2 February – Bitter-sweet

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

(Luke 2.25-35)

He was like a bird, old Simeon, always alert, always on the look out, missing nothing, watching, ‘eyes in the back of his head’ they said. He was known by everyone, he’d been around so long and as he approached the Temple no one was surprised to see him. Taking in everything that was already happening, looking at who was there, he made his way through the courts. The traders were there with their turtle doves and pigeons, the tables of the money changers had been set out, the rate of exchange was being negotiated – just how much could they get out of the pilgrims that day.

Simeon carried on through this noisy, bustling scene, to a place where he always stopped, from where he could wait and watch. As T S Eliot writes in his poem ‘A Song for Simeon.

I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.

His faithful vigil continued, his life’s vigil

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners

Mary and Joseph arrive with their baby. It hasn’t been a long journey, though uphill, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. It was an amazing sight when they first saw the Temple, gleaming in the winter light and the people moving up and down the steps that led into the courts and ultimately to the heart of this sacred place, the Holy of Holies – but they wouldn’t be going there.

They left the donkey, for their return journey, and made their way in. First they had to change the money they had with them into the money they could use in the Temple. Then they had to find the person who sold the pigeons. Mary was comforting her child while Joseph did the deals, the money changers, the animal traders, slick city people who knew how things worked and they, from out of town, ‘red necks’, lacking in city sophistication. The traders could see them coming.

But the transactions done they entered further into the Temple to make the offering and to present their child to God. From the brightness outside they were struck by the gloom inside, until their eyes got used to it and then they could make out the priests about their business, those on the rota for that day, men like Mary’s cousin’s husband, Zechariah, who had been struck dumb in this very place.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

And the old man, the bird-like man, watching from the side-lines, steps out of the gloom into the half light of the place and takes their baby from them and sings of the light that has come into the world.

Once again they were amazed. Angels, shepherds, strangers, and now this old man, all had said such wonderful things about their child, about Jesus, words of hope and joy, words of God and things made new, words of peace, words of comfort.

But then the man, Simeon, turns to Mary and his words are as harsh as the cold winds that had accompanied them as they were Jerusalem bound in the early light of day – ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There is a bitter-sweet feeling to this day. It is the conclusion of the Christmas season and we can pack the cribs away and take down the final decorations. This is the day of the last vestiges of Christmas but in a strange way it is the first day of passion. Sometimes in the Candlemass liturgy the clergy will change from white vestments to end with purple ones and the texts for the ending of the Eucharist reinforce this change of mood. The procession has moved from the altar to the font and the priest says

We stand near the place of new birth.
Let us shine with the light of your love.
We turn from the crib to the cross.
Let us shine with the light of your love.

‘We turn from the crib to the cross’. As the famous Latin antiphon dating from the 8th century says ‘Media vita in morte sumus’ – ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ It is the bitter-sweet truth of this wonderful feast and Mary feels is as she holds her child as she will feel it in not so many years when she will hold her child again as he is taken lifeless from the cross and laid in her arms. Mary could not escape it and Simeon, who had seen it all, does not spare her from the truth. And I wish it were not so and I am sorry to ruin this last day of Christmas. But grown-up religion can cope with the truth. If Mary couldn’t escape it why should I; if a sword should pierce her soul, why not mine; to expect it to be otherwise is to live in a fool’s paradise. But the ‘Cheshire Cat’ grin that some Christians display suggests that they cannot really accept that whilst we believe with Julian of Norwich that

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

the truth is that life can be hard, and that faith and hope and love are not a means of escape from reality but a means of encounter with it. This is the mature faith that this powerful encounter between the old man waiting for death and the young girl holding new life in her arms embodies within the life of the church.

Baby or man? Life or death?

Baby or man? Life or death?

In some years the Feast of the Annunciation and the celebration of Good Friday fall on the same day. John Donne writes about this beautifully in his poem ‘The Annunciation and Passion’ in which he says this of Mary and the bitter-sweet experience in which we share with her

She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.

That sweet and bitter taste that life leaves in the mouth; Lord, may those tasting it today, know strength and faith in you. Amen.

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