Candlemas sermon

Below is the text of a sermon preached at evensong at Magdalene College by a member of the Lyn’s House community. It reflects on some themes of Candlemas alongside aspects of the life – and commitments – of the Lyn’s House community . There is a link to the text of the Candlemas story of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, from Luke’s Gospel. And a further link takes you to the painting by Rembrandt referenced in the sermon.

Luke 2: 22-40

‘Simeon in the Temple’, Rembrandt van Rijn


The story of Candlemas, or the Presentation of Christ in the temple, is told by St Luke.  And he tells it in a way that’s typical of the Gospel that bears his name. Figures who might seem marginal or strange are brought into the centre, brought into the light

Simeon and Anna, both obscure, Anna very old and coming to the end of her life, Simeon ready to depart, are centre-stage, naming and interpreting events.

Then there are ‘the Gentiles’, to whom this child has come to ‘be a light’.  The gentiles, those who don’t belong within the people of God, being drawn into the light because of what’s happening in the world because of this child. 

And not least, there’s this apparently unremarkable family entering the temple without fanfare, bringing a pair of doves, the bare minimum, as their offering.  With this child – who’s suddenly seen and said to be everything: the fulfilment of faith and of the longing for God’s redemption – but in ways that may not be straightforward, and whose cost can only be imagined, as sorrow and a sharp sword.

A friend – a priest and preacher herself, so someone who’d know the value of a good sermon illustration – last week mentioned a painting with a very particular depiction of Simeon.  Did she remember who it was by?  She didn’t, but kindly referred me to a source of help and guidance for many a preacher before me: ‘Why not try Googling it?’!

I did.  And I found a painting of Simeon in the temple holding the Christ child, by Rembrandt.  It was the last painting he produced, towards the end of his own life, and is unfinished. 

Rembrandt paints Simeon as though he were blind.  His eyes are lidded, closed. 

‘Mine eyes have seen thy salvation’, Simeon declares. 

Rembrandt paints him sightless. 

So might this ‘bringing into the light’ involve a different kind of seeing? 

Something like what Antoine de Saint Exupery’s Little Prince meant in saying that ‘What is essential is invisible to the eye’

The conversation that led to the kind invitation to preach here this evening began with a connection through Lyn’s House.  Lyn’s House is a community, and project, and charity based in Cambridge which I’m part of.  It’s made up of people with and without an intellectual disability, and has a particular focus on people in their 20s and 30.  It’s a Christian community which is also open to people of all faiths and none.

There’s lots that could be said about Lyn’s House – so do feel free to ask later.  And there’s always Google, of course..!

But I offer some reflections about my own experience there, which may point to something of a different way of seeing, and what’s ‘essential, but ‘invisible to the eye’.

The core activity – what Lyn’s House predominantly looks like and does – is a practice of mutual welcome, friendship and hospitality.  It’s often centred on a shared meal in small groups.

We ‘waste’ time together: ‘waste’ because the purpose is simply to be together, to give our time to each other, with no immediate aim beyond that. 

And the point of thus ‘wasting’ time is that each of us matters because we’re there, as we are…just because we came.

For those of us who have obvious difficulties, and whose struggles with everyday tasks are very visible – who know how it feels to be dismissed or ignored or avoided because of that – it matters to be welcomed and valued simply because you’re you – not because of what you can, or can’t do..

But equally, for those of us who’ve spent much of our lives being given to believe that our value lies primarily in what we can do, and do well, or have been successful at – with the imbalance and pressures which can accompany that – it can be disconcerting, and rather challenging, but deeply transforming – to find yourself welcomed and wanted just because you’re there, without needing to earn it or get your credentials out first..

And for those of us whose struggles and difficulties are less visible, or if we’ve got good at masking or managing them, it can begin to feel possible to risk letting the mask slip a bit, let a bit more of ourselves be seen – and finding you’re still welcome, and everyone’s still really glad you came…

I think that some of what inspires and underpins what we’re trying to do together at Lyn’s House isn’t unrelated to some Candlemas themes, and really seeing, and being brought into the light. 

These are my own, tentative reflections, offered in response to this evening’s Gospel, not any kind of statement or claim about the vision and inspiration for Lyn’s House – which came from others, way before I pitched up as a relative newbie. 

But I’m wanting to be tentative primarily for another reason.  And that’s that many people in the Lyn’s House community, who’ve sustained and lived out its welcome and friendship over many years simply do it, and mostly would use many fewer words to talk about it…or none at all.

But I think there is an undergirding theological insight or commitment.  It’s there in our praying, and the stories we tell and the faith that forms many of us. 

But it’s not something we’re in the habit of getting out and looking at very much, or talking about, or asking people to sign up to. 

And I think this insight or commitment has to do with being open to seeing the person in front of me not primarily in relation to me or others, and how I or anyone else might see them, but in prior and primary relation to God. 

In that light, I see you not as who you are to me, or in relation to my needs or wishes or hopes – or my or others’ judgements or assessments of you. 

Not as you might serve my or any other purpose or project. 

Not in terms of your abilities or difficulties. 

But I see you first as you are to God.

That means that I learn to see you as someone claimed, and wanted by the creative love and life behind all love, and all life: with all your abilities and all your difficulties.

And in that light, I’m being invited to see someone of infinite and eternal significance and value. 

And if I myself am on a journey of trying to open my own life more and more fully to the transforming, self-giving love at the heart of everything – made present and accessible and available in the world in a human life, in the life of Jesus……  If I’m trying to do that, then I’m also asking that my own eyes would be more and more opened to that kind of seeing.

And that kind of seeing can begin to loosen the hold that labels and categories and judgements and prejudices can have, and the ways they can infect our dealings with each other – and perhaps with ourselves too..

It’s also important to say that what I’ve experienced at Lyn’s House is just one instance of this way of seeing and dealing with one another. 

And it’s no-one’s exclusive insight or ‘property’, whether the church, or Christian faith….not least because the great religious traditions are all working with something like these kinds of perspectives on how human persons are fundamentally seen, and understood – what may not be immediately apparent, or demonstrable – what’s invisible to the eye..

It’s also important to name some of those things that aren’t directly related to faith, or a faith perspective, which have the potential to shed this kind of light.  The experience of real human intimacy might be one example…knowing yourself deeply loved and wanted…any experience of radical acceptance – whether there’s a sense of any metaphysical or transcendent context ‘beyond’ that immediate experience and in which it’s seen and understood – or not.  That kind of experience can transform – momentarily or forever – how we live in the world and our dealings with one another. 

Becoming practiced, and experienced, in seeing and being seen like this can be profoundly formative for how people live, and choose, and decide in the whole of their lives.

People who have become practiced at really seeing one another in this sort of way may be people who have something significant to offer in their communities, conversations, vocations, professions.  That might simply be to do with how I see and respond to the person in front of me.  Or it may involve how I regard the people impacted by larger-scale actions, or decisions, or inaction – mine or my organisation’s or my nation’s. 

My own experience is that an openness to that way of seeing is inextricably bound up with knowing what it feels like myself to be thus seen… 

To have been made welcome – in all kinds of ways and by all kinds of people – simply because I came. 

To have been brought into the light – however partially or briefly

To have been helped to begin to see myself – with all my struggles and all my abilities – as someone willed and wanted and known and claimed by the creative love and burning self-giving at the heart of everything…a love and a life made visible, made flesh –  whose coming into and for the world have been the focus of the church’s worship since Christmas, and whose work – love’s redeeming work, and its cost – begin to become visible in the journey towards Easter from here.