SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL N. KEYES AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT
THE SOLEMNITY OF CANDLEMAS, SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 2013
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Candlemas, the Presentation, the Purification, the Meeting. There are four significantly different names for this feast. The main events, given in our gospel reading, center on our Lord’s entrance into the temple as a child — his Presentation as the first-born son, as well as our Lady’s ritual purification after childbirth. As a result the feast has traditionally emphasized two further theological notes behind these two events: first, the integrity of our human nature or substance in the Son of God, which comes up in our reading from Hebrews, and, second, the preservation of Mary’s virginity even after childbirth.
To these four topics, we then add two more. The Orthodox call this day the Meeting in the Temple — first with Simeon and then Anna. Our tally now comes to six topics. Next, from Simeon we get a prophecy about Jesus’ passion and Mary’s sorrow. Eight. Lastly, in Simeon’s exuberant song, the Nunc dimittis, we find a ninth aspect — light. Christ is the light of the world, and so we bless and light candles.
Sometimes I joke that I really live in the 13th century. If I did, I would proceed to make a big deal about the numerical symbolism in that list. For now, though, it’s probably best just to acknowledge and wonder at all these layers. One of the old antiphons that was written for the feast seems to touch on almost all of them: “O Sion, adorn thy bridechamber, and receive Christ thy King: greet Mary who is the gate of heaven: for she beareth the King of the glory of the new light: she remaineth a Virgin, yet beareth in her arms a Son begotten before the morning star: whom Simeon took in his arms declaring to all nations that he is Lord of life and death, and Saviour of the world.”(1)
With that wordy antiphon in mind, perhaps it’s helpful to think of this feast in terms of one of my favorite church concepts: the liturgical stammer.(2) This is not an official dogmatic concept, of course, but it’s one that some scholars have used to think about the ways that the liturgy seems to repeatedly stumble over itself in its difficulty of getting to the point.
The liturgical stammer is more obvious in some places than others. If you’ve ever been to an Eastern rite liturgy you’ll notice the almost bewildering repetition of “Lord have mercy” and other normal phrases — you get the feeling that there is a rule somewhere saying that anything worth saying is worth repeating at least twelve times. But the Latin liturgy does this as well — and not just in the ninefold kyrie that we normally hear. Sometimes it is as subtle as the priest’s constant turning back and forth between congregation and altar; the need to repeat “The Lord be with you” at several different moments; the apparent indecision, in the Eucharistic prayer itself, about whether or not we even have any right to be doing what we’re doing.
Much, much more can be said about that, but here I mainly want to show the kind of stammer that we see in today’s feast. What is the feast about? Well, it’s about the presentation — no, the purification — no, the incarnation — no, the virginity of Mary — no, the meeting with Simeon — and so on and so forth. It is about each of these things and all of them, and part of the meaning is this kind of restless movement from one to the other, and the fact that we can never, in this world, finally get it in any decisive and permanent way.
We see the stammer, again, in that great text from today’s gospel, the canticle of Simeon, the Nunc dimittis:
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 peoples;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Perhaps it’s overdramatic to call such eloquent words stammering. There is after all a great biblical tradition of repetition and parallel structures. What we get here are three things all together:
First, the Lord’s salvation.
Second, the light for the Gentiles.
Third, the glory of Israel.
What Simeon implies is not that these are three separate things, but that these three things are, precisely, the thing that his eyes have seen. He repeats it three times, using three different concepts. Salvation, light, glory.
Let’s think about those each in turn.
“Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
Those of us who live in 21st century America find the notion of “salvation” very strange. We tend to think of it in a very narrow sense, which is, being saved from hell. And this is admittedly how much of the Church has thought about salvation for the last thousand years or so. Because we find the concept of hell difficult or incredible, salvation likewise becomes incredible.
Whatever we think of all that, when Simeon speaks of “salvation” he doesn’t mean salvation from hell or sin, at least in the first instance. He means something even stranger: the restoration of Israel. He means ethnic and political salvation; he means the cleansing of unfaithful monarchs and oppressors, and the reunification of God’s chosen people in a land free of anxiety. He was, verse 25 tells us, serving in the temple and “looking for the consolation of Israel.” Likewise Anna, a few verses down, starts speaking about Jesus “to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).
What’s immediately interesting about the salvation that Simeon sees is that, apparently, everyone else can see it too. It is, most definitely, the salvation of Israel. But it is also “in the presence of all peoples.” This means that Israel will be vindicated in a public way — Israel’s salvation means, implicitly, judgment for everyone else.
But there’s more: “A light to lighten the Gentiles.”
That doesn’t sound very much like judgment. Now “salvation” is starting to get interesting. Somehow this child is a light to all peoples.
But what does this mean? If the Gentiles need light, it would seem that they are, in some sense, in the dark. And here we catch once again that implicit note of judgment: not all is right in the world, but somehow the health and prosperity of Israel is tied to the health and prosperity of the world. If Israel is in the dark, whatever that means, the world is more so. In fact, if we come to the last of Simeon’s words, it would seem that, once again, this light of the world is also “the glory of thy people Israel.”
The words have been building to this point. First there is a very this-worldly hope — the salvation of a people long oppressed. Then there is another hope, still of this world, but somewhat higher: a light that enlightens. Here, with this notion of enlightenment, we’ve entered a more intellectual level. Light, even the smallest candle on a dark path, is knowledge. But, it seems, the story gets even better, because with salvation and knowledge also come glory.
And what, we might ask, is glory? We use the word constantly in our worship. Glory be to God on high. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Glory be to thee, O Lord.
“Glory” in the New Testament can mean a variety of things: praise, fame, honor, dignity, splendor.
Maybe, though, this doesn’t really help us at all, because it brings us to one more layer of conceptual language. “Glory” is not normally something you can sink your teeth into, or grasp in your hands. But here, in Simeon’s song, is something different: he holds in his hands “the glory of Israel.”
The key to Simeon’s three things — salvation, light, glory — the key is not another concept, or another word, or another secret definition. The key is a baby, barely more than a month old.
Babies are, in so many ways, signs that exceed their meaning. Despite all that we do in this age to control the making of babies, to make childbearing one more consumer choice alongside buying furniture or using natural gas, babies always come to us as strangers. A friend of mine once remarked that one of the central purposes of Christian marriage is hospitality to strangers who often come to us in the form of children.
It’s fitting, then, that this baby stands for a meaning that is not subject to our control or manipulation. We can try to manipulate him, try to control what he stands for, but at the end of the day what he stands for is himself. He is not a symbol of something else. With Jesus, it is no longer proper to speak of salvation, or the light of the world, or the glory of Israel, apart from this person who is the new Israel, the new salvation, the new light.
If we find this feast disorienting, we do well to look, with Simeon, to the Lord. We do not have to choose between Jesus and Mary, between Israel and the nations, between heaven and earth. Christ himself is our peace, as St. Paul writes, “who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). We cannot really describe this peace, in worldly terms, in the language of human violence, we can only stammer about Jesus.
It is a bold stammer, like Simeon, and like Anna. But there is no further explanation, no deeper key, than Jesus himself. We can try to offer the world other things: a Jesus who is pure enlightenment, a Jesus who is political liberation, a Jesus who is simple Jewish prophet. Yet, what Simeon sees is none of these things and all of them: a person who in himself is the fulfillment and the end of all things.
Our task, brothers and sisters, as the Church of Jesus Christ, is to stammer and stutter our way to glory. This will look very strange, of course, because peace looks strange. We are too used to our divisions. The world cannot understand, for example, how the Church can speak on both hospitality and judgment, on unconditional love and the reality of sin. The world cannot understand how Christians can care for the good of all while proclaiming the end of all things. The world cannot understand how a virgin could be the Mother of God, how God could be man, and how death could become life.
That is what Simeon says, in the end: that death has become life, that a human woman has become the Mother of God and the Queen of Heaven, that the glory of the Lord has been made visible, in veiled form, even as it will be made visible on our altar this morning. And in response he says: I have seen Life himself, so my own life is of no account. Use it as you will, Lord, in stammering witness to your glory.
God make us such witnesses. Amen.