Mary in Hiking Boots
February 2, 2020
I just became aware this year of Sad Monday – the third or forth Monday of January supposedly being the saddest day of the year (in the Northern hemisphere) because we’re generally fed up with winter, suffering from the shortage of daylight, and, well, it’s a Monday. You may be one of those who suffers from SAD - seasonal affective disorder. Even if you don’t, you’re probably yearning by now for more sunshine, more warmth, more daylight. Or perhaps you’re planning to escape winter and travel to somewhere further south for a while.
Yearning for the light. It’s the theme of today:
· On this date we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation – Jesus at a little less than six weeks old being brought to the temple in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph, and there being recognized as the Messiah that people have been longing for.
· In pre-Christian times this was Imbolc, halfway between the winter and spring solstices, the Goddess Brigid’s day (now St Brigid) when the beginning of spring was celebrated.
· We also know it in our churches as Candlemas – 40 days after Christmas, with light growing in the darkness and the symbolic blessing of candles.
· And of course it’s Groundhog Day, when we hope Wiarton Willie will tell us that winter won’t last much longer.
All that yearning for light….
Let’s go back to the scene in the temple.
Mary and Joseph with their little son start as the centre of the story. They’re doing what all new parents in Judaism were to do according to the law: coming to the temple for the rites of purification for the new mother, and dedication for the child. They’ve brought two pigeons to offer for sacrifice.
But then two other people enter the scene, and the focus shifts.
First it’s Simeon, who recognizes that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and takes him in his arms and utters the thanksgiving that many of us know as the lovely Evensong canticle, the Nunc Dimittis. “Lord, now I can die in peace,” he says, “because I’ve seen your salvation and your light in this child.” Simeon has been waiting and praying and yearning all this time for the Messiah, for hope for Israel, and now the promised one is here. It’s a beautiful and moving moment. For him the light has come.
Then Anna comes into the scene, a prophet, an elderly widow, who spends all her time in the temple day and night fasting and praying. This holy woman, who also recognizes Jesus for who he is, begins praising God and talking about him to the people around, who, like so many, have been longing for redemption for their nation, for hope, for God to come and deliver them.
Imagine coming with a very young child to a place where you’re told he’s the one, he’s the promised Messiah, he embodies all your people’s hopes and yearnings. Luke’s gospel says that Mary and Joseph were amazed at what was being said about Jesus.
But there’s more. Simeon has words for Mary, too. He tells her that Jesus’ destiny will be opposed, and that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart. In other words, it’s not the road of fame and fortune and power and glory ahead for Jesus; it will lead to suffering. And we know what the future held for Mary, standing at the foot of the cross as her beloved son was crucified. The light coming into the world will not always be easy to bear.
Today’s passage from the prophet Malachi says that God’s coming close to us is like a metalworker’s fire refining silver or gold, or a fuller’s soap bleaching fabric. It purifies and works to remove the blemishes, the tarnish. And that isn’t easy; it’s painful.
We yearn for light, but when it shines it shows up the darkness and imperfections. (Like my friend who had her cataracts removed and new lenses inserted into her eyes, and then she saw much more brightly and clearly, but realized with horror how many wrinkles she had on her face that she’d never been able to see before.)
Israel was longing for a Messiah: Jesus was recognized as that Messiah. But his path was one of self-sacrifice, costly love, hard decisions and difficult inner transformations. Sometimes it’s easier to stay in the darkness.
In my life I’ve found that the times I’ve felt I’m following Jesus’ way more closely are also the times that are more challenging and difficult. Times of personal pain and suffering have led me to run to God for help and comfort. But it’s also true that when I’m closer, when I feel inspired and on the good path, more is asked of me – more self-examination and honesty and active compassion and courageous discipleship.
We need the light that Christ embodies, just as we need the return of spring each year.
The light of Christ shining in our lives helps us to see the way. But it’s not a way of ease and pleasure. If the light shines on the tarnishing within us, there’ll be some scrubbing ahead.
Anglicans aren’t usually big on Mary, but I think she’s a remarkable role model for us as Jesus people, because of her strength, her courage, her ability to ponder and take things in, her deep trust and faithfulness, and her willingness to take the hard path and be transformed. She started out as a simple teenager in a peasant community, and then became pregnant out of wedlock, then a migrant and a refugee, a parent of an extraordinary child, and finally a part of the Jesus community who stayed with him till the end and new beginning.
Mary for me isn’t all meekness and bowed head and blue robes, but has good hiking boots on, with a warm, ample body for dispensing hugs, and weathered skin, and laugh lines, and calm, wise eyes. Oh, and she’s had her cataracts done so she sees really clearly. She’s seen the light, and she’s allowed it to transform her. Mary is an image for us of what it means to be a disciple: to allow the light to show up the darkness, and to trust in the profound transformation that can bring.