Candlemas 2008

Parish Communion, St Mary's Church, Barton-on-Humber
Sunday 3 February 2008 at 09:30 (Candlemas)
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Written and delivered by Vivienne Rowett

When a certain clerical friend in Ireland heard that I was to give an address at church on the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, he asked me what I was going to talk about.
'I'm thinking of concentrating on Anna and Simeon,' I said. 'The church is full of older people, and we need to hear it for them - to celebrate the contribution of the older generation in keeping various ships afloat.'
My friend lectured for over two decades at Trinity College, Dublin, and in his time there was a noticeable decline in student attendance at chapel, with the result that... Well, the poem he sent me by e-mail expresses it best of all:
College Chapel's getting old
(We named it for the Trinity);
Alas, the Truth has to be told,
It isn't what it used to be.

Where formerly in ordered Ranks
The College hymned the Three-In-One,
Now scarce a dozen Students doze
(Awake, my Soul, and with the Sun!).

Perhaps 't would be appropriate
As in old Age we stumble on
Our Chapel to re-dedicate
To Anna, and Saint Simeon.
There seem to be few churches, if any in this country, dedicated to Anna and Simeon; perhaps we now need more.
An article in The Guardian newspaper the other day quoted research which seemed to show that, far from being a time of life that we should all dread, there are also many ways in which happiness may actually increase past the age of about 45. We know where we are going by then - or where we are NOT going, and we may have begun to come to terms with it and to enjoy life as it is.
So when we turn to today's story from the gospel of Luke, we see two old people who seem to show that this is true. Anna is 84 years old, having spent most of her life as a widow. She is a fixture at the Temple, there night and day. Her response to Jesus's arrival is to praise God and to speak of him to the crowd who were 'looking for the redemption of Jerusalem', though we are not told her words. A woman of spirit and presence; we might say, 'with attitude!'
Simeon too seems to be elderly, having been told he will not die until he has seen the Messiah, and we get the impression he has been waiting a long time. Both seem fully in possession of what we might call their marbles; they are communicators: Simeon is capable of holding a 40 day old child without dropping him, and when he has him in his arms he praises God, and outlines his vision for the future in which this child will play a pivotal role, blesses the little family before him, and warns Mary that her life will not be easy.
Mary and Joseph were there for the usual reasons for parents at that time, 40 days after a birth - it was believed that a woman needed to be purified, achieved by the offering of a sacrifice, the two doves. Also they were 'redeeming the firstborn' as stipulated in the book of Exodus, an ancient custom that would need a separate address to begin to understand. Luke may want us to think also of the dedication of the prophet Samuel as a boy in the Temple.
So at one level we have a happy family scene with five main players: Joseph, Anna, Mary, Jesus and Simeon, and you can see these characters, in that order from left to right, in the picture that has kindly been painted specially for the occasion by Adrian Worsfold, which is based on an original in that outstanding Lincolnshire treasure, the Luttrell Psalter. You may wish to go and examine the facsimile - an exact copy - of that at the end of the service. It is a book of psalms, produced in the 14th century, and in its margins we have many depictions of scenes from the life of Jesus, including this one, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
Adrian's picture is not exactly like the Luttrell Psalter version - he has done what we must all do, which is to think himself into the picture and make this gospel story his own - notice the supermarket basket in which Joseph is carrying the doves, for example! And also the various other extras which you can ask Adrian about after the service, which bear witness to aspects of Adrian's spiritual journey.
So Adrian's painting is not an exact representation of the story in Luke. And the Luttrell Psalter itself contains elements not mentioned in Luke's story. Simeon is shown reaching out to receive Jesus, with a large cloth covering his hands.
This use of a cloth would remind people in the 14th century of the cloth draped over the hands of the deacon, when he reached out to receive the gospel book to be read during the Eucharist.
Another thing to notice about the cloth is that it is exactly the same kind of cloth as in the clothes that Mary is wearing.
I think there is a message for us here from a Lincolnshire artist of long ago. We - the church, and as individuals - can think of ourselves as being like Simeon and Anna. We hear a gospel book read to us at least every week in the Eucharist. This is one of the ways we receive Jesus, and today - unlike in the 14th century - we can all have the gospel stories readily available to us in our own homes. And in being like Simeon, we are also being like Mary, as he was being like Mary - his action is cut from the same cloth as her action is, in receiving Jesus into her own body as we do in this service, caring for him and presenting him to the world to do what it wants with him.
Is this not one way to sum up the Christian life? We receive Jesus, and we present him - re-present him - to the world.
But we must not forget Anna's theme. She tells of Jesus' redemptive power. What might this mean, in plain language today? We see ourselves as a redeemed people, like the people who came out of Egypt, a people set free. What is this freedom?
Perhaps as one who has been a church member for decades, I am not the best person to answer this because I have known myself to be 'redeemed' for so long, I can hardly conceive of its opposite. But just imagine, you who are also in this position - and I think newer Christians will know what I mean too - imagine that you do not go to church, or pray, or read the Bible, or sing hymns; you live completely in 'this world', a world where undoubtedly there are many good and wholesome pleasures to be had as well as sufferings and disappointments.
But if I did not feel also to be part of Christ, I should feel to be living my life in black and white instead of in glorious colour; sometimes the colours are grey and muted, sometimes full of shadows; but then there are the deep and vivid colours which tell us that we are fully alive, even when there is pain. This is the only testimony I can offer - this is redemption as I experience it; life in colour, courtesy of Jesus Christ. This is the foretaste of heaven that Jesus Christ offers to us all.


Candlemas Painting


Vivienne Rowett (web page by Adrian Worsfold)