Today we anticipate for pastoral reasons, linked to Education Sunday, what the Prayer Book calls the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This festival which we are allowed to transfer from its set day of 2nd February, celebrates the baby Jesus being taken to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth to complete Mary's ritual purification after childbirth, and to perform the redemption of the firstborn, in obedience to the Law of Moses which indicates this should take place forty days after birth for a male child, hence the Presentation is properly celebrated forty days after Christmas.
Upon bringing Jesus into the temple, the family encounter Simeon. The Gospel records Simeon had been promised "he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (Luke 2:26). Simeon prays the prayer we now use at evensong or compline that’s known as the Nunc Dimittis, or Canticle of Simeon, prophesying the redemption of the world by Jesus:
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 people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).
In addition to being known as the Purification of Mary or Presentation of Christ another traditional name for today is Candlemas referring to the practice whereby later on this morning the priest blesses candles in a place apart from Church – the school in our case - for a re-enactment of Christ’s entry into the Temple, symbolised by our Church building.
As we bless the candles we’ll be singing the Nunc Dimittis which contains Simeon’s prophecy that Christ’s salvations is to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.
All celebrations of the events which have brought us salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Christ are given so we may apply them to our lives. Just as each eucharist recalls Christ’s death and resurrection so we die further to sin and rise more to the life of the Spirit so the church’s calendar of feasts is given us to engage with the historical events to find truth to imitate and fresh hope.
As one ancient prayer used in contemplating today’s mystery of the Presentation puts it grant that we may imitate what it contains and obtain what it promises.
What truth is there to imitate in this morning’s celebration? We find a well expressed truth to take to heart in the Collect which prayed: as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in substance of our flesh, so (may we) be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts. In other words help us to be presentable. Just as on Friday night I searched out a bit of tartan to make me presentable at our Burns Night so our being presentable before God requires a discipline of self-examination to make sure we come to his altar with pure and clean hearts.
What promise is there for us to obtain in this celebration? I would say that the ceremonial entry into Church we’ll enact later on anticipates our entry through the gates of heaven into paradise, into the house of the Lord. Our Anglican funeral liturgy encourages the recitation of those words of the Nunc Dimittis in today’s Gospel: Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.
Like Simeon we see in Jesus one who removes the fear of death and promises perpetual light to his family as they travel forward in his light to their fulfilment in the house of the Lord together and forever.
I end with a beautiful prayer of John Donne, sixteenth century Dean of St Paul’s some of you may know: Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end.