+ ‘The old man carried the child but the child ruled the old man’
What do we see in today’s feast? It is rather like Holy Cross and other modern churches. A child with its parents and some elderly people in a temple. It’s easy for the elderly to feel left out in our society, those in work seem to work harder than before and have no time, technology zooms ahead and unless you are a skilled silver surfer you can easily feel left out. Today’s feast challenges this as it is the old man and the old woman who have the active role. The gospels don’t actually say Simeon was old, traditional texts like the one I began with do, but the gospels do imply he had been waiting a long time and they certainly say Anna was 84.
Though their bodies may have been old, their hearts were agile and they were able to recognise the inbreaking of the new – the Messiah had come!
Today is 40 days after Christmas, the last feast dependant on Christmas, when the last decorations are taken down. Now we turn our eyes to Easter and the 40 days of Lent. Today celebrates this openness to something new which only the spiritually alive can recognise – the Jewish Shepherds, the gentile wise men, the devout old Simeon and Anna. It can be tough for people who have been worshipping in a place for ages to welcome newcomers, it’s just as well for our salvation that Simeon and Anna didn’t say or do something that drove the young family with their baby away. Our society doesn’t realise how much depends on the wisdom of the elderly.
But what is happening? ‘The old man carried the child but the child ruled the old man’. These words are from Evening Prayer last night and are an alternative verse for the alleluia today. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and carried him, but in what way did the baby rule him? Those of us who have children know how babies can rule everything in a family, but that’s not what’s going on here. The gospel says Mary and Joseph were amazed by what Simeon said, they knew something of who their son really was but they gradually found out more and more. Simeon carried the child but how did baby Jesus rule him? Christianity is about a secret, this man is the God who sustains the universe. As Paul wrote of Christ to the Colossians: ‘He is the image of the invisible God… all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together’. There are not many babies you can say that about!
Faith goes beyond appearances. Things are not as they seem and we can only access reality via symbols and hints. That is why we carried candles today. The sort of mind that can’t get beyond appearances would say, it’s light we don’t need candles. But the Christian would say, old Simeon carried Jesus and called him, as we sung earlier, ‘a light to enlighten the gentiles’. Like Simeon, Mary, and Joseph we carry light to recall Jesus and pray that we might carry him in our hearts to rule them.
We are called to be a light in the darkness. That’s why we bless our candles today – they are a precious reminder of the heart of our faith. A candle is fragile, it is easily blown out in a strong wind, as Elton John wrote of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. A baby is fragile, in one of the moving stories for Holocaust Memorial Day last week, the journalist Hugo Rifkind wrote of discovering about his grandfather’s first wife who went through Nazi and Soviet camps but died on a train in central Asia along with her baby whose name is not known but whose memory he keeps alive. Babies are fragile and people are fragile, especially when we get older.
Today’s feast reminds us of what Christianity is really about. God becoming human. He fits in and follows the customs of the Jews, being presented in the Temple but there the paradox was displayed: ‘The old man carried the child but the child ruled the old man’. As Christians we need to look beyond appearances. We need to educate ourselves in the language of symbols. These symbols, like the fragile candle flame, tell us that those less important in the secular world – babies, the old, the sick, the poor – are those who reveal God to us. Mary is the great symbol of the Christian life, and, like many mothers, if we follow Jesus we too won’t escape what Simeon prophesied about her and her child, ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too’. Let us pray that we can see the light and bear its flame.