To Be a Light, Candlemas – 2002
February 02, 2002
Whether it is of the day or of life itself, evening time is the time of recollection. To recollect oneself means to gather oneself up into meditation. We have here and now only a moment for this. That is enough. But first: the story.
It began forty days ago when the baby was born: the boy who was born to be a light. Or maybe it began when the angel first told Mary of her special calling; or during the reign of King David; or when our people were slaves in Egypt; or when our ancestor Abraham set out from his home town of Ur on the Chaldes to become the father of more than all the stars in the heavens and all the grains of sand on the seashore-to be a blessing to all the peoples of God’s creation.
Whenever we choose to begin the story, it is fraught with difficulties from the very beginning. Yet Mary and Joseph managed to rise above the uncertainties. They traveled to Jerusalem to face further public embarrassment. It was the custom to dedicate the first son to God forty days after his birth; to offer a sacrifice at the Temple to redeem the child. They did so to remind themselves that their child belonged to God. It was a reminder that God has a genuine claim on the best we have to offer.
The required sacrifice was a lamb, but those too poor to buy a lamb could offer the lesser sacrifice of birds. The crowds in the Temple precincts would know who they were: bird people were poor people. The consolation may have been that they were not alone. Many people were out of work. The land was occupied by Rome. Taxes were high and the government was unstable. There was resistance to the state of things throughout the land. Common folk had trouble making ends meet. The lines in front of the pigeon sellers, it can be assumed, were probably very long.
Mary and Joseph were faithful to the custom of the forty days: the number of days and nights of the flood, the number of days this child would walk in the wilderness tempted by the devil, the number of years his people had wandered in the wilderness becoming God’s people in escaping from Egypt. The offering of these birds would be a memorial to all of the firstborn males ordered killed by Pharaoh in that first Holocaust — the one that only Moses survived.
The custom of forty days bound Mary and Joseph to their people and their past just as this Eucharist ties us to ours. They had come to make a sacrifice and a commitment — which are really the same thing. Every commitment comes with a cost. Little did they know the offering they were making — not only to God but for the whole world. Nor were they prepared for the old man they encountered.
Simeon had been praying and waiting, hoping and studying, waiting for God to reveal the light of the world. Simeon was an old man waiting to be released, waiting for his people to be released, waiting to see what we all hope to see but are too busy to remember to look for: a glimpse of the future, a glimpse of the truth, a glimpse of relief and release.
Simeon had, we can imagine, like so many of us, grown weary: weary of the Roman occupation; weary of failed policies and programs; weary of the failure of religious and political leaders; weary of being weary. Everything and everyone who had promised life only yielded weariness and death. So he was waiting for death and waiting to see if God really keeps promises.
The old man took the child out of Mary’s arms. Imagine that! “Who is he?” she must have wondered. “What is he doing with my child?” she must have thought.
Suddenly, Simeon became a poet for the ages: announcing for all who cared to listen and hear that the child he held was not Mary’s child, but God’s very own; a child born to be light; light for all peoples everywhere and throughout all time. Simeon had seen the light.
“Can you see it?” he cried out. “Here is the light which will withstand all darkness, any darkness, even death upon a Roman cross.” Then, quietly, Simeon handed the child back to his mother-and he is gone, released, God’s promise fulfilled. Simeon returns to God as the mother and father look on: Joseph with the birds in his hands, Mary with the child born to be a light. All of the other mothers and fathers gathered in the Temple were looking on.
Now we are here tonight, part of that same crowd straining to catch a glimpse of the light, holding the light in our own hands if only for a moment. As it was for Simeon, a moment will have to be long enough. Tonight as we gather in the darkness that always seems threatening and uninviting, like Mary and Joseph we come to remember our past and God’s saving actions. We come to renew our commitment to our God and, like Simeon, to catch a glimpse of the light so we can tell others what we have seen; so that we can feel the release; so that like the boy who was born to be a light, we, too, can become a light for others.
We have now only a moment to catch that glimpse, and then live accordingly. We hold the light of the Gospel in our hands, a sign of God’s holy Spirit of Love, which enlightens us and empowers us to reach out to one another and allow ourselves to be transformed and to reflect the light and life of God beyond the boundaries of our parish or congregation, our church, our community, and even our country.
If only for a moment, it is more than enough; far more than enough to become the light that we carry.
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