From the Rector: Candlemas Sermon

Below is the Sermon from the Candlemas High Mass on February 2. When preaching I do not follow the narrative completely, but for the most part it is representative of the sermon that was preached. I want to thank everyone who made it such a beautiful liturgy, especially the choir, the ushers, the acolytes, and the Altar Guild. Everyone outdid themselves yet again.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Did you notice that tonight’s procession was a counter-clockwise procession? We went the same direction throughout the church as when we do a penitential procession. This is one of those liturgical tidbits that often goes unnoticed. When we process throughout the church on the First Sunday in Lent while singing the Great Litany, we always turn left when we get to the back of the church. We travel counterclockwise. Normally we turn to the right, and we travel through the church in a clockwise direction. So why on this night, when we are celebrating the arrival of the Messiah in the Temple with Mary and Joseph forty days after Christ’s birth, do we travel in a penitential direction?

It is because the procession is a procession of waiting – of keeping vigil. Tonight’s liturgy begins with the waiting for the Messiah to come. We have to put ourselves into the shoes of Anna and Simeon. They have been waiting for a long time for this moment, perhaps lighting candles, saying prayers, keeping silence, chanting hymns. They have been in a season of waiting for the arrival of the Christ Child. Maybe they still do not know that the Christ was born forty days ago - they are faithfully keeping vigil.

An icon of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

This is also why tonight we began the liturgy with violet vestments for the procession. We are a pilgrim people, like Simeon and Anna, keeping vigil, waiting for the coming of the Christ. When the procession reaches the high altar, we have entered the Temple. Now the vestments change to white, and the celebratory mass begins. We journeyed throughout the church while waiting. We gather at the altar and the sanctuary now that Christ has come to his Temple. And isn't this so typical of life. We have to balance the waiting and the vigil-keeping with the joy and the excitement. Life is a constant balance of violet and gold. We live in a time of "not yet," but there is also the hope for the future that excites us.

It must have been an amazing moment for Anna and Simon to greet the Christ Child in the Temple in Jerusalem. St. Luke is the only one who mentions this story in his Gospel. You may recall how it is only St. Luke who tells the stories of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, of the visitation of Mary with Elizabeth, of John the Baptist’s birth, of the shepherds in the field and the angels in the sky at Christmas, of this moment we celebrate tonight, as well as the boy Jesus teaching in the Temple. Luke’s Gospel begins with an incarnation festival that unfolds story after story for us. Only Luke’s Gospel provides so much insight into the early years of Jesus’ life.

And it is not all rejoicing. Whereas in Matthew’s Gospel we had the flight into Egypt, showing us how the family of Jesus was a refugee family, in Luke’s Gospel we have the foreboding announcement by Simeon of the pain that will come to Jesus and his mother 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." It has been almost a year from the time that the angel Gabriel visited Mary. Such strange news was brought to her then, after which the child was born among animals in Bethlehem, and now this uneasy announcement from Simeon.

Simeon and Anna, as well as the Holy Family, were among a people who were living under occupation by a foreign power. Rome had conquered them. Almost like grandparents to Jesus, Simeon and Anna had seen the world for all that it is – full of joy, but also full of pain. They lived a life in which faith provided the joy and hope, when the reality of everyday life was of foreigners controlling their world. Even worse, some of their own people had snuggled up to the occupying powers. This reality would continue throughout Jesus’ life, and it was this reality that would ultimately crucifix Jesus. It is that theme of violet and gold living side by side.

Amid this occupation, Mary, and perhaps Joseph, although the Gospels do not provide too many clues about Joseph, would watch their child grow to the point that he became a criminal of the occupying government, as well as the religious establishment. He would become a man who was out of step with the authorities, and yet was completely in step with the people on the ground.  This is the sword of grief that pierces hearts - societies that rule over people rather than nurture people - ideologies that amass fortunes for the powerful while leaving many people without resources.

Yet it is this child Jesus that brings hope. Despite occupation, Simeon and Anna are exceedingly glad. They show us the strength of faith in God. They show us how there can be peace in the heart when peace is absent in society. They know that in the end, this child, and the peace that he brings, will ultimately be stronger than death.

We continue to live in interesting times. I have heard some of you say that you feel as if you live under occupation – that you no longer resonate with being an American – that the voice of the people is no longer heard and that our country’s methods have elevated a vocal minority. This is the world that Anna and Simeon inhabited. Hope in Christ saved them from despair. Even though many now feel as if we are traveling backwards, in a counter-clockwise direction, ultimately we can still arrive at the Temple with Christ - there is an altar waiting for us that provides sanctuary, literally in the sanctuary. And we may not be able to hold the infant Christ in our hands, but we can hold another form of Christ tenderly within our hands, at our altar and at our temple. Our hands are like Simeon's arms, like the cradle in the stable. This faith and hope in God can sustain us, just like it sustained Anna and Simeon all those long years. Faith helped them to balance the violet and gold of their lives. Our faith today can do the same for us. Bear your candle, hold on to the light, and whatever you do, don’t give up your hope in Christ. +

Father Paul Lillie+