‘A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
It is Simeon’s acclamation of the Christ when he recognises in the 40 day old Jesus, the fulfilment of God’s age-old promise –light and hope for the whole world, not just the Jews. And so today has two names: Candlemass which celebrates that light for the world and ‘the Presentation’ when Mary and Joseph fulfil God’s ancient law and present their infant son to God in the Temple.
The season or the church’s year immediately after Christmas, the Epiphany season, takes its name from the ‘showing’ or ‘revelation’. Showing who the child Jesus is and, through him and his ministry, what God is like. So, over the last few weeks we have followed the coming of the Magi, as the child is shown to be the Saviour of the whole world; in the baptism by John and changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, Jesus’ divinity and his humanity are demonstrated.
This season of showing or revelation ends by going back to Jesus’ infancy, to his ‘Presentation in the Temple’, when the 40 day old Jesus is brought by his parents to the place that represents the heart of the Jewish faith. Here the baby is recognised by two elderly people – Simeon and Anna. Each welcomes the one for whom they have waited. For each the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises and the pattern for our redemption is revealed. So, let’s explore that revelation.
God revealed in the Temple.
We begin with in the Temple. Spending, as they seem to have done, so much time at the Temple, Simeon and Anna will have seen all of human life. For it was to the Temple that people brought their offerings, in times of joy and of sorrow. The first fruits of their harvests and their Passover lambs. The sacrifices that sought forgiveness of sins or those which, like Mary & Joseph’s two pigeons, redeemed a firstborn son. All this and more Simeon and Anna will have seen. And all of it reflects the story of a God who has been revealed in the national and personal lives of his people for generations. A God who promised them freedom and hope. So Simeon waits God’s comfort for the people and Anna longs for the redemption of not just a newborn baby but of all Israel.
God revealed in the unexpected
Simeon and Anna see God in this baby, but it is God revealed in an unexpected way. They were probably, like most Jews of their time, expecting a great prophet or war leader to save them. Yet both recognise God’s Saviour as a babe in arms. It is Simeon’s words to Mary that remind us of how God works in the world. Not as an overpowering warrior Lord but as one who becomes part of the world. This is, as the writer to the Hebrews would later make clear, becoming a story about suffering. About a ‘great high priest . . . to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’.
Simeon is waiting for God to comfort Israel. Anna is in touch with the people who are waiting for the redemption of Israel. Both find God revealed in the unexpected, for it now appears that God’s appointed redeemer will deal with this suffering by sharing it himself. Simeon speaks dark words about opposition, and about a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart. And so, as he look forward to the pattern of our redemption, revealed in this child, Simeon turns our faces away from Christmas and towards Easter. From the crib to the cross.
God revealed to the world
Simeon had grasped the truth at the heart of the Old Testament (which, Luke is careful to note, Jesus and his parents fulfilled): when Israel’s history comes to its God-ordained goal, then light will dawn for the whole world. All the nations, not just the Jews, will see God revealed in the world – a plan of salvation for all people, without distinction. ‘A light for revelation to the nations, and glory for your people Israel.’ This is not the sort of revelation the world was expecting, and not the sort of glory Israel wanted, but true revelation and true glory none the less.
Here, first identified in the Jerusalem Temple, is the one who will years later describe himself as ‘The Light of the World.’ God at work in the world. It is from that promise of light for all the world, that today’s feast gets its other name – Candlemass. This was, traditionally, the day on which all the candles to be used in the coming year were brought to church to be blessed. Lights blessed by God, shining out from his people to every corner of the community.
God revealed through us
Which brings me to me 4th means of revelation: God revealed through us.
When we step into this story, of God at work, it can also become our vocation. A reminder that God works in the world through ordinary men and women. That we are like that refined gold of which Malachi wrote- reflecting the face of our creator in the world. All of us could and should be bearers of Christ’s light in the world today, showing the world all of the love and hope that were at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
Now, just as in the Temple, God works through men and women who are prepared to share in the work of building God’s Kingdom. To take the Christ-light out from our Temples, Cathedrals and Churches and to share it with our friends and neighbours. So, as you enjoy the candles burning here tonight, remember this is not just a spectacular sight. It is a reminder of the one who comes as the light of the world.
A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel
Take moment to reflect on how you might be part of that revelation and that glory. How could you or I be like one of those candles in the weeks ahead? Who needs to know the warmth of God’s love; the hope of his ancient promises? Who needs to see God’s light illuminating the path ahead of them? And who here, like faithful Simeon and Anna, like obedient Mary and Joseph, who here will take that light out from this building into the community where God has called you to live and work.
Lent begins in 8 days’ time, so as we turn from the crib to the cross, we have time to reflect and to prepare. May the next two months be, for each of us, a time when we can recognise God revealed – as the babe of Bethlehem, the infant in the Temple, the storyteller and healer by Galilee, the crucified saviour on Golgotha and the Risen Lord in the garden.