An Offer you can't Refuse
Just after Christmas our son and daughter-in-law told Lois and me that they wanted to give us a nice meal out. Would we like to have dinner on the Christchurch tram? This was one of those offers too good to refuse, and we duly ate our meal on the Christchurch Tram. From where I sat I had a good view of the chef as he put the meals together for a tramful of people, and I admired his skill and ingenuity as he worked in a tiny microdot of a kitchen. What’s more, we had a choice of four mains: chicken, beef, fish and vegetarian. Which one to choose? Well, I don’t care much for rice; vegetarian is always a second choice; what clinched it for me in the end was not the chicken, beef or fish but the garlic and mustard mash on which sat a chunk of succulent fillet steak. It was truly delicious and I enjoyed it.
Naturally, I’ve been thinking food thoughts ever since, which means I ask a culinary question: why would you choose Candlemas? Surely this story of Jesus taken to the Temple, there to be oohed and aahed over by the old folks, Simeon and Anna, is of no great account. Tottery they were, if not doddery. Surely in the church year it cannot compare with Christmas or Easter, even with Epiphany or Trinity Sunday? Why would you choose Candlemas? You might choose Candlemas simply because you want to take a punt and you don’t know what the word means but it sounds good. After all you know the delights wrapped up in Quinquegesima. It’s like choosing mead instead of beer, wine or spirits. You do it because in the time of mead, long ago, all the men were knights and all the women were damsels or maidens, and what delights they had as they quaffed the flowing bowl in green meadows where the lilies grow. You couldn’t say the same for women and men in the age of beer. The modern name for Candlemas, since we like to be up-to-date, is The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now who would want to choose that mouthful. Easter, Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost. Beef, chicken, fish; it’s obvious. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the Purification of the BVM, why it’s worse than vegetarian.
But somebody’s chosen it. It’s on our plate this morning. So why would you choose - to give it its old and simpler name - Candlemas. There’s a surprise in it; a bit like our meal, Candlemas has in it an offer you can’t refuse. You can tell there’s an offer in it you can’t refuse because Candlemas is one of the oldest festivals of the church. It began about the fourth century, so its church history is very old. At first it was celebrated on the 14th February, 40 days after Jan 6th - which was the date the early church used to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But as the 25th December became the day to celebrate Christmas Candlemas kept its 40 days but moved backwards to the 2nd February, where it still hangs out.
At its simplest level; Candlemas makes us an offer we can’t refuse; after 40 days we close off Christmas and get on with the rest of the story. You can’t hang round with the shepherds and the Magi all year. That would be Peter Pan. Lovely though Christmas is, there is more to life and faith than the manger or the star in the sky. So, what better way to end Christmas than a lovely biblical period of 40 days. 40 days and you move on, like Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday, like Easter to Ascension. You’ve got to let Jesus grow up, just as it says: When they had finished everything they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew... 40 days and you move on. We have to grow up into a more adult faith. We have to test the presence of God in the real world of suffering and hardship and perplexity, and with all sorts and conditions of people. Now, that’s the offer we can’t refuse: to move on, to grow into adulthood, to experience life, to have a go at acquiring wisdom and living in favour with God and our neighbours. And years ago, when it really was Candlemas, church people lit their candles from the Christ flame and took them home to give light to the year, to shine in their joys, to shine in their sorrows. You choose Candlemas because it makes you an offer you can’t refuse: to move on, to move up, to grow into maturity and fulfilment.
But, let’s say when you came to church this morning it was different. Graeme has a beard, wears black robes and a hat like a flower pot, and liberally bestows incense on the congregation. It wouldn’t be a mistake or a bad dream. It would simply be that somehow we’d become Eastern Orthodox. It would be Candlemas, too, but not by that name. We would call the festival Hypapante or Meeting. It takes that name from the meeting of Simeon and Jesus, the meeting of the Messiah with one who devoutly longed for his coming. My eyes have seen your salvation. At this level of our hope and dreams Candlemas or Hypapante makes us an offer we can’t refuse. It points to Jesus the Christ and says here is the fulfilment of all you have ever hoped or dreamt. In him and through him what you long for in terms of peace, of welfare, of safety and security, of truth and integrity, will come to pass. Like Simeon you look at the Christ and say God has heard our cries. This world is not forgotten, we are not a hopeless case. We are not condemned to chaos or oblivion. In Christ God meets us. My eyes have seen your salvation. In Christ whenever, wherever he comes there is salvation. You choose Candlemas because it makes us the offer we can’t afford to ignore: Christ has come, we have met with him, and in Christ is salvation. Salvation because God has met and embraced humankind, and humankind has met and embraced its God.
I like eating mash more than rice or pasta. It’s as simple as that. Tasty mashed potatoes or kumaras with generous dollops of mustard and a good press of garlic. It should make your mouth water. Maybe in the end we chose Candlemas because of the candles, this strong primitive urge, if not to play with matches, then to light candles. Of course with a name like Candlemas there has to be candles - but why are they there? It’s straightforward really, the candles give embodiment to the line in the Nunc Dimittis, a light for revelation to the Gentiles. Way back in the third century there were still tensions between Christians and Jews. The Jews had shown a marked reluctance to convert to Christianity, which meant that most Christians were Gentiles. As they took hold of their candle they remembered that Christ is the light of revelation to the Gentiles. Christ is my light, each one thought, and if it were not for Jesus I would still be in darkness. In the 21st century we no longer define ourselves as Gentiles over against the Jews. If anything we expect other faiths to define themselves by Christianity. But in the candles, in the light given to Gentiles is an offer we cannot refuse - it tells us again, we are included. We are not outsiders. We are drawn into the story of salvation. Christ is our light. And what’s more important even than that in the offer we cannot refuse is the promise of Candlemas that Christ has come to be a light to our neighbours, to the strangers across the street, to the business person whose heart is set on getting very rich, to the teenager whose passion in life is to get drunk every weekend. Christ is their light, for in today’s world they are the Gentiles. As you take hold of the candle its rays of light reach out infinite distances, calling, calling, summoning, welcoming. My eyes have seen your salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles. That’s Candlemas, and that’s the offer of God’s unbounded love and light from which we dare not refuse to turn away.
Candlemas is as old as anything in the church but it is still modern. One of the best Candlemas songs was written only about 30 years ago, and you know it very well. It puts away Christmas with these words:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and the shepherds have found their way home,
the work of Christmas is begun:
I am the light of the world, you people come and follow me!
If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery
Of what you were meant to do and be.