This sermon was preached on the Feast of the Presentation (“Candlemas”), February 2, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day were: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; and Luke 2:22-40. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, *
according to thy word;
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, *
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, *
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
(BCP 1979, p. 66)
Some texts just need to be recited in the language of an earlier era. I have said that canticle almost every night since I was 14 years old and first became an Episcopalian, and although I find the truth perhaps better spoken in the more modern translations that we find in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and in the modern language of the Rite II Evening Prayer service, there is an elegance to the poetry of the earlier Books of Common Prayer. Simeon’s song is known liturgically as the Nunc Dimittis, and I find it comforting as a bedtime prayer.
Old Simeon had been hanging around the Temple for many years, a devout and orthodox Jew, hoping to see the coming of the Messiah; indeed, he believed he had been promised by God that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. One day, this young couple of poor, country folk came in to perform the sacrifices of purification and redemption, the restoration of Mary to ritual purity following childbirth and the pydion haben or redemption of their first-born male child. As soon as he saw them and the baby they brought, he knew his hope was realized, that God had kept God’s promise.
I’ve always heard behind the older translation, “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” a hint of Simeon’s own death, a sort of “now I can die happy” statement. The more modern translation of the NRSV, however, has none of that dark foreshadowing: “Now you are dismissing your servant” has no hint of death in it, but it lacks the exuberance of the Prayer Book’s Rite II version, “You now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised.” In Simeon’s encounter with the Child, he is set free! I can almost hear him breaking into Hank Williams’ joyful country hymn I Saw the Light:
I saw the light; I saw the light;
No more darkness, no more night.
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight.
Praise the Lord! I saw the light!
I can just see him dancing in the Temple holding this Holy Infant! Simeon is not just dismissed; he is set free, not to die, but to live! He can, of course, die happy; but before that he can live free. He is among the first of the redeemed.
In bringing the infant Jesus to the Temple, Mary and Joseph are continuing what they began at his circumcision; they are raising this child to be an observant Jew, they are teaching him to be a child of the Law, a participant in the Covenant from birth on. Mary comes to be restored after giving birth, which according to the Torah, rendered her ritually unable to participate in the religious life of her people. The Law of Moses in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 12, prescribes:
If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days . . . . On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed. . . . When the days of her purification are completed . . . she shall bring to the priest . . . a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. . . . If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.
With this ritual, Luke conflates the ritual of redemption, the pydion haben. In Exodus, Chapter 13, God says, “You shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. . . . Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem.” (vv. 12-13) In the third chapter of Numbers, this command is repeated: “All the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the Lord.” (Num. 3:13) The price of redemption is then set at five “shekels of the sanctuary, a shekel of twenty gerahs.” (v. 47) Luke leaves out this detail, but it is very likely that Mary and Joseph carried through as required by the Law.
Joseph and Mary, as my colleague Juan Oliver has noted, “are the embodiment of the majority of Jews, who, illiterate and too poor to offer any sacrifice, lived perennially in a state of ritual defilement or ‘sin.'” We observe in their adherence to these rituals, in their making of these offerings, the lowliness of Jesus’ family and their marginalized position in society, but more importantly their participation in the full life of their faith. It is from that fullness of faith that Jesus’ self-understanding and his mission flows. Because of his parents’ faithfulness to the Law, Simeon sees in this infant “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of [God’s] people Israel.” Hope flows even from places of extreme poverty when those with the least embrace the rituals of an abundant life.
We began our worship this morning with one of our own “rituals of an abundant life.” From very early on in the life of the Christian community, it has been a tradition to carry candles on this day, and to bless the candles that the church will use throughout the coming year. For that reason, an alternative name of this Feast of the Presentation is “Candlemas,” the Mass of the candles. The tradition of blessing the candles dates to the mid-Fifth Century, and the candle procession is first attested to in the Diary of Egeria which describes such a procession in Jerusalem in middle of the Fourth Century.
An 11th Century Cistercian abbot, Blessed Guerric of Igny (c.1070-1157), preached of the symbolism of the Candlemas procession:
Behold then, the candle alight in Simeon’s hands. You must light your own candles by enkindling them at his, those lamps which the Lord commanded you to bear in your hands. So come to him and be enlightened that you do not so much bear lamps as become them, shining within yourself and radiating light to your neighbors. May there be a lamp in your heart, in your hand, and in your mouth: let the lamp in your heart shine for yourself, the lamps in your hand and mouth shine for your neighbors. The lamp in your heart is a reverence for God inspired by faith; the lamp in your hand is the example of a good life; and the lamp in your mouth are the words of consolation you speak.
Go forth then from this place and, like Simeon, speak of the freedom Jesus gives us, speak words of consolation, spread the light of Christ, the light to enlighten the Gentiles. Go forth and sing, “I saw the light! I saw the light! No more sorrow! No more night! Praise the Lord! I saw the Light!” Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.