The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday, February 2, 2020. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

One of my favourite days of the year is the day in late fall when, after having successfully completed all the tasks required to winterize my yard,  the snow starts to slowly fall. After all the pressure I feel to complete all those winterizing tasks in time, I look forward to that first gentle snowfall that signifies the start of a new season, a season that tends to find me spending a lot more time inside, a lot more time reading. It’s a slower, gentler season and usually by the time it arrives, I’m exhausted and I’m looking forward to a different pace of life.

By now, by February, I am completely done with winter. I’m tired of snow, I’m tired of spending so much time inside, I’m tired of feeling cold all the time, and I’m tired of how the long dark nights make me feel less safe, less free to go out whenever I want to.  I’m ready for light, for gardening catalogues, for being able to go outside whenever I want without fear and without having to put on multiple layers of clothing.

I am done with winter, but winter is not done with me. It’s not done with any of us. Literal winter, and for many of us, spiritual winter are here for awhile yet.  Our moods tend to match the seasons, and many people find the long dark months of winter to be particularly difficult ones.

Which, I suspect,  is at least partly why the church is its wisdom decided that February 2nd, which marks the halfway point of winter, would be the day the church would set aside to celebrate light.

Traditionally, today is the day that churches bless all the candles they intend to use in worship throughout the coming year. This has been happening since the Middle Ages which, as you can imagine, was a time when a church used a lot more candles in the average year than we do now – and we still manage to use a fair number of candles in any given year.

Tonight we are celebrating Candlemas, a mass with a special focus on candles. Although it’s a long standing tradition in the Christian church, I am guessing that for many of you this will be your first time participating in the celebration. Welcome.

Our gospel reading for this evening is traditionally read on Candlemas and while the connection between the story of Jesus’ family visiting the temple and the blessing of candles may not be readily obvious, it’s there, so let’s look more closely at that story.

Tonight’s gospel reading begins, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’) and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (22-24)

In addition to being called Candlemas, today is also sometimes referred to as the Feast of the Presentation or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It’s also sometimes called Superbowl Sunday or Groundhog Day, but that’s an entirely different story.

It is sometimes called the Feast of the Purification of Mary in part because according to the law, only Mary required purification after Jesus’ birth, but when Luke describes what is happening in his gospel he doesn’t single Mary out. Rather he says, “When the time came for their purification…”. Their purification. This is a family affair.

Well done Luke.

There is a lot going on in these first few verses – we see that Mary are Joseph are faithful, law abiding Jews who will raise Jesus within the context of the covenant relationship God has with the people of Israel.

Additionally, we learn that Mary and Joseph are poor because the law requires a lamb be used as an offering but makes the provision to sacrifice turtledoves or pigeons if the people can’t afford a lamb.

Mary and Joseph are too poor to afford to buy the proper animal for this sacrifice. Think about how weird that is for a moment.

And not just how weird it sounds to our modern ears to sacrifice an animal at all, think about how weird it is that a king’s parents are so poor, that they need to take the charitable option at a ritual connected to celebrating the new king’s life.

Over and over again in Jesus’ story we are seeing a king, who will not be like any other king, a human being, who will not be like anyone else who ever lived. It should be a reminder to us every time we try to make Jesus in our own image, every time we try to model the church on the world, that we are in very real danger of missing the point, of missing the real Jesus.

Luke also tells us about two encounters that Jesus and his family had while they were at the temple.

One of those encounters was with Anna.

Luke tells us that Anna was a prophet of a “great age… She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (36-37)

This faithful prophet recognizes who the tiny baby is and not only does she praise God, but Luke tells us that she spoke “about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”   (38)

And so, Anna becomes one of the first, if not the first evangelist.  The first to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ.

But remember, that before she could do that, she had to spend her entire life, 84 years, waiting with a patient hope. A hope that she had no practical reason to believe would be realized.  A lifetime of waiting in the dark, hoping for the light.

Now Anna wasn’t the only person waiting with patient hope that Jesus and his family met in Jerusalem, they also met Simeon.

Luke tells us that Simeon was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (25-26)

On the day that Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, the Holy Spirit guides Simeon to go there as well.

When he sees Jesus, he takes the child in his arms and begins to praise God saying,

 

“Master, 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.”  (25-32)

 

Luke’s gospel is full of songs that have been woven into the prayer life of the church. From Mary’s Magnificat to this song from Simeon.  Simeon’s canticle (Nunc dimitiis) is typically sung at Compline, the final prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Simeon’s song is also where we get the connection between this story and the blessing of candles. Simeon tells us that Jesus will be a “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Jesus is the light of the world.  So tonight when the world feels so very dark, we celebrate this milestone in his young life, being presented at the temple, by blessing candles.

Simeon’s joy at seeing Jesus isn’t a naïve joy. He can see the path ahead will be a difficult one. After blessing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, he says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the 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.” (34-35)

Jesus will suffer, and so will those who love him.

This is a story of patient hope and resilience, but it is also a story about suffering, a suffering that can’t be ignored.

N.T. Wright says that  “Simeon is waiting for God to comfort Israel. Anna is in touch with the people who are waiting for the redemption of Israel. They are both living in a world of patient hope, where suffering has become a way of life. It now appears that God’s appointed redeemer will deal with this suffering by sharing it himself. Simeon speaks darks words about opposition, and about a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart as well.

So this, Luke is saying, is what happens when the kingdom of God confronts the kingdom of the world. Luke invites us to watch, throughout the story, as the prophecies come true. Mary will look on in dismay as her son is rejected by the very city to which he offered the way of peace, by the very people he had come to rescue. Finally the child who is, as Simeon says, ‘placed here to make many in Israel fall and rise again’ himself passes through death and into resurrection, taking with him the hopes and fears of the city, the nation and the world.” (35-26)

These things are coming, and as we move closer to Lent and Easter we will begin to reflect on those stories, but they are not here yet.  Today we have a story of patient hope rewarded, and of two young parents holding a tiny baby.

A tiny baby, that Luke tells us will, after the family returns to their hometown of Nazareth,  “[grow] and become strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God [will be] upon him.” (40)

I’ve only participated in Candlemas celebrations a few times myself, the first time was in 2016 when I spent several months on sabbatical at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN.  One of my main goals on that sabbatical was to participate regularly in the liturgical life of the St John’s community and I was particularly excited that I would be able to participate in their celebration of Candlemas.

This was in large part because Kathleen Norris had written so eloquently about her own experience of that celebration with the monks in her book “The Cloister Walk.”  Here is what she wrote:

“Today the monks are doing something that seems futile, and a bit foolish. They are blessing candles, all the candles they’ll use during worship for the coming year. It’s good to think of the light hidden inside those new candles; walking to prayer each morning in the bitter cold, I know that the light comes earlier now. I can feel the change, the hours of daylight increasing. The ground has been covered by snow since Thanksgiving; in this climate, I’ll seize hold of any bit of hope, even if it’s monks saying prayers over candles.

The reading from Karl Rahner, at morning prayer, came as a shock. To hear so esteem a theologian cry out, “I have still to become a Christian” was humbling. The words have stayed with me all day. I wonder if one of the reasons I love the Benedictines so much is that they seldom make big noises about being Christians. Though they live with the Bible more intimately than most people, they don’t thump on it, or with it, the way gorillas thump on their chests to remind anyone within earshot of who they are. Benedictines remind me more of the disciples of Jesus, who are revealed in the gospel accounts as people who were not afraid to admit their doubts, their needs, their lack of faith. ‘Lord, increase our faith, they say, “teach us to pray.” They kept getting the theology wrong, and Jesus, more or less patiently, kept trying to set them straight. Except for Peter, the disciples were not even certain who Jesus was: “Have I been with you all this time, and still you do not know me?” Jesus asks in the Gospel of John, not long before he’s arrested and sentenced to death.

Maybe because it’s the heart of winter, and the air is so cold that it hurts to breathe, the image of the sword from Luke’s gospel comes to mind as I walk back home after vespers. We’ve heard it twice today, at morning prayer and at mass. I wonder if Mary is the mother of [the prayer practice ]lectio, because as she pondered her life and the life of her son, she kept Simeon’s hard prophecy in her heart. So much that came easily in the fall has become a struggle this winter. I still walk to morning prayer – it seems necessary to do – but it requires more effort now. Still I know that it is nothing I do that matters, but what I am, what I will become. Maybe Mary’s story, and this feast, tell us that if the scriptures don’t sometimes pierce us like a sword, we’re not paying close enough attention.” (114-115)

Like Kathleen, I have had many profound moments of prayer at St John’s Abbey, moments where scripture did indeed pierce my heart. Moments where staring into the flame of a candle I came to realize deep truths about myself I had been unable or unwilling to acknowledge until those very moments. I have so many stories I can tell.

But none of those stories happened on Candlemas.

On February 2nd, 2016 I , like Kathleen Norris and so many others before me, put on layer upon layer of winter clothing and trudged through the snow in the dark to prayer.  I grimaced as my wet boots squeaked on the floor amplified by the acoustics of the church – the only noise in the seemingly silent building.

I marveled at the stacks of candles – simple, but beautifully made by the monks from beeswax harvested on the property.

Perhaps, because it had been so built up in my mind I expected that the liturgy would have some extra flair to it, but it didn’t.  Just their regular evening prayer that incorporated a blessing of those candles.

I basked in the warm glow of the candles and prayed the words of the liturgy.  No profound transformation took place. No new insight into the words I was praying took hold of me that night.

But as I trudged back in the dark to my apartment I did have a sense that this was exactly as it should be. Not every moment in the spiritual journey is a profound one.  Blessing candles may in fact be, as Kathleen Norris suggests, a foolish thing to do.

And that’s what makes is beautiful.

Candlemas also marks the halfway point of winter.  Winter is halfway over folks! That is worth celebrating. That is worth marking with a defiant gesture – like the blessing of light.  A light we still can’t quite see but know is coming.  A light that represents our own hope in what is yet to come.

May these candles that we bless this evening be a sign of hope to you whenever you are experiencing dark times.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen

 

Here is the full quote Kathleen Norris references:

“The darkness is still with us, O Lord. You are still hidden and the world which you have made does not want to know you or receive you… You are still the hidden child in a world grown old… You are still obscured by the veils of this world’s history, you are still destined not to be acknowledged in the scandal of your death on the cross… But I, O hidden Lord of all things, boldly affirm my faith in you. In confessing you, I take my stand with you.. If I make this avowal of faith, it must pierce the depths of my heart like a sword, I must bend my knee before you, saying, I must alter my life. I have still to become a Christian.” Karl Rahner, Prayers for Meditation.