The Feast of Candlemas marks the end of Christmas time and introduces us to the beginning of Lent that would start with Ash Wednesday on the 1st of March. It is known as the feast of Candlemas because about 450 AD in Jerusalem, people began the custom of holding lighted candles during the Divine Liturgy of this feast day as we did today while processing from the Hall to the Church.
Once more we have a wonderful opportunity to explore the meaning of Jesus as the light of the world as we already did last Sunday. At the same time, this gospel tells us about the fulfilment of the Scriptures: the Messiah, the real King of the world has finally come. If last week we concentrated our attention on the prophetic experience of meeting God as the light that enlightens our hearts and minds and free us from our sins and guilt, this time we witness the encounter between Jesus and Simeon. The Messiah and the elderly scholar -who had grasped the truth at the heart of the Old Testament- meet and the truth is revealed: when Israel’s history comes to its God-ordained goal, then at last light will dawn for the world. Jesus will be the light for all the nations, and not just the Jews. This is the revealing message we have being echoing during the last three weeks after the Nativity of Jesus.
Now what that really means to us, our personal story and history as the people of God? Because we cannot separate our personal stories from the history of the world that surrounds us and in which we live and are plunged. Like it or not, we are profoundly connected to each other and to the rest of the world. Globalization is not just about the internationalization of businesses, but it is a process that affects our consciousness. Although there is a revival of nationalism in different part of the world and the emphasis on the locality expresses a real need for many people to have roots in their own land, the reality is that we work, live and see ourselves in a extremely interconnected world. Think of the use skype, the social media, and all the online technology build to enable people to meet across the world without physically moving from their places. It’s fascinating how quickly we adapted to this epoch-making change.
That said, this is a world where religions seem to mingle among each other, while people seem to be very much preoccupied with many other problems but not the universality of Jesus’ coming to the world. Some people keep repeating as a mantra: ‘Religions are all the same’. If it is that the case, what is the point of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus as the light to the world? Religions are different, but diversity is more an opportunity to learn from each other than an obstacle to be removed. How can we still make our faith relevant to the people of this globalised and interconnected world? Besides, how can we connect with people’s spiritual needs? These are certainly our biggest challenges. In our search for an answer we can find some guidance in today’s gospel. The Scriptural Reasoning movement is certainly a very good example of it. Christians, Muslims and Jews meet around a table, choose a theme and a reading from their sacred books in order to have fruitful interfaith dialogue without denying their differences but making them a source of enrichment.
Simeon, the elderly man, who receives Jesus in the temple, is perhaps the one who is able to guide us and help us to not get lost or feel overwhelmed in our attempt to answer these questions. The name Simeon means faithful and obedient. Let’s play this moving scene again in our minds, but this time slowly. It is a very moving scene: Simeon -the devout old man filled with Holy Spirit and ready to die, is lead to the Temple by the Holy Spirit at the very moment when Jesus is brought in. Picture in your minds the moment when he holds the six-week-old baby in his hands and see what his eyes of faith enable him to see: “The consolation of Israel”, the hymn sang by Simeon in the Nunc Dimittis, the prayer we sing at evensong in the Church of England:
LORD, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation; Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
He proclaims the time when Jesus will be the means of salvation for all people, Jew and Gentile. This is not something new. What it is new in this universal message to the world is the cost. Simeon’s word to Mary is a reminder that the consolation of Israel and the salvation of the gentiles will not come without a great cost. As a faithful man, Simeon can see the truth: Jesus will bring truth to light and in doing so will throw us into a crisis of decision. Meeting him can be many things, but never indifferent or boring. It is actually more a “life and death” decision. We are faced with the dramatic decision of moving towards God or away from him.
Perhaps, the reason why the universality of the message does not connect with people’s lives anymore is because we put too much emphasis on it, and maybe, unintentionally or intentionally, watered down the powerful meaning of his coming to the world, which is strongly linked to the “life and death” decision I mentioned before. There is a price to pay in order to be witnesses of the light. Inevitably anyone who turns a light on creates shadows. Being in tune with God would mean accepting this truth and being faithful to it. The fact is that the gospel we are called to proclaim is very often unpopular.
Last Wednesday -like every year on the 25th of January- we commemorated the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, who was a splendid example of an apostle in tune with God. At the same time, Paul never preached popular theories or philosophies, but Christ crucified and risen. His passionate identification with the poor as well as his determination to eradicate the ethnic and cultural prejudices that divide us from one another, and his rejection of all forms of “boasting” based on a spurious sense of privilege and superiority, are the Gospel we need to take seriously and dare proclaiming to the world.
This way the universality of Jesus’ coming to the world would make a difference to the people of the world. As Christians we would then proclaim that Jesus came for everyone, and know that this is a message of inclusivity. We fight for a more egalitarian and just world, because Jesus came for anyone, which would include the poor and the excluded ones -whoever they are (refugees, immigrants, homeless). It is up to us to discern who would need us more! Is this message popular? Should we better be preaching a Prosperity gospel instead of wasting our time with the rejected ones of this world? No, this message is extremely unpopular, but it is the Gospel we are meant to proclaim.
Like St Paul, we wish to come to the end of every day, every week, every year of our life saying: “Non enim erubesco evangelium” -For I am not ashamed of the gospel.