Today is the Feast of the Presentation of baby Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, and traditionally the last day of Christmas. It is also known as Candlemas, because candles are lit during the Scripture readings at Mass and sometimes there is a procession with the candles. Here is the Church of England collect for the day. ‘Substance of our flesh’: in other words Jesus was a real human being, not a pretend body inhabited by an angel. Like us in all things but sin.
Almighty and ever-living God,
clothed in majesty,
whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple,
in substance of our flesh:
grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts,
by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever. AMEN
The present moment terminates our sight;
Clouds thick as those on doomsday, drown the next;
We penetrate, we prophesy in vain.
Time is dealt out by particles; and each,
Ere mingled with the streaming sands of life,
By fate’s inviolable oath is sworn
Deep silence, “where eternity begins.”
By nature’s law, what may be, may be now;
There’s no prerogative in human hours.
In human hearts what bolder thought can rise,
Than man’s presumption on to-morrow’s dawn!
Where is to-morrow? In another world.
From Night Thoughts by Edward Young.
Tomorrow is in another world. One man who saw the dawn of the new world was Simeon, who met the Holy Family in Jerusalem’s Temple.
He had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when his parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he also took him into his arms, and blessed God, and said:
Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; because my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
And his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning him. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.
It was never going to be all sweetness and sleigh-bells, but there were those who were given a broader vision, including:
Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was far advanced in years, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity. And she was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day.Now she, at the same hour, coming in, confessed to the Lord; and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel.
As latter-day gentiles, let us pray that our eyes and hearts may see and recognise Jesus in the child next door and the cold infant in Syria or Belarus, as well as in our own family members.
Art Thou a King, then?
Come, His universe,
Come, crown me Him a King!
Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling
Their light where fell a curse,
And make a crowning for this kingly brow!—
What is my word? Each empyreal star
Sits in a sphere afar
In shining ambuscade:
The child-brow, crowned by none,
Keeps its unchildlike shade.
Sleep, sleep, my crownless One!
Unchildlike shade! No other babe doth wear
An aspect very sorrowful, as Thou.
No small babe-smiles my watching heart has seen
To float like speech the speechless lips between,
No dovelike cooing in the golden air,
No quick short joys of leaping babyhood.
Alas, our earthly good
In heaven thought evil, seems too good for Thee;
Yet, sleep, my weary One!
And then the drear sharp tongue of prophecy,
With the dread sense of things which shall be done,
Doth smite me inly, like a sword: a sword?
That "smites the Shepherd." Then, I think aloud
The words "despised,"—"rejected,"—every word
Recoiling into darkness as I view
The Darling on my knee.
Bright angels,—move not—lest ye stir the cloud
Betwixt my soul and His futurity!
I must not die, with mother's work to do,
And could not live-and see.
This passage comes at the end of a poem in which Wisdom tells how she was with the Creator as he made the heavens and earth.
I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men.
Now therefore, ye children, hear me: Blessed are they that keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and refuse it not. Blessed is the man that heareth me, and that watcheth daily at my gates, and waiteth at the posts of my doors. He that shall find me, shall find life, and shall have salvation from the Lord: but he that shall sin against me, shall hurt his own soul. All that hate me love death.
Proverbs 8: 32-36.
The gate in Brother Chris’s picture above is well set up for watching and waiting, with its benches on either side. The residents of the Hospital – almshouses in fact – could sit watching here and chat to their ordinary, decent neighbours passing by. Wisdom surely belongs, in part, with the old people and their experience of life.
Simeon and Anna, two old people, waited near the Temple gate, and recognised the wisdom of God in a tiny, fragile baby. The ordinary, decent people of Jerusalem recognised the wisdom of God in a man, riding to the city gate on a donkey. Do we recognise the wisdom of God in what is described as an invasion against an evil empire, or in the unarmed arrival of an old man representing the Prince of Peace?
On the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, or Candlemas, some thoughts about Mary, the obedient, subversive woman who said ‘yes’ to great personal sorrow, as Simeon warned her on this day, because that was part of her vocation as mother of God. This reflection by Father Gerry McFlynn is reblogged from the London Irish Chaplaincy website.
It took a bit of adjusting, coming in from the bright sunlight to the small, dark, one-roomed house. It was the House of Mary in the ruins of Ephesus, in Turkey, where Mary is supposed to have lived out the last years of her life. The only light was provided by an array of candles, some in front of a darkened icon of the Virgin holding her Son. And I remember that there was only one other person there, an old Muslim woman who, unlike me, was praying.
Read on.Recommended by Christina Chase, with whom I shared the article as soon as I read it.
Anna and Simeon, the old people forever in the Temple cloister, were blessed to see and to caress the Baby who was the Salvation of the Lord, the Light of the nations and the Glory of Israel.
Simeon knew this, and he was at peace. But he broke off his song of praise, lapsing into prose to warn Mary of the sword that would pierce her heart; as sharp a sword as any parent feels who sees a child die early or run off the rails through addiction, avarice or broken relationships.
But every child should be a sign of hope. By now, 40 days old, Jesus would be taking notice of the world he is being carried through by his loving parents. He will have felt safe in Simeon’s hands, but he would have registered the sudden emotional switch between the old man’s prayer and his warning advice to Mary; he would have been glad to return to her. She, too, would have been disturbed, but she surely made the effort to be positive for her son.
She stored all these things in her heart; Joseph, meanwhile, was about to receive another dream, pick up his tools, and lead the family to safety in Cairo, because this child was a sign of hope in dark times.
The Nunc Dimittis Canticle is recited every night in the Catholic Church; in Anglican churches, such as Canterbury Cathedral, it is sung during Vespers. It is originally the Song of Simeon; the old man was overcome with joy and peace when he met the little scrap of humanity that was ‘the Salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.’
That was the easy bit when I was asked to play Simeon in a mystery play at Canterbury Cathedral three years ago. My grandson was already too big for the part but the doll we borrowed did not steal the scene. I could concentrate on the Baby, the Father -and then Mary.
It is a massive shift of key as the prophetic revelation finds utterance, and yet we know it is true: a sword will pierce her heart – indeed there is a tradition of the seven sorrows of Mary. I had to come down from my great joy in an instant and look into Mary’s eyes with an overwhelming compassion that was neither mine, nor yet Simeon’s, but the Father’s.
Thirty years after the Presentation that compassion would be brought to practical life by John.
This window from Saint Mary’s in Rye, Sussex shows Mary, almost blind with grief, following her adoptive son by the hand. She turns her back on the apple tree of temptation and stumbles trustingly towards the Vine.
The empty Cross is a point of light against the night sky: sorrow will be replaced by joy, overturning the order of Simeon’s vision. This is a John’s Gospel window. We also see the Great Bear in the stars. If a star told of his coming, this constellation points to the North Star by which we can find our way to him.
I am the way.
Anyone who wants to follow me must take up their cross daily and follow me.
Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury
We have been listening to the poets over Christmas; now here is another of them, Gerard Manly Hopkins, this time a paragraph or two from his sermon for Sunday evening, November 23 1879. It is a poet’s sermon! The full text is on pp136ff of the Penguin edition of his poems and prose, edited by W.H. Gardner; worth seeking out.
St Joseph though he often carried our Lord Jesus Christ in his arms and the Blessed Virgin though she gave him birth and suckled him at her breast, though they seldom either of them had the holy child out of their sight and knew more of him far than all others, yet when they heard what holy Simeon a stranger had to say of him, the Scripture says they wondered.
Not indeed that they were surprised and had thought to hear something different but that they gave their minds up to admiration and dwelt with reverent wonder on all God’s doings about the child their sacred charge. Brethren, see what a thing it is to hear about our Lord Jesus Christ, to think of him and dwell upon him; it did good to these two holiest people, the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph, even with him in the house God thought good to give them lights by the mouth of strangers. It cannot but do good to us, who have more need of holiness, who easily forget Christ, who have not got him before our eyes to look at . . .
Our Lord Jesus Christ, my brethren, is our hero, a hero all the world wants.
It was Maundy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was over, and we awaited our turn to proceed to the Altar of Repose. The man who had caught my eye and smiled at the Sign of Peace came across and shook my hand.
‘Hello Simeon, I was Caiaphas.’
A few years before we had taken those parts in a mystery play in Canterbury Cathedral, put on by the Franciscan Study Centre under Walter Lippi from Florence.
To come together that night! The play had mostly been about the trial and judicial assassination of Jesus, and its effects on Mary.
Caiaphas: It is better for one man to die for the nation.
Simeon: My eyes have seen thy Salvation which you have prepared before all peoples. A sword will pierce your heart.
Which of them had more evidence about Jesus? Simeon saw the Messiah in a little child; Caiaphas could weigh up the political situation caused by Jesus’ ministry, but had no vision, Eyes that did not see.
When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Simeon, foreground, with Friar Stefan to our left and Caiaphas to our right.
Yesterday was the feast of the Holy Cross, today of Mary as Queen of Sorrows. Father Anthony Charlton at St Thomas’s Church, Canterbury, has invited us to pray especially at this time for all those affected by abuse of children and vulnerable people in the Church. May we have the vision to survey the Cross on which the Prince of Glory’s brothers and sisters are tortured in our day, and the wisdom to take the first steps to helping them.
Today we recall the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
Around Easter time in 2017 Princes William and Harry spoke about the time when their mother died. For Harry, just twelve at the time, it was a traumatic period, and had repercussions for many years to come.
The princes rightly called for less fear around mental illness; I’ve known plenty of young and older people who perceived themselves as rejected by friends and family on account of their mental illness.
Yet, talking this over with my daughter and son-in-law, we felt a bit uneasy. Emotions such as grief or anger or remorse may be totally appropriate reactions to events or the consequences of our own actions. They are not in themselves medical conditions. Simeon told Mary to expect a sword of sorrow through her heart (Luke 2:34); we would ask what was wrong if a mother did not feel great hurt when her child was killed.
She loved; she was hurt.
That is not mental illness, it is a question to ask of God and oneself, ‘Why?’
Mary’s ‘Fiat’ – ‘Let it be done according to your word’ – at least begins to answer it. Her words, of course, are echoed by her son at his life’s end: indeed at the Presentation she is like the parents and godparents of an infant at the baptismal font. We make the promises to believe in God and reject all sin, whatever the consequences, knowing the baby may be hurt on the way through life. And here is Jesus: Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. (Luke 22:42) It must all have felt meaningless: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46).
Grief happens because we love and because we are human.