Candlemas - Sunday 31st January 2021
Sermon by Rev'd Janey Hiller
Luke 2: 22 - 40
Today is a feast day in the worldwide church – the feast of Candlemas, or to give it its more technical name, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. And our gospel this morning tells us the story.
I have to say, I love this reading! Just as a story in its own right, it’s so full of the holy spirit. So full of wonder and light and hope. It’s a story we can take instant encouragement from while we are living in such uncertain and shadowed times.
It’s also a reading full of deeper layers and meaning, symbolism and texture. The historic prophesies around Christ suddenly burst into public view as the baby Jesus is brought and offered to God in this ceremony of post-natal cleansing.
After childbirth, a Jewish woman was considered to be ceremonially unclean for a period of forty days (twice that if it was a girl). We won’t get into the gender imbalance in that this morning, but suffice to say, once that period was over, a mother could bring her child to the temple to be offered to God, and to be purified herself. Until then, she would have been ‘unclean’ – meaning that anyone or anything she touched also become unclean; to keep others ‘safe’, she effectively needed to live in self-isolation.
Sound familiar? Mary, like so many other Jewish new mums, lived through her own form of lockdown after Jesus was born!
In making her journey to the temple that day, then, Mary wasn’t just going to participate in a ceremony, she was going to be restored to God; to get her spiritual freedom back. And she brought with her the one who was to fulfil the promise of freedom and restoration to all of God’s creation.
When the time came, Mary brought two doves or pigeons – one as her burnt offering and one as her sin offering. This is evidence that Jesus did not come from a well-off family. Normally a lamb would’ve been required for the burnt offering, but the Jewish law (in Leviticus 12) gave a concession for those who could not afford a lamb to bring a pigeon instead.
The priest carried out the sacrifices, and the woman was cleansed.
Interesting, isn’t it, that although Mary could not afford to bring a lamb for her own cleansing ceremony that day, she did bear Our Sacrificial Lamb into the world in Christ. She brought her lamb, alright, she just didn’t do it in the customary manner. Instead, the Lamb she brought was given for the cleansing of us all.
The ceremony itself would have been common-place in those times, so Luke quite quickly shifts his attention towards the response to Christ of these two wonderful spirit-filled characters of Simeon and Anna.
Many people will be familiar with the words of Simeon as the Nunc Dimittis, which forms part of our liturgy for night prayer or evensong. The words that filled Mary and Joseph with amazement, have become a well-worn and well-loved canticle serving to comfort and inspire Christians for generations.
Whilst we have Simeon’s words, we don’t have any of Anna’s.
But Luke’s brief account and description of Anna and her interaction with the holy family is peppered with little clues about some of the things she might have said.
So, what does the gospel writer tell us about Anna? She is:
The daughter of Phan’u-el
Of the tribe of Asher
Married for only seven years and then a widow for 84 more.
She had since dedicated her life to the service of the temple in worship, prayer and fasting.
Anna was certainly ‘of riper years’ as the Book of Common Prayer might have put it. She had lived in and around the temple for decades. Long, long years watching and praying for the Messiah in a time when the weight of messianic expectation in Jewish culture hung thick in the air. During that time, thousands of babies would have been brought in by their mothers for such ceremonies. And yet, wonderfully and astonishingly, Anna saw this humble family with their six-week-old baby boy and knew he alone was the one.
Not surprising, perhaps, when we read Anna was a prophet – the only named female prophet in the New Testament, no less. Inspired by the holy spirit, Anna didn’t just see a baby that day, she saw the child who signalled the redemption or setting free of Israel and all God’s creation, and then in the power of that same spirit she shared that revelation with anyone who would listen!
We’re told Anna’s father was named Phan’u-el, which means ‘face of God’, or ‘turns to God.’ Could this be a hint about how Anna was among the first to recognise the face of God in the infant Jesus and that her speech was filled with calls to those around her to see this too and to turn to God?
We might assume that those most interested in what Anna had to say – those most yearning for news of the messiah - would have been the religious leaders. Here was their long-awaited saviour, after all! But as we know from many other stories in the gospels, Jesus was certainly not welcomed by them! Anna’s name means grace – how ironic then, that the people whose lives had been dedicated to looking out for signs of the redemption of Israel, failed to see that Jesus’ gospel of grace was a new dawn in that very redemption plan. They were so invested in protecting the law and the prophecies, they failed to see Jesus as the one who would fulfil them.
Finally, we come to Anna’s heritage. We are told she was from the tribe of Asher. Asher was one of Jacob’s sons who would go on to be the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Asher himself received two blessings; one from his father Jacob, and one from Moses. These two blessings suggest some interesting links between Jewish history and symbolism and how they find an expression in Jesus.
Jacob’s blessing – found in Genesis 49 – was:
“Asher’s food shall be rich, and he shall provide royal delicacies.”
Sounds pretty good! This indicates a royal feast and could be read as an allusion to ‘the great feast of heaven’; the wedding banquet of The Lamb, spoken of in Revelation and described in Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. The blessing of Asher hints forward to the blessing of Christ, where all creation is being gathered and redeemed.
Moses also gave a blessing to each of the twelve tribes. His blessing to Asher can be found in Deuteronomy 33, verse 24-25:
"24 And of Asher he said: “Asher is most blessed of sons; Let him be favoured by his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil. 25 Your sandals shall be iron and bronze; as your days, so shall your strength be."
Asher was to be a most blessed son. Was Luke’s mention of Anna’s heritage pointing to the fact that Jesus too was a most blessed Son? The Son of God. God the Father’s blessing and affirmation of Jesus the Son was made very public at his baptism with the words: ‘‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
The phrase ‘may he dip his foot in oil’, was a Jewish saying, meaning ‘may he become prosperous’; not just materially, but spiritually- to be joyful, glad, and happy in the Lord. On one level, this blessing became a lived reality for the tribe of Asher, as they were settled in a very fertile area of Galilee and lived well and peaceably. On another level, referencing Anna as being from the tribe of Asher could have been a subtle way pointing to how Jesus’ feet were anointed with oil both as a symbol of the love and gratitude expressed by someone who had received the gospel of grace and forgiveness as well as a sign of preparation for his impending passion. Both point to the redemptive work of the Messiah which Anna the prophet would have prophetically recognised in Jesus and gone on to share with others.
What about the iron and bronze sandals? That sounds a bit uncomfortable! Again, this is signifying something, rather than being literal. In those days, sandals would have been made from leather and fabrics. They would have eventually worn out, so saying ‘your sandals shall be iron and bronze’ was suggesting endurance; the ability to stay the course of faith. And Anna certainly demonstrated that tribal inheritance of endurance in her long and faithful dedication to waiting for the messiah.
There’s lots going on here which we can ponder and reflect upon. Those of you of a certain generation may now be recalling the old TV Times Advert slogan – “I never knew there was so much in it.”
Let’s add some cultural context. During Jesus’ time, women had a very restricted role in public life. One Rabbinic tradition, states that “It is the way of a woman to stay at home and it is the way of a man to go out into the marketplace.” In particular, women were not allowed to testify in court – along with (amongst other groups) gentiles, gamblers and, rather oddly, pigeon-racers.
Luke – even though he was not Jewish himself – would have been aware of this cultural backdrop. He was a skilled writer, and it’s possible he used a description of Anna to send a more persuasive and impactful message to his readers – particularly his Jewish readers who would have been familiar with the history and symbolism being alluded to - than simply recounting Anna’s words alone would have achieved.
Where does this leave us as a community of faith here today? What can we take from this passage other than the interesting layers of meaning we’ve peeled open?
I’m sure there are many things, but three things stand out:
Blessings in the Old Testament generally signified how a person would be protected by, or provided for, by God. In some ways, they were for the ‘now’. But in many ways, they were semi-prophetic, determining a person or family’s future. So, even if we might experience glimpses of blessing in the here and now, ultimately, we are people of hope in an assured future when one day all the promises and blessings of God will be fulfilled.
That future we hope for is symbolised as a heavenly wedding banquet. A feast that will not be just for the religious elite. Any and all who believe in the good news of the grace of Jesus Christ are welcomed and gathered in love with all creation to share in the divine life forever.
Meanwhile, we are called to faithfulness. To endure. To put on our bronze sandals and walk in faith together, bearing each other’s joys and sorrows in love and prayer as we wait.
And, just as Anna, Daughter of Phan’u-el, of the Tribe of Asher, saw the face of God in the messiah child and called others to turn to him, we too are called to share the revelation of God we have seen in Christ. To tell of his grace, his love and of his fulfilment of God’s great plan of salvation and blessing for the whole world.
I pray, that like Anna, we may be inspired, so we may inspire others; that we may be blessed so we can bless others; that we may see the face of God, so we can turn others towards it; and that we may endure, in faith, hope and love together until we ourselves see Jesus face-to-face at that royal heavenly feast with all the saints in glory.