Sunday 29 January 2023
Readings: Malachi 3:1-5; Psalm 24:1-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles.
I don’t know about you, but as a child I was afraid of the dark. It’s not that unusual, I think. I remember having to have the landing light kept on in order for me to go to sleep – just that dim glow chased my night fears away and gave me comfort, made me feel safe, and allowed me to rest in peace – Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart into sleep, in peace – But also, it lit up the dark corners, allowing me to see what was there – usually the messiness of my room, everything shoved to the side, hidden: if I couldn’t find my school tie it would be under the mess in the corner, in the dark. I needed that light to lighten my darkness.
I wonder if that is why I have always loved the nunc dimittis. Because of its call for peaceful rest. But for Simeon it was more than the peace of a good death, it came with the reassurance of the fulfilment of the hope of the promises of God, that God would send the Messiah. And this is what he sees that day in the Temple.: Jesus, the promised Messiah, is revealed to him and at last he can be at peace knowing that God has kept his promise, will always keep his promise. This is what the presentation in the temple is about, God keeping his promises. We can trust him, and therefore we can be at peace. God is with us. We can believe and trust in him because Jesus is here.
But there is more in this story. The nunc also speaks of Light, a recurring theme since Advent. There is a line in Malcolm Guite’s poem Candlemas: Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright. Jesus, in the two meetings during his presentation in the temple, is revealed as the light to lighten the darkness. A brightness who kindles a flame to lighten the dark and take all fear away. In the words of a Taizé chant: our darkness is never darkness in your sight, the deepest night is clear as the daylight. The infant Jesus is revealed as the light of hope in the world, bringing peace to us and to the world. Bringing a sense of safety, of being held in the hands of God through our darkest times – and who hasn’t experienced dark times. In Jesus we see that God is with us, has been through darkness and pain, and has come through that.
As the Hebrews reading states: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Jesus, God, promised to be with his people, and in the Temple that promise comes true, is made flesh. And through the coming of Christ into the world, through Christ’s life, ministry and death, God knows what it is like to be human, to be us, God knows what the world is like, how it can feel dark, dangerous: he suffered and is therefore able to help those who suffer. Jesus encountered danger and fear throughout his life, from the threats at his birth through to his death on the cross at the hands of humanity. As Bishop Lane explains, his journey was one of “discomfort, loss and death”, but through it we know he understands, has walked the same paths as ourselves and will walk with us through our own darkness, bringing light to illuminate our paths.
Jesus is the light that fulfils God’s promises and brings us hope and strength in our hour of need. But, like my light on the landing, that light also illuminates our lives, our hearts and thoughts. The prayer of preparation makes this clear: “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden.” No secrets are hidden! When I say those words at the beginning of the service, just before the confession, it does make me stop and think. Like my tie in the corner of the room, I cannot hide my thoughts and desires in darkness, when the light shines, they are seen, so our thoughts and desires are brought to light by God, by Jesus. Jesus brings light to darkness – to our darkness, and to the darkness in the world. Nothing is hidden. As Malachi puts it: “but who may endure the day of his coming?” All those acts and thoughts that we bring before God in our confession are known already. God also sees the actions in the world that bring darkness, that run counter to his will: the injustices meted out to those less fortunate, to those shoved aside, seen as unworthy in our eyes. Those who like us are children of God, made in God’s image, but whose humanity and Godliness are ignored or actively removed. And it is for us bring light of Christ into that darkness. Because only then can God purify our thoughts and actions, and we can turn, and with God’s help, do the right thing. Then through us God can bring the light of justice and compassion into those dark corners of the world.
Malachi was speaking about the way God’s people had turned away from God’s will and were oppressing the powerless and marginalised. Such injustice “shatters the quality of life of the community”, it is not God’s ways. The people were walking in darkness and needed to be brought into the light of God’s promises for all. And in our society today there are many who are persecuted, whose humanity is denied, whose rights are undermined. Jesus, through us, can illuminate those dark areas in our world and bring to light the injustices. Through Christ’s presence with us we are tasked by God to bring the light into those dark places, to respond with compassion and bring justice to those who suffer: to be the light that lightens the Gentiles for those who are alienated, abused or whom society leaves behind. Rowan Williams pictures God as the infant in Simeon’s arms calling out our compassion and tenderness through his insistent presence. And so we acknowledge our own weaknesses, bring them into the light, seek forgiveness and then take up God’s call to bring light to the world, to those who are walking in the darkness of fear and injustice. Like Simeon we must see God, see Jesus in our lives, in the world around us, and respond with God’s love and compassion.
So, in the birth of Jesus God turns the light on. We see God revealed to us and his promise fulfilled: God is with us. It is through this revealed presence in the world that we are given hope in our darkness, and which brings hope to others living in darkness: Jesus lived among us, suffered as one of us, and identifies with us in our suffering and struggles. This is the revelation of the generosity of God to those made in God’s image. And this revelation of God’s love and generosity gives us strength and comfort in our times of darkness and allows us to act generously and lovingly to others experiencing darkness: those in need, who mourn, struggle to be heard, to be seen, who are lonely, ignored, rejected. Because Jesus is here, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. I finish with more words from Guite’s poem:
“They come at last with us to Candlemas
And keep the day the prophecies came true
We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,
The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.
For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,
Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.”
Against all dark, our Saviour’s face is bright.
Reverend Jackie Sellin, Assistant Chaplain
• Bishop Libby Lane: “A Good Epiphany” in Mark Oakley ed. (2016) “A Good Year” SPCK
• Louis Stuhlman, Hyun Chul Paul Kim (2010) « You ARE My People” Abingdon Press
• Rowan Williams (1994) “Open to Judgement” DLT chapter 6.