Candles for All
Feast of the Presentation
2 Feb 2020
I really like the alternate name for this feast day: Candlemas. In a world that is always upside down and topsy turvy, we celebrate light in the middle of our winter, our time of darkness and cold in the Northern hemisphere. I don’t know for sure where or why the celebration and blessing of candles first occurred, but it so fits with the story of the day. We certainly celebrate Jesus as the light of the world and the light of our lives; blessing candles that provided the only light at night for many folks seems like a wonderful idea to me: The Light of the World.
This is also a day to serve pancakes; whatever the origin of the tradition, the colorful pancakes, round and gold, remind people of the sun and the coming spring with abundant warmth and light.
But I digress. There are darker origins to this story. There was a time in Israel’s history when human sacrifice was, or at least may have been, practiced. The first born male, be it human or animal, was dedicated to God. And dedicated meant killed as a sacrifice. At some point the idea of redemption became the norm: the child was spared death by the sacrifice of an animal, or animals. Substitutionary atonement, if you will. Still a very dark thing.
Jesus is brought to the temple so that the ancient rite may be completed. We here of this only in Luke and, to the early hearers of this story, they would have recognized that Jesus and his family were poor, for their sacrifice was the least costly that could be made. The son of God is presented as one of the poor and lowly, a poor Jew in first century Palestine.
Isn’t it interesting that it is not any of the temple clergy, the priests, who recognize just who Jesus is? Simeon is a “righteous and devout man” who was told by the Spirit to go to the temple that day; he was to see the savior of his people before he died. Anna was a prophet devoted to the worship of God. To both are revealed the nature and identity of Jesus. No matter how many times you read that passage you will not find that the nature and destiny of Jesus were revealed to anyone important by that standards of the day and, I might say, the standards of our own day.
God in human form was to be marginalized and to be with the marginalized. The light of the world was there for all to see, but not all could or would see.
It should come as no surprise that this story is in the Gospel of Luke; after all is it not Luke who penned the subversive Magnificat, conveniently ignored by so many who wish to place Mary on some sort of pedestal when she was rightfully at the head of an army.
We tend to think of a sanitized version of this feast day and ignore the underlying message. It is a warning to the rich and privileged and a call to those who are marginalized. The message of the Gospel is not hell-fire and damnation. The message is not about personal behavior. Were that the case the reading for today would stress the role of the priests and how Joseph and Mary fulfilled their duties. There would be no Simeon and no Anna. Yes, Jesus was a very good Jew as were Joseph and Mary, but the story was about far more than pointing out just how wonderfully Jewish his parents were and just how devout they were.
Howard Thurman, an African American mystic and theologian, saw very deeply what the Gospel was and what he saw was a message not of armed struggle of the oppressed but a message for the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed, those with “their backs against the wall.” While he was writing form his own experience, as a African American male who undoubtedly knew what it meant to have your back against the wall, the message was and is universal. Jesus is not the savior of the rich and famous, unless they understand the Gospel as did Zacchaeus. He is not the avenger in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. He did not come as the morality judge. He came as the God of the least of us, Emmanuel, God is with us.
The alternate readings for 4th Epiphany find Micah thundering about doling justice and the chief duty of all people and Matthew preaching that doing justice is the way in which we are blessed.
Do you feel satisfied with your lives or do you still find a hunger inside? Dare I ask if you are happy? Truly happy? Truly happy does not mean that all is going well in your life; it most certainly does not mean you are rich and famous. If you are living a life that is Christlike, you will under-stand that deep internal happiness.
In fact, people that are truly happy are often those in danger because of their deeds or their words. Happiness is when you understand what it is to be in right relation to God and set your life and work in that direction. In that sense, I am not yet happy because I have a long way to go to reach that state; yet I am at peace because I know that God is on the side of the disinherited, the poor, and the dispossessed. Just as Thurman said; just as Malachi and Micah said, and just as Simeon and Anna said. Someone said that those who seek God must at some point meet Jesus.
The entire trajectory of Jesus’ life is towards that goal. Jesus, among so many things that he taught us and gave to us, was that no one, not one single human being, should give in to fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, or as Thurman said, the three hounds of hell.
It is so easy for us to dismiss Jesus’ real message and hide in ritual and belief. But Simeon saw that it was not orthodoxy that Jesus brought to us; it was the seemingly radical idea that God was now one of us. Look at the world through the eyes of Simeon and Anna. Not everyone could see, or would see, what Jesus was all about. He was good news for the poor and marginalized in his own day and a threat to those who felt that should hold and keep earthly power and wealth. But even more, I think the Gospel today brings to us hope.
I am white and, just by virtue of being white, privileged in so many ways. All of us sitting here today are among the richest people on the planet. God loves us, not because we are white and wealthy, not even because we take care of our family and friends and give to charities. God loves us simply because we exist, and the profoundly difficult message of the Gospel is that we are to do likewise. Anna and Simeon saw that; not even Jesus’ parents saw who and what he was, at least not that day.
I try to picture myself standing in the temple that day. What would I have thought about the commotion? Sadly, I imagine I would not have had eyes to see and ears to hear. I would have been blind to what was happening.
That is what I do not want for any of us, as individuals and as families and as a community gathered. Let our rituals be because we are glad and want to praise God. But let us rise from the table and know that our work is in the world, making it a place where there are no disinherited, no dispossessed, and no poor and where people all understand they are worthy children of the same God.
Go looking for God, but make sure you meet Jesus along the way. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.
My charge to all of you this week is to go and find Jesus. This is not a scavenger hunt, for you will find him in plain sight, in those you see everyday
. Once you see him, you will never forget him.