Well I hope you have taken down your tree and packed away the lights, cards and crib, for today finally and formally brings to end our celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Christmas, the annual time for people to coo and ahhh over the soft-focus story of the birth of a beautiful baby some 2000 years ago. But we should not be taken in by the tinsel and pretty lights: Christmas has been more serious than that. The question we are left with is: what really happened?
Candlemas is a festival that the Church of England tended not to make too much of up until the very recent past perhaps because of it’s Mediaeval focus on the purification of Mary and not the presentation of Jesus as the first born son dedicated to God. Latterly the Church realised how significant this major feast is in her the worshipping life, because, like a steep hill on a good walk, Candlemas provides us with a vantage point enabling us to look back to the Christmas celebration of the birth of God in our midst from where we have come, and forward to the destination of our journey - the cross and death PAUSE... and resurrection.
The Gospel story tells of the Holy Family’s trip up to Jerusalem, to visit the Temples. They went to carry out what was necessary under the Law. Firstly they went so that Mary could be made ritually pure 40 days after childbirth by the offering of the appropriate sacrifice.
The book of Leviticus outlines very clearly the correct sacrificial practice in various circumstances. If you suffer from insomnia I suggest it as a cure, but the book makes it clear that the poor, should sacrifice a pair of young pigeons or a a pair of turtle doves in various circumstances. Luke is making a very important point here. Throughout the Old Testament, God again and again identifies himself with the poor, downtrodden and the outcast. Luke’s point is clear - with the coming of the Messiah, God’s eternal attributes of love and justice have not changed. As the King of the Nations, the Prince of Peace, God’s Son comes to the Temple he comes not just identifying with the socially, spiritually, emotionally and financially poor, but as one of them.
Secondly, the family went to have Jesus dedicated to God. Again the Levitical Law is clear and Luke quotes it for us - every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord. Luke is making another very important point here. This child will be dedicated to the service of God, like every firstborn Jewish male, but the service he will undertake for God will transform the world.
The other key players in this drama set in the heart of Israel’s spiritual life, the Temple, are Simeon and Anna. Simeon clarifies what God has planned to achieve through this little baby, things that Luke’s readers already know about but now have confirmed through the mouth of a pious and faithful Jew. Simeon had been promised that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. How Simeon knew that this firstborn male was what he had been waiting for all these years we will never know. But as he holds Jesus (whose name literally means ‘the Lord is my salvation’) in his arms he holds God’s salvation itself. As a result he may depart in peace - he can die happy , knowing that what had been promised to him had been fulfilled, and also knowing that shalom, God’s peace was about to break though in a new way to the whole of creation bringing reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, love and justice to reign on earth through this child. Simeon does here what neither Moses or Elijah or the other great prophets of God could do - as he looks lovingly at that newborn he sees the face of God Almighty the Creator - and lives.
Many of Israel, like Simeon and Anna - are pious and faithfully waiting the redemption of God through this child. Many are not and there will be those who will hate Jesus and in the end they will crucify him. Even here in the temple here is the shadow of the coming cross.
At Christmas we recall the greatest mystery - that God became human like us. The Incarnation, the birth of God amongst is surely about God identifying not only with humanity but with everything created, not to understand it so as to apprehend it, but to love it into eternal life. At Candlemas as Jesus God’s own Son is presented in the Temple and dedicated to God, Jesus offers back to God his humanity, our humanity, and reconciles everything that is created to it’s Creator for his use and his glory.
Today as Jesus is presented to God in the Temple, God presents creation with his peace, the Shalom that Simeon knew, in his Son, to which creation responds with thanksgiving knowing that soon pain, suffering, sin, and evil will be banished and all will be restored into the life of God. My friends it is this that marks us Christians out as distinct from the rest of humanity - our part in the great thanksgiving of all created things, a thanksgiving that knows that God will free the world from sin and it’s affects - sin that makes people lie, murder, cheat, abuse, and corrupt. As Christians, as children of God, our lives are a visible thanksgiving to God from the people of Leverstock Green for all that he gives us in Creation and all that he promises Creation in Christ - to be free from the power of sin. Secular humanity find it so hard to give thanks when they do not know whom they should be thanking, and very often can see nothing to be thankful for. My friends I believe our secular friends and neighbours need us. We must not let them down.