Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (1 February 2015) by the Reverend Marjorie Brown, Vicar, St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill

Worship
Today at the Cathedral View More
8:00am Holy Communion
10:15am Choral Mattins
11:30am Sung Eucharist
3:15pm Choral Evensong
6:00pm La Nativité du Seigneur, Messiaen

Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany (1 February 2015) by the Reverend Marjorie Brown, Vicar, St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill

The Reverend Marjorie Brown talks about Candlemas and how it reminds us of birth and death, and how they are connected, and of God’s faithfulness at both the beginning and the end of our lives.


Today is the Eve of Candlemas, or in many parish churches it is the day on which Candlemas is celebrated. Its proper name is the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem forty days after his birth – and you will note that tomorrow is 40 days after Christmas.
 
This morning, in the church where I serve, we admitted three children to their first Holy Communion. At the end of the service light was passed from the Easter candle to candles held by the new communicants, and from them to the entire congregation. We processed to the font singing Nunc Dimittis, the words of Simeon in the Temple when he saw Jesus, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace. And as we brought our Christmastide celebration to a final end, we blew out our candles and said, Here we turn from Christ’s birth to his passion, from the joy of Bethlehem to the agony of Calvary. Help us, for whom Lent is near, to enter deeply into the Easter mystery.
 
Just two days earlier, I recited those words, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, at the bedside of a dying 90-year-old parishioner. And if you were paying close attention, you will notice that we have had the same words twice in this service of Evensong. The choir sang them once, as they do at every Evensong, and then we sang a version of them in the hymn just now: Faithful vigil ended, watching, waiting cease; Master, grant thy servant his discharge in peace.
 
These words of Simeon frame our worship this evening. They are words of thanksgiving that a time of waiting is over with the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise, but they are also an acknowledgement of an ending. In the case of Simeon, the waiting was in order to see the Lord’s Messiah, and when the baby Jesus was brought to the Temple Simeon recognized that he was now ready to die.
 
In today’s reading from the First Book of Samuel, we heard about the patient waiting of a woman who longed for a child, a very frequent theme in both the Old and New Testaments. In a world where children represented God’s greatest blessing and a sign of hope for the future, infertility was seen as the worst kind of misfortune, even a curse. In the years before I was ordained, I worked as an antenatal teacher, helping prospective parents prepare for the birth of their child. Many of those couples had waited anxiously for years to conceive, and their sense of gratitude that they would finally have a baby was overwhelming. Maybe some of you tonight have known this waiting, or are still enduring it.
 
As a parent myself, I have often been disturbed by the story of Samuel’s birth. Hannah has prayed so hard for a baby. At last he is born, and she must repay her vow to the Lord to dedicate the child to his service. But she puts the day off for three years, pleading the need to breastfeed him. At last she weans him and brings him to the Temple at Shiloh. The scripture reminds us, in case we had missed the point: And the child was young. This is one of the two most poignant verses in the reading, and the other comes at the end: She left him there for the Lord. If you read on into the second chapter of the first book of Samuel, you’ll find Hannah continuing to yearn for her son. Verse 19 says “His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.” This goes to my heart every time I read it.
 
There is a bittersweet flavour to the celebration of Candlemas. It is the time of thanksgiving for new life, but also a foretaste of loss. Hannah must leave her little boy in the care of old Eli the priest. Mary is told by Simeon that a sword will one day pierce her heart, and at once we picture the scene of the sorrowing Mother beside the cross.
 
Simeon praises God for fulfilling his word, but he won’t live to see Jesus grow up. He is on the threshold of death, and now he is prepared to go. Candlemas links the joy of Christmas with the solemnity of Lent. This pivotal feast in the Church’s year seems to me to have many links with our own lives.
 
We make plans, and then find that they don’t work out. We have to wait for the things we want. Many times we don’t receive what we long for, but something completely different. Even if we do get what we want, we are not in control of the way things turn out. Every mother knows that we start to lose our children the moment we give them life. Rearing a child is lesson in letting go, trusting God for the future.
 
The meeting of infancy and old age, birth and death, on this festival is one of its most distinctive features. Old Simeon holds the 40-day-old baby in his arms and prophesies. Hannah, the aged mother, hands her three-year-old over to the care of an elderly priest. Every year in our church, young children come to the altar of the Lord for the first time at Candlemas, but it is also the season when I seem to pray most often beside the beds of those whose life’s journey is drawing to a close.
 
So we are reminded at Candlemas of birth and death, and how they are connected, and of God’s faithfulness at both the beginning and the end of our lives. We are reminded of the uncertain outcomes of our human plans, but we are also encouraged by the writer to the Hebrews that our great high priest, Jesus Christ, has walked this way before us, and knows human birth and death from the inside.
 
Another tradition at St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, is that at our carol service on the Sunday before Christmas, the lessons are read by a range of voices, from the very young to the very old. And everyone’s favourite part of the service is when, every year, a man in his late 80s reads once again in his thrilling voice T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. I can’t hope to reproduce it, but I want to end by quoting the last lines of that great poem, reflecting in the bittersweet Candlemas spirit on the bringing together of the two ends of life. One of the wise men muses:
 
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
 
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. Amen.