Light comes first, then peace...
SJF • Presentation 2013 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all the world to see; a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.+
Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, also known as the Purification, and in the old days Candlemas. It gained that last name because it was the day on which the priest blessed all of the candles that would be used in the church through the rest of the year.
But what about “Purification”? That name is related to an ancient custom — but one that is still with us, though in an altered form. Luke’s Gospel alludes to the ancient law, though he doesn’t go into the details.
I should say, “laws,” because two important Old Testament laws are involved here, involving the mother and the child. First, the purification of the mother: Under the Law of Moses, after giving birth a woman is considered ritually unclean for 40 days if she bears a boy, twice as long if it’s a girl. Now, as I reminded us on the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, ritual “uncleanness” is not about sin, it’s about purity, and has its roots in early efforts at public health. In this case, it is quite logical that a mother should have a period of time to recover from the stress of childbirth, and to bond with her child.
Those of you with long memories will recall that this custom, in terms of the church, is still with us, though it has changed in terminology — much as the name of the feast day itself. Do any of you remember the service called “The Churching of Women” also called “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth” in the old Prayer Book? That’s what it was called up until 1979, when the church decided to let the fathers join the mothers to give thanks as well, and to give thanks for adoption as well as birth, so they changed the name of the service to “Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.” It’s in the Book of Common Prayer, page 439. So in today’s Gospel, we read of a tradition with ancient roots going back to the time of the desert wandering, but one whose branches reach right into our church this morning.
But note that the text says, “their purification,” and the law that Luke quotes is not the law from Leviticus about women and childbirth, and how long they have to wait before they are allowed to come to the Temple. Instead this is the law from Exodus about what is to happen regarding each firstborn male child. According to Exodus every such child belongs to God, and is to be redeemed by his parents in order to live. A boy who asks his father why this should be is, according to the Law of Moses, to be told, “The Lord brought us out of Egypt from the house of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn males of the land of Egypt, human and animal. And so I sacrifice to the Lord every firstborn male animal, breaking its neck, but my firstborn son I redeem.” Does that answer your question!? Talk about a Biblical head-trip for a firstborn son! And being a firstborn son I take this very seriously!
My point in spelling all this out is that there is a huge amount of “back-story” in this quiet little incident that Luke records for us. There are literally more than a thousand years leading up to this moment, even before Simeon and Anna open their mouths to raise the pitch on what would normally have been the simple duty of every Jewish family. This little ritual is deeply tied up with ancient traditions of blood, of sacrifice and redemption, of slavery and freedom, of life and death.
As to life — well, we are shown two very long lives responding to the arrival of this couple with their child. Simeon had waited a long time to see a promised light, a light commemorated on this day by the blessing of candles. He and the prophet Anna both had haunted the Temple for years, hoping and hoping as each child was brought in and presented, according to the laws, hoping... These were two long lives lived in hope, yet their hopes were raised and their hopes were dashed time and again, as they looked upon each child brought into the Temple, looking for a sign, but receiving no sign, and perhaps sadly shaking their heads and saying, “No; not this one.”
And yet still they hoped. For Simeon had received a promise, the promise that he would live to see the light of the Messiah with his own eyes. And Anna — well who knows what she knew, or what she had been promised; all we know is that she trusted and she witnessed to the light when it came.
As come it did. Think for a moment of the release that both of these elderly people felt upon the realization of this divine promise, this revelation of a divine light. Think of how you feel after a long deferred task has finally been accomplished. There is such poignancy in Simeon’s song, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace”; such a sense of relief, like the feeling you get after you’ve done a particularly strenuous job that needed doing, perhaps for a long, long time. I’m sure we’ve all felt the kind of tired relief that comes after finally getting around to cleaning out that attic, or ripping up the old linoleum, or painting a room that has been crying out for it for years. You step back after having completed such a job, deeply tired, but also deeply, deeply satisfied. The work is done, and now you can rest.
This is the kind of peace that Simeon felt, though magnified many times over, as what he was waiting for (the revelation of the light of God) is ever so much more important than even the most important attic, floor, or room. This is the peace of completion, of culmination and rest. It reflects the peace and rest of God at the end of the sixth day of creation: All is complete, all is very good; it is sabbath-time; it is time to rest.
Such sabbath peace and sabbath rest are the opposite of lazy peace or rest. That is the kind of rest you get by avoiding the work: just letting the mishmash of odds and ends stay in the attic or basement, and periodically adding something more to the top of the pile; or making do with the scratched linoleum or getting an area rug to throw down on top of it; or just ignoring the peeling paint and mildew. That kind of lazy rest, that kind of lazy peace, is not the peace that follows light and knowledge and hard work; it is a false peace, the false rest of denial and darkness. True peace, true rest, always follows the light.
It has always been that way — and I mean always! In the beginning, God did not rest first, and then create the light as an afterthought, as if it were a night-light to sit on the bedside table for the sabbath. No, the light came first; the very first thing that God made was light, empowering and revealing the rest of creation itself, to light the way to that sabbath rest after that first week of time, after those six days of work were done, and the sabbath came. Light came first, then peace.
So too it was in the great form of blessing that God committed to his priests: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you... and give you peace. First light, then peace.
And so too it was with Simeon and Anna. It was in beholding the light of the Messiah, shining through that small child in Mary’s arms, that they knew they finally could rest; peace had come because the light had shone — light, then peace.
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So it is and so it has always been. Yet how often do we and the world seek the peace instead of the light? How often in giving thanks for the birth of a child do we forget and turn away from the long history of struggle that led to that child’s birth, keeping it in the shadows instead of bringing it to light.
Beloved ones, we dare not seek for God’s peace in the darkness of ignorance, in the darkness of concealment, but only in the light of his truth, light that reveals the long history that brings each moment to our lives. We will never find God’s sabbath peace if we turn our back on God’s light. For the light of God shines to be the glory of God’s people, to be the light to enlighten the nations, a light shining back over a thousand years to the Passover, to the Red Sea, the costly deliverance of a people whom God redeemed at the cost of many a firstborn Egyptian son. This is the light that reveals the truth of Messiah, God’s chosen one, God’s son, his firstborn, the one whose coming — so long in coming — reveals our innermost thoughts, lighting us up, lighting up our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our dreads. He is the one who is set to reveal us, to be the fall and the rise of many.
He is the light of the world, and he is our peace, a costly light, a costly peace. The light he brings, brings peace because it lights up all that past history of woe — of the slavery of the people in Egypt, of the death of those Egyptian firstborn and of the slaughter at the Red Sea — the cost of deliverance was mighty, and God insisted that forever more that cost would be, as Shakespeare says, rememberèd.And so God casts that light even upon and through his own beloved Son — this firstborn redeemed in this little ritual as Mary and Joseph and Anna and Simeon stand by, the redeemer of the world, who is the one who brings salvation and peace, who as the only-begotten son of God will also give life — his own life — as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, washing us in his innocent blood.
Without God’s light we stumble in restless darkness, terrified of the unknown, while lulling ourselves with the false assurance of putting our heads under the covers to save ourselves from the monsters. But with God, and walking in the light of Christ, looking upon his face — whether the face of a month-and-a-week-old child in his mother’s arms, or the wounded face crowned with thorns and battered and bruised by human hatred, or the shining face of the Risen Christ on Easter morning — looking upon the face of the only-begotten Son of God, we behold God’s light, in whom we find our sabbath rest, our completion, our culmination, our peace. To him who is the light and peace of the world, be all honor and glory, henceforth and for evermore.+