This child is destined for the falling and riding of many, and a sign that will be opposed.
Luke’s Gospel is full of encounters. He begins with a series of encounters. An older couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth and an angel. A teenage girl and an angel. The same girl, the same Elizabeth and an unborn baby - who leapt in the womb. Shepherds and a whole host of angels and a newborn baby. A young couple with their child and an encounter in the temple.
The encounters matter. They reveal God amongst us.
Candlemas is an Epiphany encounter. Truth is revealed.
It is also a pivotal moment. We take our last look at the Crib, we have our first glimpse of the Cross. Mary holds her son, and we foresee the time she shall hold his broken body taken down from crucifixion.
These are stories of contrast. The shepherds come and go, it is a brief encounter. One of the best books on funeral ministry was called just that. Brief Encounters.
I remember a mad old Canon telling a group of curates what the church was for. People come into churches, he said, ‘sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying’. We’re here to give them a glimpse of heaven. And then to let them go again. Brief encounters matter.
People come to our churches for all sorts of reasons. Christmas, a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Like the shepherds they come, they see, they hear, and then they are gone. What did they glimpse? What did they hear? God is in those brief encounters – just as he chose the shepherds, disreputable and untrustworthy, to be the first witnesses to Christ’s birth.
And then we have Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. William Barclay calls such people ‘The quiet in the land.’ People who aren’t interested in power or wealth or success or glory. People who just say their prayers and get on with life. Day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Anna and Simeon are in the temple daily – watching and waiting patiently, faithfully, diligently. The shepherds saw immediately. Anna and Simeon had to wait a lifetime. But wait they did – day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Different encounters – the same hope.
Some years ago, in a small room in a corner house, a group of teenage mums were playing with their babies, they were drinking tea and complaining about the price of baby milk. A grandma was serving biscuits and chucking the babies’ chins. She remembered her days as a young mum, during the war, when everything was rationed.
She asked the teenage girls why they didn’t breastfeed their babies – there was a silence. The mums looked at one another, then the bravest said – we don’t know how to.
So a group of grannies got together and they started a breastfeeding class – the next week the pavement outside was gridlocked with buggies. Teenage mums spread the word and the grannies rose to the occasion.
Our local doctor rang me. “I believe you’ve set up a breastfeeding class?” Well – not me personally. “How did you do it? We’ve been trying for years. We’ve spent thousands trying to do it.”
Ah – I said – what you need is granny power.
Luke’s telling of the story makes me think he took mums seriously. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, her meeting with Mary – two women divided by age but sharing a common expectation.
Gabriel’s visit to Mary – and I always have to ask – was Mary the first to be asked? How many other young women had Gabriel knelt before and waited? But their weddings were planned, their hopes set, their answer was no.
We don’t know if Mary was the first to be asked. Only that she was the first to say yes.
I cannot imagine that Anna did not take this child in her arms – Luke doesn’t say it – but young mums delight when someone cherishes their child. I can see Anna, whose soul had been pierced, holding Mary’s child - knowing what Mary’s heart would endure. When Mary stood at the foot of the cross I wonder if Anna’s face came before her.
Candlemas connects us with signs, God is amongst us, waiting to act – maybe in a moment, maybe over years. We don’t get to choose how, we just have to be ready to say yes when it happens.
Let the flame of your love never be quenched in our hearts, O Lord. Waking or sleeping, living or dying, let us delight in your presence. Let the flame of your love brighten our souls and illumine our path, and let the majesty of your glory be our joy, our life and our strength now and for ever. Amen Johann Arndt, 1555-1621
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