Summary: A sermon on the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (also called Candlemas)
I wonder if you’re familiar with fresh lychees? The fresh fruit is much more pleasant than the tinned variety. They are small fruit about the size of a walnut. On the outside is rough and robust skin, which might lead you think it wasn’t worth opening, but when one peels it, inside is a soft, white, juicy fruit with a perfectly delightful aroma and taste. The lychee is rough on the outside, yet the inside is so sensuous and so different. It’s a fruit of great contrast, presenting two quite different sides.
The account with which Luke presents us is also two-fold. It is a bitter-sweet tale in which there is both rejoicing over the coming of Christ the messiah, and yet there are also pointers to the cross that is to come, and to the pain that Jesus will undergo. Our story has two sides that are very different. Jesus the infant baby was already the saviour: he was already very special, but he was also to become the saviour as he grew up into his task and ministry.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, had gone to the Temple so that she could both present her first-born male child to YHWH, in accordance with the Israelite custom since the first Passover, so that she might be purified from the ritual uncleanliness of childbirth in accordance with the laws of Leviticus. A custom, incidentally, that is still offered in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Mary was sufficiently poor that she could only afford to make an offering of two birds, rather than the preferred sheep, arrived in the Temple to present her son to God and to receive her ritual purification. And what did she find when she arrived there? Not her expectation of priests and the business of the Temple, but Simeon, a blind old man who took the child in his arms, and Anna, eighty-four year old widow and prophet, who began praising God for the infant Jesus. A totally unexpected meeting: unexpected people in an unexpected place. So important was this encounter of Jesus with Simeon and Anna that Luke never describes the business for which Jesus and Mary were in the Temple. The purification and cleansing is seen off in just one sentence, and the rest of the passage is taken up with this encounter.
To Simeon and Anna this was more than just an encounter, it was a time of revelation. They were both very old and had led long lives of expectation. Now all of that was to be fulfilled. They had been waiting to see the Messiah, and now they had seen Jesus, the infant who was, and who was to become, their Saviour. To these two old people was revealed the hope of God for the world.
This revelation of God’s very self was a cause of great rejoicing. It is impossible for us to comprehend the strength of Simeon and Anna’s rejoicing. The joy of falling in love, the glory of God in the beauty of the world, the wonderful awareness of people who love and care for us: these joys cannot compare with the rejoicing of Simon and Anna when they saw their Saviour in the infant Jesus. They had lived long lives of expectation and that expectation was now completed. God had fulfilled their hope, their revelation was complete and their rejoicing was exceedingly great.
Simeon was so moved that he uttered his now famous words of praise: words so meaningful that they have become some of the best loved words in the liturgies of the Church. Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…Simeon’s words are a celebration of the fulfilment of God’s promises. God had promised his people a Saviour and now this Saviour was here. The presentation of Christ in the Temple was very much a celebration of the fulfilment of God’s promises to God’s people, but also a celebration for sense of portent as the infant Jesus would grow into his role as Saviour and the inevitable journey to the cross that that would bring.
Our story does not end here. It is at this point that we stop thinking of the boy Jesus and turn our thoughts to the man Jesus. The promise has been fulfilled and we move from the cradle to the world. Since Christmas, through Epiphany, we have thought about the boy Jesus and what it means for God to give something of God’s very self to the world. Now it is time to move on and consider the grown up Jesus and the action of God in the world.
Simeon praised God for the glory of his coming to earth in this baby, but he did not stop there. His thoughts went on and he alluded to the pain and suffering that was to come for the grown up Jesus. Now Jesus was a babe in arms, but he was to become a person torn with anguish and torment, riddled with grieving. Simeon spoke of the sword that would pierce Jesus. The bleeding would be inescapable for Jesus, he could not avoid it. But along with that pain and suffering comes also the glory of Easter and the resurrection: truly the agony and the ecstasy, the victim and the victor.