Candlemas – Sermon preached online by the Provost, John Conway – 31st January 2021

Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

So promises the prophet Malachi in our first reading this morning. And that sudden coming is taken up in our Gospel reading, as Luke tells of the baby Jesus being taken to the temple, and there recognised by Simeon and Anna, as, indeed, their Lord and ours – the one who brings salvation, light for revelation and glory. In that sudden appearance, Simeon finds fulfilment and release: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.’

It is tempting to focus our thoughts, on this Feast of Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the temple, on that moment of revelation, of sudden, blinding, healing and release. This is the culmination of the season of Epiphany, the season that celebrates the revelation of Christ to shepherds and then Magi in the stable at Bethlehem; by the banks of the Jordan as he is baptised; in the calling of the first disciples: moments of sudden epiphany, of blazing light and faith given. And this is such a moment for Simeon and Anna.

As I contemplated our Gospel passage this week, however, I wasn’t drawn so much to that moment, as to the long years that preceded this sudden coming, this moment of revelation. Anna has inhabited the temple for long years after being widowed at an early age, worshipping there with fasting and prayer night and day. Simeon, we are told, is righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel; promised that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. How long he had lived with that promise we are not told. Had he doubted it? Was he certain what that promise would look like when it came?

We are living through times when our waiting, for the promise of vaccines, for the ability to see, and hug, and comfort, loved ones; when our waiting can seem endless. And still the darkness presses in, as the awful death toll to Covid mounts – we passed beyond 100,000 people dying of Covid in the United Kingdom alone this week. And behind that statistic, each a person known, and loved, and grieved. Each cared for by tiring health workers, who wonder too when this will end; people dying, separated from family and friends by the disciplines of PPE and sanitation, to die without the usual and important bodily farewells. This is a time of waiting, of hard, exhausting waiting; there have been too many false dawns and we are wary of thinking it will soon be all over. We know there is still a long haul ahead: so what will get us through, what can we learn from Anna and Simeon about waiting in the midst of grief, with hope and expectation?

Prayer is many things, but waiting is at the heart of it. Certainly there is rarely a simple correlation between prayer and answer: prayer is not simply about getting a result to a request. It is about that discipline of waiting, waiting on how requests might be answered, but also waiting to discover what it is we truly need, what it is we are actually needing to wait for.

To describe prayer as about waiting may seem to make prayer a very passive activity, but that is to misunderstand the waiting. Anna, we are told, in those long years in the temple, worships with fasting and prayer, night and day. There is a discipline involved to prayer – to the placing of oneself in this moment before God. And that placing is about feeling and knowing this moment, ever more deeply. It’s about not running away from the pressing grief and darkness of now; from feeling for those separated from loved ones, for all those involved in the care of others. Our waiting in consciousness of this moment, deepens our empathy, invites us to inhabit the shoes of others and to feel what they might be feeling. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, said T. S Eliot, in his Four Quartets, and there is certainly truth to that. But the prayer of waiting is about opening ourselves up, a little more, to that reality.

We do so, however – we wait – as Simeon did, in hope and expectation. It is easy for this moment to overwhelm us, to know despair. But there is consolation too, in the waiting; our reality is also about the collective effort we are making; it is about the going beyond, that many feel called to; it is about the care of keeping each other safe; it is about previously disregarded work being revealed in all its essentialness. And in prayer, we know that reality too, and draw strength from it.

Above all, our waiting, prepares us: prepares us to know what we are looking for, what really matters. Prayer is the schooling of our desire, so that, like Simeon, we can recognise our salvation when it comes. In this present moment, our waiting is about becoming more conscious of what this pandemic has revealed about our world, about that reality we inhabit. Our waiting is not simply for it to be over, for ‘normality’ to be resumed. The pandemic has revealed, through its ability to prey on the vulnerable, the deep fissures and divides in our society. The poor, the discriminated against, those without safety nets, are both more likely to be victims of Covid, but also least able to navigate through the wider challenges that the pandemic presents: the challenges of education in a time of home-schooling; of stable employment in a gig economy; of mental health in anxious times.

To pray, to know this time we are living through, is to be schooled in the determination that we will not simply return to normal; that the dead will only be honoured, and our grief give way to joy, if we find ways to rebuild and respond in ways that heal those fissures that have been revealed and deepened. The prophet Malachi, as he offers the promise of the Lord whom we seek suddenly coming to his temple, also warns that that moment is a moment of judgement; of the overturning of the usual ways of doing things: ‘I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, says the Lord.’

This time of waiting, therefore, is a time of discipline; of strengthening; of deepening empathy; of the discovery of knowing what really matters; and of deepening determination for that to shape our life as we move beyond this moment; as we greet our salvation and our healing.

Simeon greets the Christ child, after that discipline of prayer and waiting, and knows that he can depart in peace, not because everything is alright now. He warns Mary of the heartache to come, the heartache that is bound up in the coming of light into the world. But he has waited, and prayed, so that he sees and knows enough to bring him peace. Simeon is the opposite of a cynical old man: in his waiting, he has kept his eyes open to the possibility of his salvation; he has waited in hope and expectation, so that he recognises what will save him, what will grant him peace. And it is to that same faithfulness that we are called – to wait, with open hearts, with candles lit, for that which assures us that, at the end of all our waiting, ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Amen.

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