Church of England Diocese of Leicester Skeffington

Candlemas Sermon

31 Jan 2021, 2 p.m.

I understand the instinct, especially presently to want to come to church even if it is on line in order to try and forget about what is happening out there. The only positive thing I can say about Covid is that it seems mostly not to have badly affected children and babies. Seeing pictures of them like the WhatsApp messages I get from my sister seem to mean more to us than ever. We melt - well I melt with babies and so there is comfort in the story of Candlemas since the story tells of the Presentation of a baby in the Temple. It is the moment Jesus is dedicated to God. The text makes it clear the family was poor because they offered the cheapest sacrifice available to them yet I bet there would have been special food and drink and the family circle would have gathered. It would have been very like a baptism party to wet the baby’s head – can we remember what that was like? So yes the baby in this story grabs our attention.

Yet my attention is most especially is drawn this year to Anna and to Simeon. He has awaited the coming Messiah and longed to see him before he died. Anna is 84 and has been a widow for most of her life. She also has been waiting for Israel’s redemption. Like other mothers and grandmothers she has prayed and waited in God’s house. As a widow she most probably was poor and relied on the goodwill of others for her food and money. These people of age are also people of wisdom because their praying and waiting and learning to read the signs of the times with a Godly pair of spectacles means than they don’t simply see a beautiful poor family with their new child; they see salvation. And seeing salvation, they are able to depart in peace. This is a story which celebrates older people and values them as precious, as people not simply full of stories of the past but as people who unlock sight into the future.

This week we marked the moment when over 100,000 people died from Covid. 75% of these are people aged 75 or over. Just as this pandemic has disproportionately hit people of BAME heritage, and those living in poverty, it has by far been an illness of the elderly. Hence the focus is presently on vaccinations rightly going to them. My 81 year old mother with dementia had her jab 10 days ago and we all breathed a sigh of relief although we await my father’s as he is a bit younger. That caused a certain amount of healthy rivalry at home. This prioritisation of the elderly speaks of deeply held social norms in most if not all cultures that older people are to be respected, valued and cherished. However, I have to admit that overall this feels like a rediscovery within our society different to the norm which has often recently valued thrusting youthfulness and usefulness more than acquired wisdom; never mind accepting the vulnerabilities that may come with older age.

The mess that is Social Care ought to be of huge concern to us all, way beyond anything to do with party politics. A society’s health and humanity is measured by how we as a group not merely as individuals work out the ways and means by which we care for one another. For Anna it was the established practise at the Temple which kept her in society rather than excluded from it and we now have to work these out for ourselves. We have more older people as a result of better living standards and health care but now we need to follow through with both health and social care. Our clapping needs to be turned into policies and plans working with all the groups and agencies focussed on ensuring improvement for older people.

Within our church, much is said about the aging population of our worshippers and rightly we need to pay attention to drawing in far more younger people. There are dioceses and cathedrals with mission statements and strap lines that talk about growing numbers of new disciples and growing younger. However, when the church says that, it can give the impression that we no longer value those who are older. I don’t think that is intended but it can sound like that. It is not either or but both/and.

The pandemic has now created a huge problem for younger people making their way in life. They are going to need great support from older people. Candlemas very much speaks to this because we have a baby, young parents and two people from the older generation. We have a portrait of a community that I recognise from my own growing up in church where there were children and young people alongside people from every generation. In addition to my own family with aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents I had honorary aunts and uncles and grandparents from church. I look back on them with huge fondness. Indeed when I was a parish priest in Wimbledon where we had at least 100 children registered on our books at any time, when there was a baptism, we also twinned up the family with an older member of the congregation with whom they became friends. This became a support to the family whose relatives may well have been spread across the country if not the world. It became a joy for the older person as they shared life in a growing family. I used to see before my eyes the thrust of that final verse from our reading – ‘the child grew, became strong, filled with wisdom and the favour of God was upon him.

We’re in odd times and our relating is now constrained. The church too has changed with less younger people generally in our midst but we remain intergenerational even if we would hope and work for even more evidence of this. So in imagining this encounter between Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Simeon and Anna in the temple, I think we are called to remember and give thanks for this connection across the generations in our families and neighbourhoods. We are called to pay attention both to the young and to the old – to celebrate new life and to value wisdom, experience and life maybe lived at a different pace where we can see more of what it may mean to be and not simply more of busyness and stress. We as church in our communities need to look out afresh for one another and notice any who may be slipping through the gaps or because of lockdown have slipped from sight and our care both old and young alike.

I leave you with one simple thought that perhaps you could enact this coming week. This story of the Presentation of Christ is kept as the Festival of Candlemas when in times past a supply of domestic candles were brought to church to be blessed and then sent home so that faith was integrated into everyday life. Well maybe you could offer a candle to an elderly neighbour or send one to a family member or friend who may be feeling isolated or alone as a light to cheer them and enlighten them as Simeon said. Or perhaps if that person has just had their vaccine the candle could be a sign of celebration and a glimpse of a kind of revelation of the future. You could send a note or card saying that we at Church remembered Simeon and Anna, both of them of great years who saw in the baby Jesus the hope of the nations and indeed our salvation and that his light is still shining in our darkness.

As the inter-generational people of God, let’s celebrate and share God’s light. Amen