Thursday, January 30, 2014

There is Power in the Light

Presentation of the Lord

The party’s over! Or has it just begun? Today the Church celebrates the Presentation of the Lord which occurs forty days after the birth of Jesus. According to Jewish Law, a mother who has recently delivered her child, has to come to the Temple to undergo the ritual of purification and present her first born son forty days after his birth. Thus, this Feast goes by two names: The Presentation of Our Lord at the Temple, and the Purification of Mary. It was also commonly known as Candlemas as you had already witnessed candles were traditionally blessed on this day. This Feast also marks an ending. According to the old liturgical calendar, this day marks the end of the Christmas season, time to turn off the Christmas lights, take down that old Christmas tree and put away all our Christmas decorations.

But this feast also has a third name; the Feast of the Encounter, commemorating the encounter of the Holy Family with the devout old man Simeon and the prophetess Anna in the Temple. Blinded by old age and having experienced long hours of prayer in the shadowy precinct of the Temple, Simeon was keenly aware that the light of his vision and that of his life, already dimmed, would soon go out. But as Simeon would demonstrate, a whole world awaits us when you turn off the lights. Simeon awakens to new hope.  Life begins to stir at the end of a spiritual or emotional winter when the end is in sight. For Simeon, this was an ending that promised a new beginning. This end is exactly what he has been waiting for. He had invested all his years in the Jewish way of life, and yet now he embraced its passing. It’s more like the conclusion of an extended Advent - the sight of that little group in the Temple, one family among so many others, is the answer to a life-time’s waiting and prayer. It’s a poignant scene: Mary brings her newborn to the Temple, and this old man, probably all but blind physically, somehow has the spiritual sight to see something - some scrap of hope for the future - in this forty-day-old child.  

On seeing the child, he rejoices and burst into song. The song that he sings after that encounter is called in Latin, the Nunc Dimittis after the first few words: “At last, all-powerful Master …” and it’s been sung for centuries the world over at our night prayer. The Canticle explains the reason for his overwhelming joy at this encounter, “For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all nations, the light to enlighten the Gentiles and give glory to Israel, your people.” The light which Simeon sings of is none other than Christ who came to ransom us while we were still slaves, to lead us from the prison of darkness into the freedom of the children of light. The theme of ‘light’ has inspired the birth of the procession of lighted candles that marked the start of our celebrations. St Sophronius puts it this way, “Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendour of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.”

Today we witness once again the interplay of shadow and light. In fact, shadow and light are the reality of our lives and our world. We could all tell a story of what it was like to live in the shadowy places. Sometimes we go there by our own choices or actions and other times as a result of someone else’s action or simply through the circumstances of life. Sometimes we hide in the darkness avoiding the light because of our shame or guilt. We presume that the shadows will conceal the cause of our shame. Other times we live in the night of fear not knowing what will come next or how we will handle it. There is s sense of powerlessness and life seems out of control. There are those times when the black hole of sorrow and grief sucks out the life and the light of our world and we seem unable to escape the darkness. Sometimes we experience the darkness of ignorance and confusion. We are blind to our own identity, lost on the path of life, seemingly without meaning or direction. And then there is the darkness of our larger world and society, the bleak and uncertain future, the injustice we constantly witness, the insurmountable problems that beset us. 

But as Simeon would discover, there is a light which no darkness can keep out, there is a light which the darkness cannot defeat, there is a light which persist to shine in the darkness. No matter how large the shadows or how dark the night the light is still present. It was symbolised today by our candlelit procession. That little flickering flame you carried was the reminder that Christ – “a light to enlighten the Gentiles” – is with you. Even when we extinguished our candles the light did not go away. It is within you and it always has been, always will be. How do we know this to be true? Simeon stands as witness. Yes, Simeon was blind. Yes, Simeon saw salvation. But he did not see with physical eyes. He saw with the eyes of faith. Simeon experienced an inner seeing, he sees with the ‘light’ which ‘enlightens’.

Something happens when we encounter the light. There is power in this light. It is a light which conquers the darkness. Wherever there is the least bit of light, darkness is forced to flee.  You can be in the darkest place imaginable and just a tiny match, when lit, has the power to drive away all that black, oppressive darkness.  When life loses its lustre, when drudgery makes the going painful and slow, this light can colour the drabness. Without light, our world would be dark and it would be drab. There would be no colour. But with light, a dreary world becomes brighter, and even the coldest chill will thaw. The light also gives life and thus is the enemy of death.  God uses the light of our witness and testimony to warm the dead sinner’s heart and to draw them to Jesus for salvation. Our light, which is really His light being reflected by us, is a means of bringing the life of Heaven to the dead ones on earth. And then there is the light which brings order to chaos – a light which sets everything right, in its proper place and order.

But that Light and that Illumination also proves revelatory. They reveal mercy and forgiveness in the shadows of guilt and shame, presence and courage in the night of fear, compassion and hope in the black holes of sorrow and loss, a way forward in the blindness of ignorance and confusion, and life in the darkness of death. The flame of God’s love consumes the darkness, fills us, and frees us to go in peace just as God promised. But every revelation is also a bittersweet reality. Truths, often painful truth, which lie hidden, are unearthed. God’s salvation will be costly, not only for Jesus, but also for those who love him. So, instead of offering Mary congratulations on her fine son, Simeon greets her with words of mystery and foreboding, and prophesies that a “sword shall pierce” her heart. This prophecy does not only reveal the suffering which the mother must endure, but also provides a glimpse of what is to become of the Son. In the light which enlightens, we see the silhouette of the cross.  But it is in the cross, that Christians will behold their brightest light – the light of the resurrection, God’s final victory over death, sin and darkness!

And that is God’s promise to us on Candlemas Day: that whatever we’re going through, light and hope will win out in the end. In the Northern hemisphere winter isn’t over, and we still have the long season of Lent ahead before we reach the spring and then Easter, but for now we have this service and these candles to remind us of God’s promise to see us through the darkness and lead us into light. Then, we will see the Church filled with the light of our candles. But even now, we can say with certainty, we have seen salvation and Simeon’s song has now become ours too.

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