A Homily for Candlemas
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the consolation of Israel. Amen.
Waiting for the birth of a child is such a terrifying and exhilarating time. Whether it’s your own child, or a relative, or a friend, the more you learn about the birth process, the more you learn about how things can go wrong. It’s been about five years since my friends started having kids, and I’ve sat with friends and family members through any number of complications – premature birth and stints in the NICU, emergency c-sections, post-partum complications, and sadly even miscarriages.
When my wife and I found out that we were expecting, there were any number of milestones where we breathed a sigh of relief; every doctor’s appointment, and the delivery itself, and the several days in the hospital after Junia’s birth carried with it the fear that something would go wrong, and with it, that feeling of a weight lifting off the shoulders when everything was ok. But I tell you, there was no greater sigh of relief than the day we got her safely home.
Those first nights at home were loooooooong, waking up every two hours (if we were lucky enough to get even that much sleep), dirty diapers, and crying. There were moments where, sleep deprived, I had no idea what was going on. But I didn’t mind, because we had a beautiful baby who would coo sweetly in her sleep between screaming. All I could do was take her in my arms and praise God.
In the first century Jewish world, childbirth had the added weight of ritual purity, high mortality rates, and religious obligation. The birth process made the mother ritually unclean (as did almost every event including bodily fluids). This is admittedly shocking to our modern sensibilities: How dare Scripture call women unclean? But consider it from a different point of view: here, Scripture tells us that women should rest after the physical trauma of childbirth. Especially to us, living, as we do, in a country without maternity leave, what a gift it is to offer forty days of religiously-required rest, recovery, and bonding during those loooooooong nights of waking up constantly to feed the child.
Then, after the allotted time, the Levitical Law requires the mother to go to the Temple and to offer sacrifices both as an act of thanksgiving and as a sign of her re-entering society: a ritualized way of recognizing the life-changing nature of what just happened.
First-born sons carried with them additional requirement – that they be “redeemed” through a sacrifice, rooting every generation in the story of Exodus when the first-born of Israel were spared from death through the blood of a lamb.
And so it is that we join the Holy Family in Luke 2, roughly forty days after Christmas, fulfilling the religious obligations. As they go about their business, though, an old man hales them.
Simeon had been told that he would see the Messiah; what had he expected? A rebel like Judah Maccabee, sword in hand? A shepherd-soldier like David, wielding his sling against the enemies of Israel and climbing up the ranks? A royal parade through the streets of Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted with palm branches, like the ascendant kings of old?
After looooooooong decades of rule by the despotic Herodians and the Romans, how did the people long for a Savior! How often their hopes had been raised only to go terribly awry!
But the Spirit of the Lord rested upon Simeon, pointing him to the family with their newborn Son, and he recognized the Christ and sang God’s praises.
And Anna, who had spent night and day in the Temple. We don’t get the specifics of what she said, but it was so remarkable that people remembered and passed down the tradition. We can only speculate what words of wisdom and comfort she passed on to the Blessed Virgin, what beautiful language she used to proclaim the Good News “to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”
Beloved, the eyes of all wait upon the Lord with eager expectation.
We have been waiting for a loooooong time now, just as Anna and Simeon.
We have been waiting for a new, restored creation to be birthed.
Waiting for that which we cannot yet fully understand.
Waiting, not knowing what to expect.
Through global pandemic and political strife, as nations rage against each other. Through birth and death, through life and loss. Through violence in our city. Through trials great and small.
But even now, even as we wait with eager expectation, dreading all the ways that things can possibly go wrong, dreading what St. Mathew calls the “birth pangs” of the end of the age, we know that we have hope.
God has come to us – not as a great warrior or a well-born king but as a humble, fragile, infant. With all the perils and risks of childbirth, with all the dependency and lack of dignity that comes from being a baby, with all the frailness of living as a human. This small child is destined for the rising and falling of many! The one who was redeemed by his parents at the Temple has come as the redemption of Jerusalem and to redeem us, and the very Child heralded in the Temple has overcome sin and death.
Take heart! A light to reveal God’s glory to the nations has shown forth! And our eyes have seen God’s salvation, prepared in the sight of every people.