1 February 2012 / Candlemas * Luke 2: 22-40
To Be A Light
Candlemas is a time to remember, to recollect. To recollect oneself means to gather oneself up into meditation. We have here and now only a moment for this. But that is enough.
So when does this story begin? Forty days ago when the baby was born: the boy who was born to be a light: the Light, really – the Light of the World. Or, maybe it began when the angel first told Mary of her special calling. Or, during the reign of King David. Or, when our people were slaves in Egypt. Or, when our ancestor Abraham set out from his home town of Ur on the Chaldes to become the father of more than all the stars in the heavens and all the grains of sand on the seashore - to be a blessing to all the peoples of God’s creation. Whenever we choose to begin the story, it is one fraught with difficulties from the very beginning.
It was the custom to dedicate the first son to God forty days after his birth - to offer a sacrifice at the Temple to redeem the child. They did so to remind themselves that their children belonged to God. It was a reminder that God has a genuine claim on the very best we have to offer, our children.
The required sacrifice was a lamb, but those too poor to buy a lamb could offer a lesser sacrifice of the birds. The crowds in the Temple precincts would know who they were: bird people were poor people.
The consolation may have been that they were not alone. Many people were out of work. The land was occupied by Rome. Taxes were high. The government was unstable. The economy had tanked. There was resistance throughout the land. Common folk had trouble making ends meet. The lines in front of the pigeon sellers can be assumed to have been very long.
The offering of these birds would be a memorial to all the first born males ordered killed by Pharaoh in that first Holocaust which only Moses survived. This custom binds them to their people and their past just as this Eucharist ties us to ours.
They had come to make a sacrifice and a commitment. Every commitment comes with a cost. Little did they know the offering they were making - not only to God, but for the whole world. Nor could they have been prepared for the old man.
Simeon had been praying and waiting, hoping and studying, waiting for God to reveal the light of the world. Simeon was an old man waiting to be released. Waiting for his people to be released. Waiting to see what we all hope to see but are too busy to remember to look for: a glimpse of the future. A glimpse of the truth. A glimpse of relief and release.
Simeon, we can imagine, like so many of us, had grown weary. Weary of the occupation. Weary of failed policies and failed programs. Weary of the failure of religious and political leaders. Weary of being weary. Everything and everyone who had promised life only yielded weariness and death. So he was waiting for death, and waiting to see if God really keeps promises.
The old man takes the child out of Mary’s arms. Imagine that! Who is he, she must wonder? What is he doing with my child, she thinks?
Suddenly, Simeon becomes a poet for the ages: announcing for all who care to listen and hear that this is not her child, but God’s very own. That this child was born to be light. Light for all peoples. Everywhere and throughout all time. Simeon has seen the light.
Can you see it, he cries out? Here is the light which will withstand all darkness, any darkness - even death upon a Roman cross!.
Then quietly he hands the child back to his mother, and he is gone. Released. God’s promise fulfilled. Simeon returns to God as the mother and father look on. Joseph with the birds in his hands. Mary with the child born to be a light. All the other mothers and fathers looking on.
And if that is not enough, then there is the Old Woman – Anna the prophet! She is in the temple day and night praying and fasting, waiting for messiah to come. She has been doing this for a long, long time! She and Israel had been waiting a long, long time to be released from bondage to Persia, to Greece, to Rome, to sin. She is telling everyone within earshot about the child – the child who is born to be light to the world. Perhaps this should really be called The Feast of the Old People – Old People who see and help us to see that God is in the midst of us, that God is here, now, right where we are.
Now we are here this evening. The Hasidic Jewish understanding of scripture is that it is true for all persons at all times in all places. That is, this story is about us. We are a part of that same crowd, straining to catch a glimpse of the light - holding the light in our own hands, if only for a moment. As it was for Simeon, a moment will have to be long enough.
In Connecticut we lived next door to an old man - Em Tramposch. He had devoted his life to propagating life with his hands: he was a nurseryman. From his fingers new life seemingly would spring forth every day. He had a deep sense of where that life came from. You could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice, but most of all you could see it in his hands.
We would spend days and nights in his greenhouse, watching his hands work: cutting, dipping and planting cuttings, listening to what he had to say about the economy, politics and listening to the greatest hits of Patsy Kline. For the last four years we were there Em had cancer. Some days were better than others, some not so good at all, but nearly every day he was in the greenhouse propagating life.
One summer he became bed-ridden. Jane, his wife, found ways with her camcorder to let him see every day what was happening down in the greenhouse. Each day like Simeon and Anna he waited and watched.
That August, Cerny was born. We brought her home. Her first day out of the house, we wheeled her in the pram right into the living room, right up to the side of Em’s hospital bed.
At the sight of the newborn baby, without a word, Em pulled together what little strength he had left, and held his arms up in the air. He wanted to hold her. We put her in his arms, and he held her by his side. For ten or fifteen minutes she slept cradled in his arms, Jane sitting beside him. He watched. He looked at the baby. It gave him life and light to hold her in his arms.
It was a picture of life coming in and life going out. But mostly it was a vision of life and light. As it turned out Em, like Simeon before him, was released, and died only a few days later.
We come together as what can be called “a gathering darkness” casts a shadow over the whole land. Like Mary and Joseph we come to remember our past and God’s saving actions, to renew our commitment to our God, and like Simeon and Em, to catch a glimpse of the light so we can tell others what we have seen. We come to remind ourselves that our God does indeed keep his promises! We come so that like the boy who was born to be a light, we too can become a light for others - so that we can be propagators of light and life for the whole world.
We have now only a moment to catch that glimpse and then live accordingly. If only for a moment, it is more than enough. Far more than enough to become the light that we carry, the light that we hold in our hands. The light that holds us in God’s hands.