GSC 3 February 2019
If you’re an interfering-type of person like me it can be quite frustrating if you’re helping a young child do something, be it paint a picture, or some bit of art work or a jigsaw or whatever it might be. It’s great fun, of course, to get them to choose a colour or to ask them if they can work out where this piece of the jigsaw goes. The danger is I then get bored and what to just finish it myself, “It’s alright, I’ll colour that bit” or I just start putting the jigsaw pieces in myself. It’s a failure of patience on my part and it’s serious because it will hinder the growth and development of the child.
It’s a useful image as we consider God’s involvement in the world, which I want to try and think about this evening. God created everything, the Heavens and the earth, the first human beings and indeed He created us. He rested on the seventh day, the sabbath, as we know but that wasn’t Him done. The Scriptures talk of God “upholding” creation (Hebrews 1:3) and this shows His continual involvement in the world, as St Paul reminds the Romans “that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
Supremely we have been celebrating this for the last forty days during Christmastide, that God came down and was born as a human being for us. This is a cause of great gladness for the author of the letter to the Hebrews, from which we heard this evening: “Since all the children share the same blood and flesh Christ too shared equally in it,” we heard him say, indeed “it was essential that he should in this way become completely like His brothers so that He could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion.” This evening’s Feast of Candlemass sees the Lord continuing to do exactly this. Neither He nor Mary, the Mother of God, needed to go through these ceremonies of the Old Law, presenting turtle doves that she might be purified ceremonially as set out in the book Leviticus, and dedicating her first born son to the Lord. Mary herself sinless, of course, and spared that pain of child birth that was a consequence of sin, and being the ark of the covenant and the Temple of God, she needed no such purification. Christ Himself is true God and true Man and also needed no such setting aside to the Lord. It is done to embrace the customs of the Jews at that time and to enter fully into the ritual requirements of the day, the life of God’s people.
There in the Temple, they meet Simeon and Anna, and while we’re not told Anna’s age directly there might be some significance to it. She’d been married for seven years and then a widow for eighty four. So assuming she was married at fourteen as was a possibility, she’d be 105 years old. Now that’s noteworthy in itself but in the Bible another powerful woman had been that age when she died, namely Judith (Judith 16:23). The account of Judith’s life can be found in the book in the Bible that bears her name. You need to make sure, as I’ve said many times before, that your Bible contains the deuterocanonical books or Apocrypha as they’re sometimes called because Judith is one of these books.
Judith lived about two hundred years before Jesus. She was widow and her husband had left her all the money so she was able to sustain herself financially and she had something else which she was to put to good use in this story: she was beautiful. The serenity of the town where Judith lived was threatened by the army of King Nebuchadnezar, headed up by Holofernes. The invading army was coming because they wanted the people of God to stop worshipping God and to worship instead Nebuchadnezar, whom they believe to be more important and more powerful. As the siege continues, the people of Judah are running out of food and drink. They are confident that if they remain faithful to God, He will be on their side. They have a vibrant faith that God will intervene. Judith challenges them though, accusing the people of putting God to the test by saying God needed to help them within five days (8:11-17). Judith realises that God’s purposes will be victorious but that it won’t necessarily happen in the way others think it will.
Judith goes off then, looking her prettiest, to meet Holofernes, the commander of the army. She impresses him with her beauty and they meet together. And while Holofernes is too busy trying to impress Judith she gets a sword out and chops his head off. She pops his head in a bag so she can then show it off to people. Victory is assured and Judith sings the praise of God, saying: “The Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman; Judith daughter of Merari, with the beauty of her countenance undid their mighty one … I will sing to my God a new song” (16:6,13). God helps those who help themselves. This is the woman we’re then told dies at the age that Anna in our Gospel this evening is likely to have been, 105 years old.
Anna and Simeon in our Gospel this evening know God will intervene and be faithful to His promises. They set Him time restrictions but they wait patiently in the House of God. Anna served God in the Temple, indeed St Luke tells us “she never left” it. Simeon too, we are told, “looked forward to Israel’s comforting.” These are glorious accolades for a woman and a man committed to God and await Him bursting forth into the world. We do no less, accept that we know God will appear to us in this Mass when the Priest calls down the Holy Spirit, “Make holy, therefore, these gifts we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall.”
This wonderful Feast of Candlemass, then, teaches us that God is involved in this world He has commanded us care for. But He also leaves us free to cooperate or not with His grace, that free gift of His love. We are not fatalists. Simeon and Anna had chosen specifically and intentionally to co-operate with His grace and so their eyes saw the Lord Jesus, the Saviour, when but forty days old. When we fail to cooperate we fall into sin. The commandments of the old Law of Turtle doves are no longer laid upon us. We now know only the covenant of our Saviour. May we present ourselves in His service that we may be cleansed from sin and cooperate with His grace. Amen.