Don’t judge a book by its cover, we were always told. Nowadays, some of us see our ‘cover’ all too frequently. If you are not photogenic, or confident in front of a camera, this can be a difficult thing to live with. If you are in crying need of a haircut, it just makes it worse. In the United States, plastic surgeons have recently seen an exponential rise in people wanting nose jobs, or face lifts, all manner of plastic surgery due to Zooming, meeting rooms, messenger call, etc. These media forms do not come with an airbrush setting. Also, it is well known that many people dress well from the waist up; shirt and tie with running shorts, or make-up and pearls with pajama bottoms. One does need to remember, however, to remain seated when the camera is on! One has to try and keep up appearances, for goodness sake!
It reminds me of an incident I read recently. A priest wrote that one morning a woman in her late 60’s arrived at his parish office. She was relatively new to that church and came wearing the shabbiest of coats and bearing a battered old handbag. She’d come in response to an appeal for assistance with the chaotic church finances. The priest presumed that she had come not to offer financial assistance, but rather to ask for it, but enquired anyway if she had much experience of managing church finances. ‘Not church finances, dear.’ was her reply ‘But I was, up until recently, the finance director of the John Lewis Partnership. Will that do?’
Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of the child Jesus in the temple, which is also known as the purification of Mary and is also known as Candlemas. It is called the purification after the Jewish ritual custom proscribed in the twelfth book of Leviticus, where the mother of a male child is required to undergo forty days of cleansing and then to offer herself and her child at the temple with an offering. The ritual itself is a consecration of both the mother and child’s lives to God, and the offering is a sign of thanksgiving and gratitude for safe delivery of the child and the continued health of the mother. Were the parents rich enough, they would offer a lamb. Were they too poor, they would offer two turtledoves or two pigeons.
That this time is also called Candlemas originates with Simeon’s prophesy that the Christ child would be a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of God’s people Israel. Early Church tradition has this day as the feast on which beeswax candles were blessed for use both in churches and in private homes throughout the year.
So, in today’s Gospel story we have Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus coming into the temple. In the context of ancient Israel, all parents did this, marking the child as belonging to the community, but it is not like bringing a child to church for a baptism! There is no select gathering here, for family and friends to take part and to celebrate the event. The temple is an extraordinary place. It is busy, people coming and going all the time, sometimes standing about chatting, sometimes just watching the comings and goings around them. Jesus did that: do you remember him making a comment to his disciples on a poor woman who just put two coins into the offering box? He paid tribute to her generosity, for as poor as she was, she gave much of what she had. No doubt people had noticed: were there mutterings? Was she embarrassed, do you think?
And what about his comment on how we should pray? Not loudly, so that everyone can hear, but alone, quietly, and with penitence. Had Jesus observed someone making a show of their prayers? While what he said and did the whole time of his ministry has significance for us today, the Gospels are the narrative of Jesus reacting to the people around him all the time, supporting them, or depressing pretentions, or teaching his disciples.
The temple was also the place where Jesus lost his cool, overturning the tables of the money changes, and those who sold birds and animals for sacrifice. He knew they cheated people, especially the poor folk. He hated that they did it openly, and in the temple too!
The temple was as usual noisy, crowded, gossopy, and here is another couple with their baby. The people look and see only the two doves; poor then, not much to interest one there. I should just add here that Scripture does not support the wise men visiting Jesus right after his birth, but within about two years after it had taken place. So, 40 days after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary really were poor, and not just stashing the gold, frankincense and myrrh away for a rainy day.
Among that bustling crowd, is old Simeon; this devout man loves being in the house of the Lord, in company with the people as they make their presentations and sacrifices, doing as the Law requires. Rich and poor they come and go, a constant stream of God’s people. He is daily on the lookout, in expectation of a sign of the consolation of Israel. God, you see, has made him a promise, revealed to him by the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Nothing to distinguish Mary and Joseph from the rest, but as they approach, the Holy Spirit taps Simeon on the shoulder, so to speak. And so here, with this poor couple, he holds the Son of God in his arms and raises his voice to sing the canticle that we know as the Nunc Dimitis.
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace,
according to your word:
for mine eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared before the face of all people;
a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.
This is why today is known in the Church calendar as Candlemas. It acknowledges Simeon’s prophesy that the Christ child would be a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people Israel. This is the lightthat not only makes and creates, but informs and defines all things. I can just see the tears of joy running down Simeon’s old cheeks, his face radiant. And what about Mary? What did she make of this ordinary looking elderly man? Thinking that she was doing only what every other Jewish mother had been commanded to do by Jewish Law after the birth of her male child, her faith encounters a response to the event that she could not have expected. As Mary takes her son back into her arms, Simeon has a further prophesy for her: ‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed…and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Maybe still trying to respond to these disturbing words, Mary and Joseph have another encounter.
The prophet Anna, in the temple day and night, approached them. No words are recorded of her interaction with Mary and Joseph, but she began to praise God. Can you just see her talking to people as they pass by; do they stop to hear her? Or do most of them pass by; ‘there goes old Anna again, talking about the redemption of Israel’.
For Mary, right from the start, she would learn to follow her Son in faith and learn the lightof his truth from his encounters with others. Unexpected and unexceptional people: shepherds, prophets, and the fishermen and tax collectors who followed him. For us, as for Mary, God reveals himself over time, through others, so that we gain greater understanding in our daily walk with him.
Like Mary, who in the temple gained another glimpse of God’s plan through his Son, her Jesus, we need to be ready to learn from unexceptional people, for it is through our interaction with each other that we learn. Many times have I realised that something someone said has led me to a fuller understanding of God’s love, or his guidance in my life.
At this time, like no other, we understand that we need people, that our interaction with them feeds us, makes us feel human: loved, angry, sorrowful, cheered. This past week the diocese held a training day, (on Zoom, naturally) about living in love and faith; two hundred of us agreed that we must be kinder, more accepting of each other, have a greater generosity of spirit towards each other, agree to learn from each other. Somehow we need to convey that we don’t care that people have untidy hair, or that their bookshelves are not colour co-ordinated, that they are old, or young, or that they are trans or straight. It is no less important that we do not judge ourselves too.
We, the body of Christ will shine a light, the light, for all of humanity. This is a good day to light a candle to remind us. Amen