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“Then Simeon blessed them” – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: Then Simeon blessed them…

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 2 February 2024, Candlemas


Then Simeon blessed them…

Last night I attended a political Q&A session with one of the candidates standing to be mayor of York and North Yorkshire. The first question addressed to the candidate was from Archbishop Stephen, who spoke of an encounter he had had with the mother of a child of primary school age in one of the most deprived parts of this diocese.

She had described to the archbishop how her child goes to school with an empty lunchbox. Arriving early, breakfast is provided by the school, and in the middle of the day, her child, along with 90% of the other students, gets a free school meal. And at the end of the day food is laid out on several trestle tables, so that her child and many others can pack their empty lunchbox with provisions that will become their supper.

“I’m not going to ask you what you would do to fix this grinding poverty,” said the archbishop, “but what I want to ask you”, he said to the aspiring mayor, “is what would you say to the mother of this child – who has given up all hope in politicians, and cannot be bothered to vote for anyone any more.”

The answer that was offered was broadly about the steps thought necessary to build infrastructure in the region that would enable greater economic growth, the result of which would trickle down to those living in such poverty. And, depending on your political and economic opinions, that might be something important to achieve. But it was not a proper answer to the archbishop’s question… and it was certainly not an answer that relates to the characters we have encountered in our gospel reading on this great feast we call Candlemas.

Poverty is not a new phenomenon, and, although you may not have noticed it, it is a backdrop to the story we have just heard. For Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were required to bring a sacrifice as set out in the Law, of two turtledoves or pigeons. But that’s only a half-truth. If you go and check what the Law of Moses actually say (which is clearly set out in Leviticus 12) the sacrifice is meant to be one pigeon, and one lamb. But if she cannot afford a sheep, it says, she shall take two turtledoves or pigeons.

And so, carrying, as it were, an empty lunchbox, Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem to fulfil a religious requirement to allow Mary to be declared ritually clean after childbirth – and, in so doing, they encounter a pair of devout, religious old people. Anna, so we are told, simply never leaves the Temple. If we were to translate the story into our own setting, she would be the pensioner who is always at Morning Prayer and at Evensong – doing her religious duty, and probably being regarded as a bit ‘strange’.

And Simeon – ‘righteous and devout’ – he is also, probably, someone who is searching for meaning through his religious observances. And his actions and words – clearly – come over as strange and unexpected, at least as far as Mary and Joseph are concerned. But, eccentric, ‘cracked’, obsessive, whatever one might make of Anna and Simeon, they had the ability to see what was going on. Because, through the grace of God, suddenly they both knew, with astonishing clarity, that something unique and wonderful had happened. Somehow, on this day of all days, as they fulfilled what they believed their own religious, and rather obsessive calling was, they finally saw something different.

The distinguished church musician and composer Sarah MacDonald, who works in Cambridge and Ely, and whose music is regularly in the repertoire of our own wonderful choir, wrote an article in December, reflecting on the monotony that church musicians – and, let me say, clergy – can find during Advent, which brings the inevitable requirement of participating in carol services day after day after day after day. Her moving and illuminating article concluded with her saying:

[Something] that is crucial to remember, particularly for those…currently in the middle of multiple repetitions of far-too-early carol services, is that for many in the congregation…this may be the only celebration of the nativity that they experience this year. It may be the 14th time that we conduct, play, or sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” but for someone in the pews it could the one “And our eyes at last shall see him” moment that we all long for throughout the year, regardless of the liturgical season.

Anna and Simeon were no strangers to multiple repetitions of religious ritual. They had probably gone well beyond the 14th iteration of such things. But Candlemas is the story, literally, of that ‘one “And our eyes at last shall see him” moment,’ which, as Sarah MacDonald so poignantly wrote, is something “that we all long for throughout the year…” if not throughout our life.

And that in itself is a beautiful story, and one which we commemorate in this beautiful, candlelit liturgy. But the story does not end with Anna or Simeon. The story goes back to the empty lunchbox. Because Anna, having had her revelation, goes on to ‘speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’. And Simeon, of course, speaks first to God, and then he speaks to Mary. Simeon answers Archbishop Stephen’s question 2000 years before he asked it, and he answers it properly.

Because, as Luke tells us, “Simeon blessed them”… Simeon passes on the Good News, he does not keep it to himself, and he gives Mary an answer to the question that the Archbishop of York was asking last night – an answer that spoke directly to the needs that Mary was going to face, rather than being an aspirational political soundbite. Because Simeon blessed them.

And what is a blessing? Why is it that in our liturgy tonight and at so many services, do we conclude with a blessing? Quite simply, it is an assurance that God is with us. And that is what Simeon and Anna understood in the most profound, ‘Emmanuel’ way possible – that God, in that vulnerable baby, was literally and incarnationally with us.

And that’s not a magic wand or a lucky charm. Simeon is prophetically very clear about that, warning Mary that a sword will pierce her soul, which – indeed – it will on Good Friday, as she watches her son die a criminal’s ugly death. And the sword will linger around her soul at other challenging and painful moments during Jesus’ life, as the narrative of the gospels makes abundantly clear. This ‘blessing’ does not wipe out the challenges and the pains of real life for Mary – and nor does it wipe them out for you or for me, or for that mother facing the horrors of a breadline existence who spoke with Archbishop Stephen.

But that’s OK. It’s not God’s job to alleviate poverty, just as it was not God’s job to address the Roman occupiers’ attempts at a criminal justice system. That’s our task. The blessing of the Incarnation, which we have celebrated these forty days since Christmas, the blessing that Simeon and Anna recognised is that, while we live in a world of imperfection and injustice, God walks this world with us, understands – first-hand – our pain, and shows us that pain and death do not get the last word, and that Good Friday will be followed by Easter Day.

And if, by some chance, you’d never noticed this before – whether you are a first-time visitor to church, or whether, like some clergy, church musicians, and elderly figures in the gospels – if you’d not realised the full nature of God’s blessing, then I hope that, in the full spirit of Christmastide, tonight, indeed, will be that ‘one “And our eyes at last shall see him moment”’ for which, as Sarah MacDonald so rightly said, we all long. Amen.

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