by Win Bassett
We read that Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth. (Luke 2:22-40) The devout parents take their tiny baby there to follow the laws set forth in the Old Testament that require a mother to undergo a purification ritual because she birthed a child and that mandate that a firstborn baby’s parents present him to the Temple for redemption.(1)
We then read that the Holy Spirit assures Simeon—a man from Jerusalem and perhaps a priest—that he would not die before he saw the Messiah(2), the One who would come to save us all. We hear, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah(3).” None of us will.
And on February 2, forty days after Christmas, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, the Meeting of the Lord, and Candlemas, we celebrate, among many parts of this story from the Gospel of Luke, the truth that no one of us will die before we see the Lord.
No one of us will close our eyes—even before we fall asleep tonight—before we see the Messiah.
We aren’t the only one of God’s creatures waiting to see something today. Punxsutawney Phil hopes that he sees clouds. Yes, the groundhog who lives in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, pops out of his hole in the ground on the morning of February 2 each year and prays that the clouds in the sky prevent the sun from casting his shadow into his view. Or more accurately, we’re the ones doing the praying.
If Phil doesn’t see his shadow, the legend goes, we’ll see an early spring. If he does see his shadow, we’ll live through six more weeks of winter-like weather. Does this groundhog have anything to do with Candlemas?
Well, we can find the first documented American reference to Groundhog Day in a diary entry dated February 1841 from a storekeeper in Pennsylvania, which, mind you, was a popular destination for German immigrants. The entry reads, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate(4).” We also read in an old English poem that:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again (5).
At some point in history, it appears that Phil the groundhog replaces Candlemas in popular culture. But this displacement is in word only. Like Simeon’s seeing Christ in the Temple before he dies, Phil also sees the Messiah before he returns to his hole one day never to come aground again. “I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat(6),” God says to Moses in Leviticus. “Thick clouds enwrap him, so that he does not see, and he walks on the dome of heaven(7),” we read in Job. “Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!(8)” John writes in Revelation.
If, on the other hand, Phil sees his shadow, well, the Lord is there too. “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by,(9)” we read in the fifty-seventh Psalm.
This means that even if Phil sees his shadow and we’re to experience six more weeks of cold, dark winter weather, we’ll still see Jesus before we die. Marian Storm writes in her poem “Vigil at Candlemas”:
In the dead of winter, when the snow whispers,
When trees crack in the midnight and the cold goes deep,
Then I lie and think how the frozen earth houses many a
For even to think of them is like a sleep(10).
“Many a living sleeper” —that’s us. That’s us before we see Christ. It’s Simeon before Mary and Joseph travel to the Temple with baby Jesus. It’s us before we realize we’re seeing the Messiah right now. Our hearts beat, but our eyes are closed.
There’s an old story about an abbot and a rabbi, and perhaps you’ve heard before(12).
A monastery had fallen on hard times. Its many buildings used to be filled with young monks, but now it was almost deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer, and only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters serving God with heavy hearts.
On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut. He would come there, from time to time, to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.” And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.
One day the head monk—the abbot—decided to visit the rabbi and to open his heavy heart to him. So, after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, as if he had been awaiting the abbot’s arrival, his arms outstretched in welcome. They embraced like long-lost brothers. The two entered the hut where, in the middle of the room, stood a wooden table with the Scriptures open on it.
“You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” the rabbi said. “You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can repeat it only once. After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”
The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.” For a while, all was silent. The rabbi said, “Now you must go.” The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back. The next morning, the abbot called his monks together in the chapter room. He told them he had received a teaching from the “rabbi who walks in the woods” and that the teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at the group of assembled brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”
The monks were startled by this saying. “What could it mean?” they asked themselves. “Is Brother John the Messiah? Or Brother Matthew or Brother Thomas? Am I the Messiah? What could all this mean?” They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching, but no one ever mentioned it again. As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a new and very special reverence. A gentle, warm-hearted, concern began to grow among them which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They began to live with each other as people who had finally found the special something they were looking for. When visitors came to the monastery, they found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Word spread, and before long people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and to experience the loving reverence in which they held each other.
Soon, other young men were asking, once again, to become a part of the community, and the community grew and prospered. In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut had fallen into ruins. Yet somehow, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his wise and prayerful presence.
Take a look around. “[F]or my eyes have seen your salvation(13),” Simeon cries in the Temple after Mary and Joseph hand him the baby Jesus.
In a now famous 2007 article in The Washington Post entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast,” acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell descended into the metro station in nondescript clothes and played with his open violin case at his feet for tips. The article begins,
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?(14)
From the time that you open your eyes each morning to the time that you close them in the evening, do you stop and see? Do you hurry past the day? Are you kind to other children of God just to be polite? Does your decision change if they’re not kind? Do you have time for beauty? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment? Do you have time for beauty? I often don’t, and I often hurry past the days, and I more-than-often fail to show kindness and mercy to others.
A funny thing happened as I wrote the previous sentences of this sermon. As I was typing those words on my laptop on a train from New Haven, Connecticut, to Philadelphia, a gentleman sat directly across from me at a dining car table. He looked quite disheveled; his hair was all over the place; he wore more than one rather large coat, fingerless gloves, and gigantic boots. He had a speech impediment and perhaps social skills to which I wasn’t accustomed. He rattled my ear off about listening to music, and he showed me how every app on his iPod worked. I wanted badly to brush him off, to ignore him, and to tell him, albeit politely, that I was working.
And then I remembered the prayer of Simeon: “for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.(15)” “[I]n the presence of all peoples.(16)” Poet Christian Wiman writes,
God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him—to find him—does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to come cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have long been absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.(17)
The dirty guy across the table from me, the man bothering me while I tried to write this sermon, is this irritating person. So I stopped. I made time for beauty, and I made time to see Christ in our presence at our dining car table.
Only one person recognized that famous violinist in the DC metro station. Most people didn’t stop, and the ones who did typically flipped only quarters into his open case. Did they have time for the Lord’s beauty?
Marian Storm, from the verse I quoted earlier, begins to see this beauty near the end of her poem. “I wake when I know that nested in mud as in down the / frogs are sleeping!(18)” she writes. “Sleep till the sun turns northward and the willow flowers, / Till the sod grows quick again. // O peace mysterious! Supreme compassion!(19)”
Pope Francis said last May—the time of the year when the “sod grows quick again”—”To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete. It means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of Jesus.(20)”
“It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.(21)” Let us stop being “living sleeper[s].(22)” Let us wake up from “our intense, self-enclosed sleep.(23)”
T.S. Eliot, in his well-known poem “A Song for Simeon,” writes, “Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word, / Grant Israel’s consolation / To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.(24)” We all have tomorrows, but Simeon thought that he didn’t. He thought he didn’t, that is, until the Holy Spirit told him that he would have more tomorrows until he saw the Messiah.
We read that Simeon then saw Jesus, a child who “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.(25)”
Let the favor of God be upon us all.
I pray that these words are in the name of the Living God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preached on February 2, 2014 at All Saints Ashmont Episcopal Church, Dorchester, MA
Win Bassett is a writer, editor, and seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. Follow him on Twitter: @winbassett.
1 Luke 2:22-24 (NSRV).
2 Luke 2:25.
3 Luke 2:26.
4 Wendie C. Old, The Groundhog Day Book of Facts and Fun (Albert Whitman and Company, 2004), 27.
5 “Groundhog Day,” NOAA National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/special-reports/groundhog-day.php.
6 Leviticus 16:2 (NRSV).
7 Job 22:14 (NRSV).
8 Revelation 14:14 (NRSV).
9 Psalm 57:1 (NRSV).
10 Marian Storm, “Vigil at Candlemas,” Poetry (January 1928), 196, available at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/31/4#!/20576346.
12 The author adapted the following story from Francis Dorff, “The Rabbi’s Gift,” New Catholic World 222 (March-April l979), 53, available at http://www.martinasteiger.com/The-Rabbis-Gift.html.
13 Luke 2:30.
14 Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” The Washington Post, Apr. 8, 2007, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html.
15 Luke 2:30-31.
16 Luke 2:31.
17 Christian Wiman. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 109.
18 Storm, “Vigil at Candlemas,” 197.
20 Pope Francis, “Visit of Pope Francis to the homeless shelter Dono di Maria: Meeting with the Missionaries of Charity,” May 21, 2013, available at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/speeches/2013/may/documents/papa-francesco_20130521_dono-di-maria_en.html.
21 Luke 2:26.
22 Storm, “Vigil at Candlemas,” 197.
23 Wiman, My Bright Abyss, 109.
24 T.S. Eliot. “A Song for Simeon” in Collected Poems: 1909–1962, (London: Faber and Faber; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963).
25 Luke 2:40.