Homily – for the Feast of Candlemas ( celebrated on 28th January 2018)
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – Candlemas – and, right on cue, all around us we can we can see the first flowers of the new season – the snowdrops, also known as Candlemas Bells.
And those tiny flowers offer a double-meaning for us – the lush green of the stalks give us a strong hint of the coming Spring, and yet the pure white of the flower-heads is still suggestive of winter snow.
Rather like last Friday’s clear skies – which brought both sunshine AND lower temperatures – Candlemas Bells, like the feast itself, offer us a mixture of hopeful expectation but also a warning to be ready for harder things still to come.
Our service, this morning, reflects that mixture of thoughts and emotions: the comforting glow from our Crib scene has gone, to be replaced by a manger.
And the manger is empty, apart from a folded sheet – symbolising the “bed clothes” which kept warm the infant Christ. And at the end of the service, that same cloth will be refolded and carried to the Cross, as a symbol of Christ’s “grave clothes”, or shroud, and all that lies ahead before Easter.
And so today is a turning point – a refocussing of our spiritual energies – not forgetting the hope-filled expectation of Christmas, but making ourselves ready for the purposeful observance of Lent, just over 2 weeks away.
Today is also a reminder of our Jewish heritage.
Mary comes to the Temple as a good Jewish mother – to present her first born son, – and to be purified, to be declared ritually clean again after her child-birth.
And IF that now seems an odd idea to us – in the 20th century it would have been less strange: you only have to look at the Book of Common Prayer – our church’s main service book until the end of the 1950s – to find an order of service for the “Churching of Women”. And, although, the emphasis there is clearly on giving thanks for a safe delivery, the mother is still expected, as Mary was, to make an offering as she is welcomed back into the worshipping community.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find echoes of Jewish worship and practice within our own traditions: the Hebrew Scriptures form by far the larger part of the Christian Bible, the earliest Christians still worshipped in the synagogue, the patriarchs of Judaism and Christianity are one and the same.
Clearly, we ourselves are not Jews – but, as followers of Jesus Christ, neither can we be completely un-Jewish – still less anti-Jewish.
It’s with an extra poignancy, then, that we find ourselves marking this Feast just one day after Holocaust Memorial Day – recalling more recent history and the systematic isolation and persecution of European Jews at the time of the Second World War.
And, as we know, that is not the only time that Jewish communities have found themselves unwanted or made scapegoats within predominantly Christian countries.
Perhaps this most Jewish of Christian feasts can remind us of our shared heritage, and strengthen our resolve never again to allow the demonization of any race or religion.
At a time when relationships between the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are somewhat tense, at a time when nationalism and “populist movements” seem to be on the rise – it is as important as ever to assert that we are all children of the one, true God, by whatever name we call him and however we perceive or worship him..
Our oldest Prayer Book contains the Jewish inspired Churching of Women, and our newest prayer book – Common Worship – contains this Jewish Prayer of mourning, the Kaddish, which is in effect a prayer for peace:
Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted , extolled and honoured, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One; blessed be God for ever.
Though he be high above all blessings and hymns, praises and consolations, which are uttered in the world; blessed be God for ever.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and for all people; and let us say Amen.