Boundless light upon light for all

Stephen Adam, 29 January 2017

Hebrews 2: 14–18; Luke 2: 22–40

Today we celebrate one of the great festivals of the church, variously known in the Book of Common Prayer as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in Common Worship as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It honours Mary and Joseph as a faithful Jewish family following the Mosaic Law rituals in visiting Jerusalem to present the infant in the temple, 40 days after his birth. It’s also known by the ancient title of Candlemas, reflecting Simeon’s words hailing Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ and the widespread use of candles in churches throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons to celebrate the True Light and to honour Mary as the Mother of Light.

The Holy Family’s encounter with Simeon and Anna, and Simeon’s words, which we know as the Nunc Dimittis, have inspired composers and musicians, poets and painters through the ages. The Nunc Dimittis has been part of the church’s worship since at least the fourth century; and this was a favourite subject for Rembrandt, who returned to it repeatedly in drawings, etchings and paintings.

It was the subject of Rembrandt’s last great masterpiece, on his easel unfinished at his death in 1669. I’d like to reflect for a moment on that painting. Simeon is depicted as an old man, pious, ready to die, his eyes rheumy as he cradles the infant in his hands, almost as if he is praying. The focus is entirely on this encounter, Mary an indistinct figure in the background.

In our gospel account Luke doesn’t say how old Simeon is, but perhaps because of the power of Rembrandt’s portrayal we usually think of him as an old man. In his poem ‘A Song for Simeon’, T. S. Eliot pictures a winter scene, in the ‘stubborn season’:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.

If we’re to understand the painting we need to understand Rembrandt’s own context as his life ebbed away. He was old and debt-ridden; he was in poor health; both his wives from his two marriages were dead and all his children, save one son, Titus (who himself would die just a few months before Rembrandt).

The art critic John Durham writes of how Rembrandt constantly inserts himself into the Bible stories he portrays: ‘The Bible, for Rembrandt, was ultimately about him. In its stories he recognised himself’.

In his depressed state does Rembrandt, too, long for that same inner peace which Simeon finds as he encounters the Christ child? Rembrandt left the painting unfinished for months – was he confronting a mystery so great that the only response (and perhaps ours too) is simply awe? As Rembrandt approached death, was he touched by Simeon’s vision of hope and faith?

It was not given to Simeon to see the closing act of this cosmic drama of the incarnation, but he had the confidence and trust to let go. As we look at Simeon, it’s a reminder that our own lives, too, are only fragments, that we are small parts in the ongoing story of humanity’s life with God. These words of Rabindranath Tagore, often used at funerals, apply precisely to Simeon:

Death is not the extinguishing of light, but the putting out of the lamp because the dawn has come.

Simeon’s role in the drama had been to be the Lord’s watchman, and with the presentation of the infant in the temple his assignment is complete. He can go in peace, not ‘rage, raging against the dying of the night’, as Dylan Thomas would have it, but going gently, confident of God’s abiding love and care.

Do we, too, long like Simeon – and Rembrandt, and countless others through the ages – for that inner peace which comes from encountering the Christ child?

One of the great themes of Candlemas is noticing, seeing, observing. Simeon makes the affirmation, ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’.

He sees something very special in the child. This is no fading, passing light, but boundless light upon light for all. At the heart of the Epiphany season is a universal message – not just for the Jews, but for Gentiles, foreigners, the unclean, the despised, the ignored, the rejected, the forgotten, not just in first-century Palestine but for all people and for all time.

At the heart of the Epiphany season is a universal message – not just for the Jews, but for Gentiles, foreigners, the unclean, the despised, the ignored, the rejected, the forgotten, not just in first-century Palestine but for all people and for all time.

Luke’s inclusive vision and understanding of the gospel he presents is breathtaking in its scope – it’s a gospel universal in its reach, calling people home to their creator.

Simeon sees the character of God in this frail, vulnerable child, entirely dependent on his mother, a child ‘as yet conscious of nothing and blowing drowsy bubbles’. Rembrandt portrays the child realistically – this is real flesh and blood, something emphasised in our reading from Hebrews: ‘He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect’.

This for me is one of the key reasons why I am persuaded of the claims of Christianity – it’s the sheer earthiness of the faith, how it’s grounded. Our vision of God is not as some sort of distant, detached deity as the ancient Greeks imagined, content to lob occasional thunderbolts in our direction; but a God intimately involved in his creation, and in the person of his Son sharing in our joys, rejoicing in our humanity, and, yes, sharing in our pain.

Mary has come to the Jerusalem temple to make the sacrifice required by law – in her case, the sacrifice asked of the poor, ‘a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons’. But one day that baby will be the fulfilment of all sacrifice.

Simeon has a premonition of all that lies ahead as he utters those strange words of how ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too’. Is it heretical for me to suggest that Simeon might equally be addressing these words to God, who one day will surely weep and share Mary’s grief at the costliness of this divine rescue mission?

What did Mary make of this strange encounter with the prophetic figure of Simeon and the weird, eccentric Anna, who has spent 60 years as a widow fasting and praying every day, yet never ceasing to hope? Mary must have gone home puzzled, embarrassed, and perhaps full of foreboding.

You see, Candlemas has this bittersweet feel – light, glory, beauty and hope are all central to our celebration, but all are sensed within a canopy of enveloping darkness.

Some words of T. S. Eliot again as he focuses with Simeon on the impending darkness:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

In those lines Eliot notes the irony of this child without language being the Word, the eternal Word not yet being able to speak a word.

Eliot notes the irony of this child without language being the Word, the eternal Word not yet being able to speak a word.

And so we return to Rembrandt’s portrayal of the scene, Simeon holding the baby; his hands are praying hands, conveying an atmosphere of sacred solemnity.

The infant’s tiny hands, now clenched, are an icon of human love – hands that will reach out in dependency to Mary, hands that one day will point to Andrew and the other disciples inviting them to ‘come and see’, hands that one day will open in love and compassion to heal the sick and lame, hands that one day will bear the imprint of nails with splinters of wood tearing into the flesh – human sin destroying this perfectly formed life.

The Catholic priest Patrick Comerford has written of how this scene is almost Eucharistic, Simeon holding in his hands the body of Christ, and seeing the child as he truly is, the Saviour.

Just as one day Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus will hold Christ as they take him down from the cross, and just as we do as we open our hands to receive the Eucharist, ‘This is my body broken for you’, so Simeon becomes a bearer of the body of Christ as he holds the child in his hands, and in so doing he becomes – like us – part of the body of Christ at one and the same time.

Candlemas, then, is a hinge or pivot point. We look back with joy to the incarnation, but Simeon’s warning also points to the hard way ahead leading to Gethsemane. It’s a way we too will walk as this feast we celebrate today closes the Christmas and Epiphany season, and after a brief period of Ordinary Time we move into Lent and look to the events of Holy Week and Easter.

But for now, today, we are left with a sign of hope in a troubled, bruised and broken world – the image of an old man and a child. It’s a reminder that God’s redeeming purpose is worked out not in naked power or force, but in a child cradled in an old man’s arms, a child frail, vulnerable and dependent.

In our ongoing discipleship may each of us be blessed with the obedience of Mary, the patience of Simeon and the faithfulness of Anna. Amen.