Candlemas - Choral Evensong

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Haggai 2.1-9; John 2.18-22

I’m sure you’re familiar with those visitors’ books that some churches have on the hymn book cupboards near the font, to which you can add your comment after visiting the church - ‘Lovely’, ‘Peaceful’, ‘Historic’, that kind of thing that people write

Well, I once saw that some wag had simply written ‘Ichabod’.  You could see the church had once been quite nice, but there was a great deal now going on that distracted from the once glorious architecture and stained glass.  So this person, who obviously knew their Bible, simply put this one strange word ‘Ichabod’ into the Visitors’ book.  It was in fact the name that the daughter-in-law of Eli gave to her new born son.  Both her husband and father-in-law had died and the Ark of the Lord had been captured by the Philistines.  So as she gives birth to her child she names him Ichabod – which means ‘The glory has departed’.  Then she too died.  Clearly, the visitor to that church felt that the glory had departed from that particular place!

The Temple was at the heart of Israel’s religious practice.  It was where the Ark was housed, it was the only place that sacrifices could be offered, it held the monopoly on the observances that were required around the keeping of the law.  It was one of the wonders of the world and successive monarchs had rebuilt it or beautified it until King Herod the Great reconstructed the whole place in spectacular fashion.  There was probably nowhere that could really rival it, standing as it did on the edge of the Kidron Valley, a dominating presence.  And pilgrims to Jerusalem, as the first thing they most often do, will be taken to the Mount of the Olives, discharged from their coach and look with awe and wonder at the sight before them.

The beauty of the Temple Mount is undeniable.  The place where the Holy of Holies, the heart of the Temple complex, once stood is now taken by the magnificent Dome of the Rock.  It covers the summit of Mount Moriah, the place where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his only son Isaac, the place where King David first rested the Ark of the Covenant and built a tabernacle to house it.  It’s the navel of the world and the place from which the Prophet Mohammad ascended on his night journey into heaven on the back of his horse Baraq. This is one of the holiest places in the world.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Candlemas the day on which we remember the arrival of the Lord to the Temple, in the arms of his mother, brought, as Abraham had brought Isaac, to offer him to the Lord.  But as then, when a ram was offered in his place, the holy family arrived with the offering of the poor, the two pigeons that would satisfy God.  And as they enter faithful Simeon sees them.

T S Eliot in his poem ‘A Song for Simeon’ expands on the text we sing each Evensong, the Nunc Dimittis, and says

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

But the light enters into those dusty corners and glory enters the Temple.  In our Second Lesson, however, we hear Jesus speaking to his disciples after he’s been to the Temple again.  What he discovered there was Ichabod, not the person but that the glory had departed and he overturned the tables of the traders who were selling the pigeons to parents just like his own, and challenges the corruption that had taken over the place and then he predicts its destruction.

In fact the Temple was destroyed, by the Romans in AD 70.  It has never been rebuilt because even when Jesus was first taken there the power of the Temple was waning.  Jesus’ parents took him to the synagogue in Nazareth, that was the place where they worshipped, they would go for high days and holidays to the Temple, but for them, like for most Jews most of the time, it was not the Temple but the synagogue that was the place for worship, the place for gathering, the place for teaching.

They had become used to that idea when they were captive in Babylon, when they had no access to the Temple, but in the harshness of their situation they discovered they still had access to God, through God’s word in the scriptures, through the Psalms, through their prayers.

‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former.’

said the prophet Haggai in our First Lesson.  The Temple might go but the true glory had not departed.  It only takes ten men to form a synagogue and there were twelve gathered around Jesus, the living word, the cornerstone of the new Temple which would be built of his risen body, the church. 

‘My own eyes have seen thy salvation’

sings Simeon in the gloom of the Temple pierced by the light that this child brings into that dark place. 

Mary is often called the Ark of the Covenant and as she enters the Temple bearing her child she replaces the ark that is there, filled with dusty stone tablets of the law, dried up manna from the wilderness, a once budding rod held in Aaron’s hand, with the one who will be the fulfilment of the law written on hearts not stone tablets, living bread to satisfy all who hunger, the fruit of a budding tree that will conquer death and bring life to the world.  This is the true glory, the latter splendour, the light to lighten the Gentiles.

The days of the Temple were over and where two or three gather together there is Jesus in the midst, the living stone, the glory of the God who dwells with us, a light that not even death can quench.

‘Lord, now lettest thou they servant depart in peace .. for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’