Preached at the Urban Abbey
February 5, 2017
So here we are. It’s still winter. This past week, we have experienced some of those classic short, grey days of late January and early February. And apparently, just a few days ago in Pennsylvania, some people dug out this very fat and very tired and irritated-looking groundhog named Phil, (I mean, who names a groundhog Phil?) and Phil determined that there will be six more weeks of winter. I watched the video. He seemed very irritated.
I can sort of relate to Phil. I’ve been feeling maybe a little chubby lately from the comfort food-stravaganza that seems to accompany my couch-sitting around 9 PM every night. And like Phil, I have felt tired and irritated this week - mostly just tired – during these cloudy and dreary days, my heart heavy with worry over the state of our world.
So today I got out a whole bunch of candles. Today we are celebrating the Feast day of St. Brigid (technically February 1st) ,and the feast day that falls on the 2nd: The Feast of the Purification of Mary. The Purification of Mary is the story that we heard in our scripture today. It is that moment when Mary and Jesus and Joseph go up to Jerusalem, up to the temple, in order for Jesus to be dedicated and for Mary to be ritually made clean again 40 days after giving birth to a male child.
St. Brigid is actually associated with this story. See, Brigid, who lived in the 5th century CE in Ireland, is known for many things. She is known for being a child who got in trouble for giving her family’s food away to the poor. She is known as an abbess who founded a monastery for women and men that became a haven for artists. She is the saint people call on during childbirth and daily labor and for rest at night.
And she is also known as a sort of time-bender, a time-and-space-traveler. Many stories about Brigid are about how she traveled, sometimes in a dream, and actually participated in the stories of Jesus. In this particular moment in Jesus’ life, Brigid is said to have traveled back in time in order to hold two candles and walk before Mary to light her way into the temple.
You heard in the scripture, while they are in the temple, the holy family encounters this old man Simeon. The text says that the Holy Spirit led Simeon to the temple so that he would meet Jesus. And when Simeon meets this tiny savior, he declares that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” In other words, this savior Jesus would be a light and a savior not just for his own people – but for all people.
It is this light motif that caused some Christian churches to celebrate something called Candlemas – the Mass of the Candles – at this moment in the church year. The priest would bless all of the candles – candles that remind us of Jesus being the light for the whole world – even at this moment of lingering darkness, lingering cold, six more weeks of winter. Even here – we glimpse the hope of light.
Now it would be easier to stop here, and just rest in a simple declaration of Jesus as light and hope. But scripture, like our lives, is complicated. The gospel is not the gospel without struggle. So we go on reading the scripture and hear Simeon’s blessing of Mary. He says to her that Jesus will be opposed and will reveal the inner thoughts – perhaps the true nature – of those who oppose him. And then Simeon speaks these ominous words to her: “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Even scholars admit that it’s not entirely clear what Simeon means here. But we do know the rest of this story. We can imagine that it is a reference to Mary's experience as she walks alongside her beloved child. It will be her nearness to Jesus, her love for Jesus that results in her soul being pierced, her heart broken. It calls to mind scenes of Mary at the foot of the cross - scenes certainly not yet imaginable for this young mother holding her baby.
But isn’t this the paradox of life, the paradox of love, that it is in the very times that we love the most, the times when we open our hearts up to true care for one another, that we are most likely to find our souls pierced?
And paradoxically, I too have found in this dark and difficult time in our calendar year, this dark and difficult time in our political life, that I have experienced the light of Christ most truly in moments where I could care for people in this congregation, and in moments when I witnessed you caring for each other. And these moments have been just as likely to bring me to tears as they have been to bring a smile to my face.
They have pierced my heart. They have helped me realize how much we need one another. And they have reminded me about the exquisite gift we give when we allow someone to care for us. I’m not sure how I would not have made it through the last month without the blessing of having people to care for, and having people to care for me.
You see, I believe that in this personal work of caring for one another, we experience God's presence, and that is where we are empowered and encouraged to engage in the sometimes-overwhelming problems of the world. Said another way...when we care for one another, God is in it. It is the very presence of God that transforms our compassion - our suffering alongside one another - into the power to resist evil and work for justice.
So I invite you to imagine the scene with St. Brigid holding the candles for Mary as she walks up the steep steps of the temple in Jerusalem. Go ahead and close your eyes if that helps you imagine. Ask yourself this question: Who are you holding the light for? When are you Brigid in this story? Now ask this: who is holding the light for you? When are you Mary in this story? Not one of us has to do this caring for each other alone. If no one is holding the light for you, ask for help. You can be a means of God’s grace. You can give others the gift of encountering God's presence through caring for you.
You can open your eyes.
Here is the good news: I believe in the light. I believe in the light of Christ that pierces the lingering winter darkness. And I believe that, like Mary, to walk beside Christ and to take up the cause of Christ will pierce our souls as well. We will suffer sadness and heartbreak as we risk caring for one another.
And yet. When we suffer and die to ourselves with Christ, we rise with Christ, too. We rise as others offer us light. We rise as we offer light to others. We rise up in solidarity. We rise up in protest. We rise up knowing that we are just one person, and we will not change the world on our own.
But we rise knowing God is God, and Christ is light, and the darkness shall not overcome it.
May it be so.