recognised as Messiah by Simeon and Anna, two venerable, old saints. The beautiful prayer of Simeon has become standard in the church. It is worth noting the gender balance of this passage. The parents are mentioned together and of the old saints, one is a man, and the other a woman.



For me this gives a great picture of how the church should be today, men and women, young and old (let’s not forget Mary was quite likely to have been a teenage mother), together in the presence of Christ, sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings and worshipping God in awe. Most importantly, even though they were living in a country occupied by an invading force, in relative poverty, they were free to worship as their faith prompted them to. Confident and free.



And we are too! We can be confident that we will not be arrested just for being a Christian. Every now and then the media puts out a scare story, as this week with the vote in the House of Lords concerning the equality bill, but actually our Freedom in Christ is more important than our social or political freedom. In this culture, it is often hard to distinguish between the two, as many of the traditions of our nation derive from our Christian heritage.

As Anglicans we sit somewhere in the middle of national tradition and faithful discipleship, taking I hope the best from both of these worlds, and helping them, in our mission, to meet fruitfully.



Candlemas is a good time to consider being in the middle, as we are at the midpoint between Christmas and Easter; it is also a good time, thinking about freedom, to remember that Freedom in Christ is not the same as uniformity. So that’s where we’re going with this. The Christian way is not usually described in a positive sense as one of compromise, but our freedom, and our position in society work together to mean that if we share a vision, a common desire to see the kingdom come, to see the light revealed to the nations, we are promising together – com-promise – to walk in the way of Christ.



I was talking with a fellow priest this week who described to me how he came to see the importance of allowing Christians to grow as they need to, not as he wanted them to; he described watching his child playing with a toy in which different shapes had to be pushed through different holes. Of course the star shaped piece won’t fit through the circular hole, and the square piece won’t fit through the triangular hole. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you have to be the same as every other Christian. You have your own shape, and so do I. The important thing is to realise that shape and not try to be something or someone we are not.



Simeon and Anna were particular people with particular expectations, all met in their encounter with Jesus, because they were waiting for him. But their responses are different.



Simeon’s expression of praise starts from himself – he knows his life is drawing to a close as the messiah he awaited had arrived – and widens in scope to include the whole world. Anna however has had a selfless life of waiting, but her response is directly to Jerusalem. Two different shapes, if you will, of response to Christ.



So what is your shape? Do you know which hole you fit in?

If you’re not sure, return to the last stanza of the poem we started with





We pray to sit lightly

on our days and find

the shape of God's truth.

Our breath holds his movement,

Our mind holds his silence,

Our heart holds his light.



The shape of God’s truth is a cross.

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