A Sermon for the Presentation of Christ
February 4, 2024 at Holy Communion
O God, your salvation is “a light for revelation to the nations” (Luke 2:32). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Cormac McCarthy’s 2009 novel The Road imagines a world turned to ash by an undescribed catastrophe, and a man and a boy who need to travel across the barren landscape to survive. The colour palette of the novel is an unremitting grey. McCarthy describes it this way: “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
What holds the man and boy in life is the man’s teaching that they must refuse to dream of some other, better world, but instead keep their eyes open to the hellish landscape they inhabit and nonetheless insist on life. He says to the boy, “Listen to me, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, … then you'll have given up. Do you understand? And you can't give up, I won't let you.” The man calls this “carrying the fire.”
There are other inhabitants of this ashen world, but they have turned to most horrific forms of violence to keep themselves alive. They are not carrying the fire. Overcome by despair, they have snuffed out the candle of their own humanity.
Today we become carriers of the fire.
Thursday was the fortieth day after Christmas, when, according to the ritual law of the Old Testament, the newborn Jesus was presented to the Lord in the temple. There his parents met two elderly prophets, a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna, who recognize the infant Jesus as the Saviour of the world. Simeon calls the Christ Child “a light for revelation to the nations, and for glory to the people of Israel” (Luke 2:32).
The Christmas season has finally come full circle. On Christmas eve, as we have done this morning, we lit candles because our Gospel reading identified Jesus, God-with-us, as the light of the world. We heard that, like Cormac McCarthy’s man and boy, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
These candles which we have lit: you can take them home. In medieval times, people would take their candles which were blessed at this service—giving the day its popular name, “Candlemas”—and light them in times of uncertainty or fear, during particularly violent storms or when they felt that they were under spiritual attack. Was this superstition? Hardly. They were more aware than we that this world is a place of darkness, at very least a place as not fully resplendent with the light of heaven as we pray it will some day be, and that in the meantime Christians are the carriers of a sacred flame which the darkness cannot overcome. Whenever calamity or fear threatened to overwhelm them, they would light a physical fire as a sign of the spiritual fire which faith in Christ had lit in their souls.
At this time of year in the life of our congregation, many of my thoughts are turned toward the Annual General Meeting, for which reports are now available in the foyer. I remember last year, after reading the note that I had written about the budget, one member of the congregation—and I was grateful for the engagement with the report—said that I had painted a picture of the long-term future of the church that was “bleak.” Perhaps I will be open to the same criticism again: there are hard facts to be faced about the long-term financial situation of our parish.
But this Candlemas gives me language to help describe what I am really going for. I don’t mean to be bleak. I want us to learn to be carriers of the fire, refusing to become nostalgic about better times in the past or to fantasize about glorious futures that probably won’t arrive, but doing everything we can to live by the light of Christ in the situation we are actually in.
It is our responsibility to tend the flame of faith that has been entrusted to us. It is our responsibility to live by the light of that faith when we are tempted to give up and draw back into our private darknesses.
For every Christian, the future ultimately holds only one thing: Jesus Christ, the light of heaven and of earth, the one who is Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, who will be revealed as the image and glory of God to all nations, and whose light will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea, whose light fills us with a joy beyond understanding or speaking.
We live beyond pessimism or optimism. We live in hope, knowing with full confidence that, though times be good or ill, though we be rich or poor, few or many, we rejoice because of the precious flame we are keeping. That flame will soon return to its source, and burn with the brightness of the eastern dawn, and God will be all in all.