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A Light for all Peoples

An address by Fr John Slater

02 February 2003 00:00 | Fr John Slater

Today is the 40th day after Christmas. The Prayer Book calls the feast The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and adds, commonly called The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin. It could have added, also known as Candlemas. The name Candlemas comes from the tradition of holding lighted candles during the reading of the Gospel in which Simeon hails the child Jesus as a light to lighten the Gentiles. The medieval Church was good at visual imagery.

Today’s gospel also tells us that Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple to fulfil the requirements of the Law. This concerned the ritual purification of Mary after childbirth and also a sacrifice to redeem the child who, as a first-born son, belonged to God. We have an echo here of a time when the first-born son was actually sacrificed to a Canaanite god called Moloch. The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac points to a moment in history when early Israelite society rejected human sacrifice.

The Eastern Church has yet another name for this feast; it is called The Meeting - meaning by that the meeting of the Messiah with the Chosen People. It’s interesting that this comes later in the Church’s year than his meeting with the Gentiles which we celebrate at Epiphany on January 6th. But the two festivals have this in common - they both point to the Lord’s death. Epiphany does this by the third gift of the Wise Men, of which the carol says:

Myrrh I bring, its bitter perfume

breathes a life of gathering gloom,

sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Today’s feast points to the Lord’s death by the shedding of the blood of two turtle doves or two young pigeons. And while Simeon speaks of Jesus as a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel, to Mary he says, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also.

But now it’s our turn to meet the Lord. We meet him as we hear and explore the scriptures, and we meet him also in the breaking of the bread. We meet him as we kneel to pray, and we meet him in the poor and needy when we pause in the pace of daily life to recognise Christ in our brothers and sisters. What a strange business it is, this meeting with Jesus! At one and the same time it means enlightenment and glory, and also bloodshed and grief. Just think, for example, of St Paul whose meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road led him to imprisonment and shipwreck, severe punishment and martyrdom.

And what will it mean for us – to meet the Lord? There will be enlightenment, certainly, and glory – earthly worship should be a foretaste of heavenly glory. But if Christians together make up the mystical Body of Christ, in some deep way we have to be in the world today what he was in his own incarnate life. One of the early fathers called the Church the soul of the world. That means we must be agents of healing love and of reconciliation in the world. Every one of us will confront situations day by day where the healing love of Christ is needed, where his ministry of reconciliation is needed, where we might find ourselves called upon to practise a degree of self-sacrifice for the good of others – a sword shall pierce our own soul also.

But of course, while the life of Christian discipleship will surely take us by the way of the cross, it will also take us through and beyond suffering to the joy of resurrection. Where he is, we shall be also. By faith and by Baptism and by Eucharist we are united to Christ; we live in him and he lives in us. This mystical union is something which we can know now in our daily life of prayer and discipleship – and it is something which will find its fulfilment in eternal life.

Promise yourself that the very next time an occasion presents itself to you in which you have the opportunity to do real good even at cost to your own comfort, you will not hesitate or draw back. The joy which such sacrificial living brings to you will make you long to be an ever more faithful disciple.

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