Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas… the moment when the light of the infant Christ lights up the face of the elderly Simeon, the ancient Anna. And they in turn bless the new child. Old and new brought together. You can read this as some theologians have done as the moment when the Old Testament gives way to the New. You can read this a story about the Body of Christ, the church, as three generations come together in the temple and bless each other. Or you can take a leap of faith as I’m about to do and read it as gospel, or good news, for those getting on in years. Simeon and Anna are of a great age and they probably thought their story had ended years earlier. Anna in fact had sort of ceased to be a viable citizen in her community’s eyes decades earlier when her husband had died. No one will have expected Simeon or Anna, these old wrinklies, to feature in the story of the new born King.
And yet they do feature. And very powerfully so. This bit of Luke has so much resonance that the church has decided to remember it every year at the feast of Candlemas. This week all the year 4 school children in the Prince William catchment area will be put on coaches and taken to St Peter’s, Oundle for the annual Candlemas celebration, where the story of Simeon and Anna will be re-enacted by some of them, and handed down to all. For these children this gospel will perhaps speak of the role of their grand and great grandparents in blessing their lives.
As they get older and become parents, grand and then great grandparents themselves, the story will change again. And the older they get the more prominent will become the most famous verse of this passage, verse 29: ‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word’. I quote this in the King James version, because in this version are these words sung every evening by choirs performing the nunc dimittis in cathedrals and churches throughout the land.
It’s beautiful, the nunc, as it’s affectionately known. But it’s also a momento mori – a reminder that we all must depart this life, and it begs the question, what does it take to depart this life in peace, according to thy word?
For Simeon the answer is quite clear. He can depart in peace, because he has now seen Jesus and recognised Jesus as the light of salvation. He has taken this ordinary looking child in his arms, and seen through the swaddling clothes to the blood stained grave clothes which will soon wrap this same body. He has seen beyond the grave clothes to the defeat of death and inauguration of a new Kingdom, God’s Kingdom, which is the Resurrection.
It’s that faith which now lights up Simeon. It’s the faith that realises that God wasn’t kidding when he told Simeon he wouldn’t die until he’d found this salvation and seen the Messiah. Saying hello to this messiah, Simeon realises he can now say goodbye.
Paintings of this moment abound. The most famous perhaps is Rembrandt’s, which I so enjoyed seeing in the flesh in an exhibition a year or two ago. I remember standing in front of it in the national gallery finding myself humming the tune of the Beatles’ song ‘You say goodbye, and I say hello, hello…’
In the Beatles’ song, goodbyes and hellos are at sizes and sevens. The feast of Candlemas brings them into congruence. Into peace.
And that in a nutshell is what so much of life, and especially so much of old age is all about. Finding ways to keep saying hello, even as we are having to say goodbye. And finding peace even as we depart.
Anyone lucky enough to live to a great age has to say a lot of goodbyes. You ask my 90 year old mother in law how her Christmas was and at some point in her answer she will tell you that she had cards announcing the death of 4 or 5 of friends and worryingly, no Christmas card from another 4 or 5 who she’d expected to hear from.
Some of you have been to so many funerals, you should be training clergy like me how to do them. You know so much about bereavement you could write the book. Some of you are in the process of saying goodbye to bits of your body, and goodbye to bits of your memory. All of us at some point or another have to say goodbye to the illusion of control over our own destiny.
And that is why you who come to church and are amongst us as you age have so much to teach the rest of us. Even when you can no longer make it to church, your legacy lives on. It’s amazing how much Kath Fenn continues to minister to those who care for her, continues to be talked about despite being housebound now for many years. John Craig who many of you will remember sat in that back pew where his daughter Libby now sits – he was a walking sermon, even when he could barely walk. He once told me that the key to keeping your sense of humour as you aged was to live realistically -- not to stir up desire for the things you could no longer have, for things you could no longer do. And then with a twinkle in his eye he told a few stories about the benefits of loss. He woke one morning to the sound of water plopping into his back room through a burst pipe. There was absolutely nothing he could physically do, so instead of running round trying to find solutions like he would have when he was younger, he just went into the kitchen and had some breakfast.
A man who’s doesn’t come to church and has never been to community café came in on Friday to meet with me about something. From the top of the steps there by the door, he looked over the café crowd -- pregnant women, mums holding babies, toddlers rushing around chasing Charlie the dog – over to the tables where people of more advanced years sat chatting away. And his eyes lit up and he said, ‘wow – what a big spread of ages. You hardly ever see that anywhere else. ‘
Well Church is the place where you do see it. According to a recent study, in Britain places of worship, and football stadiums are the two places where the generations are most likely to be found together.
At the beginning of life we offer welcome and nurture; Church is a place where we discover and say hello to all the gifts God has given to us. We say hello to his word for our lives. And we try to find how our lives will take their place in God’s story.
At the end of life, Church should be the place where we learn to depart in peace. As we welcome in the next generation, holding and blessing the babies as many of us do at café here on a Friday, we prepare ourselves to depart in peace. If you’re heading towards the end of life, ask yourself what it would look like for you to depart in peace, according to God’s word. What has God’s word to you been and how have you been part of God’s story? Has his word been fulfilled in you? Or is there still unfinished business? Perhaps you’re still looking for God’s purpose for your life? Your life might be end loaded of course – like Simeon’s or Anna’s – they had to wait right till the end for the revelation, for their bit in the story. But they were expectant, looking into the eyes of the people they met, and looking into the pages of scripture, for that word.
I remember holding my baby daughter in my arms thinking something along the lines of ‘now I can die in peace, because I’ve replicated myself’. That child is now grown and I know I’ve not replicated myself. The meaning of my life has many more words in it than her name, important as that is. Life is a long journey to find the words of God which are uniquely spoken to each one of us.
I want to live my life so that I can say with Simeon, ‘let your servant depart in peace and according to your word’. Your word has been fulfilled in me. This is God’s promise to each one of us. We can depart in peace, knowing that we’ve fulfilled some, probably not all, of God’s plans and purposes for our lives. As we celebrate Candlemas this year, 2016, let us remember that good goodbyes begin by saying hello and holding out our arms to the Christ child.