Jesus – The Light of the World

This is a special Sunday in the church year. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation or as it is more popularly known, Candlemas. Actually, it was yesterday – February 2nd but we are allowed to observe it on February 3rd , the following Sunday.
And this day has a rich and meaningful history not only in the church but in many different cultures and traditions around the world.

Its story origins we just heard in the gospel reading for today. Mary and Joseph, as faithful Jews, were obligated by Leviticus law to bring their first-born son to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth. They did so for two purposes – one was to present their first born male child to God as a special offering for God to use this child for his purposes, and if possible, to dedicate him to the service of God in the temple, as a messenger or prophet of God, or as a rabbi in the local synagogue. First born male children were special. And for the Jews, they were a symbol of the belief that God had spared the people of Israel by saving the lives of every first born male child prior to the Passover in Egypt. So, in one sense they were sacred and set apart. They generally inherited most of the family wealth if there was any but the obligations placed on them were serious and difficult – to be the head of the family someday – to be responsible for the care and well-being of the entire extended family and to make sure all women and younger brothers were properly married or taken care of in some way.

And so, like the wedding in Cana or Galilee and many other of Luke’s stories about the early years of Jesus, we get a glimpse into the life of Jewish people at that time.
And not only was the child presented to God in the temple, Mary, as a woman who had given birth a short time before, had to be ceremonially purified and restored to full and public status after a period of time in which she was ceremonially unclean and not allowed to mingle freely and socially with anyone except her immediate family. And so Mary and Joseph present a sacrifice of two young pigeons to show her full restoration to society. And life goes back to normal – or so they think. Except that all this is noticed by two people closely connected with the temple: Simeon and Anna, both prophets and both holy people who live in the temple full-time.

And they say the most amazing things. For Simeon, he is literally saying “Now I can die in peace – I have seen God’s anointed the one who is the salvation of his people and a light for people all over the world”, except he says it much more poetically. These are words so memorable that we used to repeat them in our service of Evening Prayer as one of the two canticles along with the Magnificat of Mary.
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
Some of you know this by heart. We sang in in Morrisburg during Evensong in December. We often repeat or sing it even today at a funeral as the deceased leaves the church for the last time.
And Anna also affirms that this baby is a special child, destined by God to redeem Israel.
Both these holy people recognize this child as the long-awaited Messiah of God.
And Mary and Joseph are amazed at what is being said about him.
And so they return to Nazareth and the child grows and becomes strong and is filled with wisdom and the favour of God. And I am sure Mary continued to think deeply about what the future might hold for all of them – and what sword – predicted by Simeon – might pierce her heart.

Again, we have only Luke’s gospel to thank for this story – just like the wedding in Cana – just like Jesus in the temple at the age of 12 – just like the whole story of his birth in Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds and wise men.
And we can only speculate as to how Luke, of all the gospel writers, had access to this very private information about Jesus. Did he really get all this from Mary later on? We don’t know for sure but who else could tell him.
But there is no doubt that this story of Jesus being presented in the temple captured the imagination of many in the church in the very earliest days. It is one of the oldest of the special services in the Christian church. Long before Christmas and December 25th was officially sanctioned, a pilgrim to the church in Jerusalem, a woman called Egeria, describes in detail a mass being held in the early 300s on this day in February to mark the occasion. And it involved everyone holding a candle to light the darkness and to read this story that we just heard, and to sing about Jesus being the light of the world. And it was a very special day. And later, when Christmas day was officially sanctioned in the Roman church, this day in early February marked the official end (40 days later) of the entire Christmas season.

And it is still a big deal in many parts of the world. In the Middle Ages, it was the day on which there was special blessing said over the candles to be used in the parish churches of Britain and many parts of Europe. And people would bring their own candles from home to be blessed as well – Hence, the popular name of Candlemas. And they read and heard the same gospel we have just heard today.

In French-speaking parts of Europe, people would serve crepes for dinner that night – round pancakes – golden in colour – symbols of the sun, warmth, spring, increased light coming into the world, and of Christ himself as the light of the world. And, in many homes, the women would flip the pancakes so that they done on both sides in the pan and a perfectly flipped pancake that landed back in the pan was a guarantee that the coming year would be one of prosperity and good luck and abundant crops and harvest.
And somehow, as time went on, we managed to transfer that little custom of pancakes to the evening before Ash Wednesday. So flip your pancakes this year to bring good luck to you and yours.

There is another custom traditionally associated with this story and that is something you probably heard about in the news yesterday – Groundhog Day. Yes, there is a Christian connection.

Years ago, the people of northern Europe, realizing that this day was exactly half-way through the Winter Solstice – December 21st – the darkest day of the year – and the Vernal Equinox – March 2st – a day of noticeable increased light and warmth – they began, on February 2nd, to look for light in the sky. More light meant less use of candles in church but less light meant all the candles had to be lit. And they measure the amount of light in the sky by watching any animals that were out to see if they had shadows. And the hedgehog was one of the most active that time of year. If the hedgehog had a shadow, it meant six more weeks of winter. If not, spring was coming early. When that tradition came to North America, no hedgehogs being native to this part of the world, early settlers used groundhogs.

Enter Wiarton Wille, Puxatawny Phil, Shubenacadie Sam and many other celebrities in the groundhog world. I gather, yesterday, there was some confusion among them all – some with shadows, some with not. So take your pick. I am personally voting for an early spring. I think we call are. Winter, so far, has been pretty brutal this year.

So Pancakes, groundhogs, solstice calendars, etc. notwithstanding, this is a significant moment in the life of the church year. We recognize Jesus not only as the light of Israel but the light of the whole world, regardless of local traditions and weather.
His life, death and resurrection – his teachings and acts of healing and compassion have brought light into the world in so many ways.

And as we leave here today, we carry that light with us out into the world – into our families – our daily lives – our encounters with others – our own acts of kindness, charity and compassion – which are the hallmarks and signs of those who follow Jesus. And if you do feel inspired to speak to someone about your faith and what it means to your life, don’t use the excuse of Jeremiah that we heard in the first reading today. God dismisses that one by saying, “It doesn’t matter. I will put the words in your mouth and tell you what to say.” It might be better to follow the words of Paul in the second reading where he argues that all the good deeds and intentions won’t matter a bit, everything we do and everything we say has to be rooted and founded in love. As he says, “If I do not have love, I have nothing.”

In a very real sense, we are a light to the world. And as the sun, in this part of the world, grows ever stronger and warmer, let us all resolve to live more fully in the light of Christ in our daily lives. That is our mission. To carry the light wherever we go and in whatever we do –Amen.

The Magi visit the infant Jesus

How many wise men were there? The answer is that we do not know. Matthew does not mention how many there were but tradition and time has decreed that there were probably three, since they brought three separate gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense and myrrh. And three, after all, is one of those perfect symbolic numbers which have such meaning in many cultures. Three persons in the holy trinity. Indeed, the number three is used in the Bible more 400 times and in many cases, it has symbolic as well as literal meaning. Jesus prayed three times in the garden of Gethsemane. Peter denied his Lord three times. Jesus was three days in the tomb before the resurrection.

So why not three kings? And indeed, as time went on as tradition began to add details around Matthew's basic story of the visit of the Magi, symbol piled up upon symbol. And the story expanded, both in detail and in meaning.
You will notice in Matthew's account (the only one of the gospels by the way) that he mentions that when they arrived in Bethlehem, they entered a house (oikos in Greek) not a stable, and only Mary was present, with the baby. We can assume from this that at least a few days had passed after the birth, long enough, at least, for Joseph and Mary to have found better accommodation.

Who were these three visitors? Matthew mentions only that they were from the “east”. And probably since they appear to be influenced by the appearance of the stars and the movement of the skies, they may have been followers, if not priests, of the cult of Zoroaster, a Persian prophet from that part of Persia which we today call Iran. Zoroastrianism, still practised today as a religion in certain parts of India, believes in the basic goodness of humankind but that humanity is led astray by forces of evil. It believes that we need to listen to the goodness in ourselves and look for the good in others and follow the teachings of those who show us the way of goodness and are our saviours both by example and by teaching. Sounds a bit like Jesus, does it not?

Why not be drawn by the stars to see a baby who is destined to be the saviour of his people, and not only his own people but those of the whole world?

But the Magi are more than seekers of truth and goodness. Gradually, the early church begins to see more and more meaning in the prophecies of Isaiah and to use those passages from Isaiah to convince converts that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And one of the passages they went to was the one we heard this morning from Isaiah: Listen to the prophet's words: “The Lord will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you.” A bit like the star that led them to Bethlehem. And then the next line: “Nations shall come to your light and Kings to the brightness of your dawn.” And then further on, “They will bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

And so the tradition began that these wise men, the magi, were also kings from the East, wealthy kings who opened their treasure chests to give gifts to the new born babe.

Symbolic gifts? You bet they were. This story is filled with symbolism.

Gold, a symbol of Kingship and power.

Frankincense – a symbol of diety – of the presence of God. A symbol of prayer and of holiness.

Myrrh (not mentioned by Isaiah) but a symbol of death, and of suffering and great pain. A symbol of sacrifice. One of the substances used to prepare a body for burial and life after death.

For hundreds of years, as the story is told and re-told, the details are expanded to give these three visitors from the east individual names and separate identities: Caspar, who presents the gold, is an old man from India. Melchior, a middle-aged man who brings the gift of frankincense, comes from Persia. Balthazar, a young dark-skinned man, is from Arabia and it is he who brings the myrrh.

The writer of the gospel of Matthew might be rightly astonished at how his basic story grew in the telling. And yet, the essential kernel of truth and wisdom contained in it remains intact.

This is Matthew's way of telling us that, although this baby is the long-awaited Messiah, the saviour of his people, he is also is meant to be the saviour of the world, Jew and Gentile alike. And this essential truth is even recognized by those who come from other lands, by those who have different understandings of the way God works to save us, by those whose differences are united in their common belief that this baby will be not only a king, but a great teacher and prophet and finally, will save humankind by offering himself as the ultimate sacrifice in which death is conquered once and for all. It's all there in the Matthew's story. The visit of the Magi has an ecumenical point to it.

Isaiah, among others, prophesied it. Matthew recognized how important this story of the visitors from another land really was, and subsequent generations told and re-told this important story, adding details and developing characters, yes, but leaving the essential story and its truths intact.

Someone who realized this was a 19th century Anglican clergyman from Philadelphia who was asked to write a song for a Christmas pageant in the early 1860s. John Henry Hopkins wrote not only the words for the song but the tune as well and the song was designed with verses to be sung by each of the three wise men, Kings, Magi, as solos with a chorus to be sung by all.

Listen to some of the words he wrote for each King in turn.

Gold – “Born a King on Bethlehem's plain. Gold I bring to crown him again”

Frankincense – “Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a deity nigh.”

Myrrh –“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”

And in the final stanza, they all sing; “Glorious now behold him arise: King, and God and Sacrifice.” A wonderful summing up of the babe as: “King, and God, and Sacrifice.” Rich with theological meaning.

Hopkins got the point of Matthew's story. So did another man called Henry van Dyke. Another American from Pennsylvania, but, this time, a Presbyterian who spent his life teaching English literature at Princeton University. He was also a writer and poet and you have sung some of his poetry in the form of Hymn #425 – Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee

But his most famous work was a short story published in 1895 under the title: “The Story of the Other Wise Man”. And it goes like this:

At the same time as the original three wise men saw the star in the heavens, it was also observed by another priest of the their land called Artaban and he resolved to go with them and see this child born to be King of the Jews. And he gathered three gifts of his own: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl of great price. On the way to meet up with the other three, he stops to help a dying man lying by the side of the road and his lateness causes him to miss the caravan of the other three. Lacking the necessary camels and materials to travel on his own, he sells one of his gifts, the Sapphire, to equip himself to cross the desert. He arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child as Mary and Joseph have already gone to Egypt but while there, he gives the second of his three gifts, the ruby to save the life of a child about to be killed by Herod's soldiers. He travels to Egypt searching for the holy family but never finding them, and becomes a pilgrim, performing acts of charity to all he meets. 33 years later, he arrives in Jerusalem just at the time of the crucifixion with only the pearl left in his possession. He sacrifices the pearl to save a young woman from being sold into slavery. An accident caused by the earth quake at the time of the crucifixion brings him close to death only to realize that although he has been searching for the Christ child all his life, he has actually found him many times every time he helped someone. He dies having fulfilled his dream.

The story of the wise men contains several profound truths. One of them is that the gospel of Christ is for everyone. As the writer of Ephesians says at the end of our second lesson; “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel”. And the wise men were the first of those Gentiles to recognize and follow Christ.

The second truth, and one which Henry Van Dyke showed us in the story of the fourth wise man, is that we meet Christ face-to-face all the time in everyone else, and in those whom we serve as if Christ himself.
And Matthew was the gospel writer who gave this wonderful truth in the following words of Jesus himself: (Matt 25: 40)

Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me.

Amen.