A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Feast of Candlemas
28th January 2018
Luke 2: 22 – 40
When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin candles, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
and run my stick along the public railings
and make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
and pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
and learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
or only bread and pickles for a week
and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
and pay our rent and not swear in the street
and set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
I wonder if it was any coincidence that Jenny Joseph’s famous poem came to me just as I’d been sitting in the barber’s chair on Wednesday afternoon, watching increasing amounts of grey hair falling into my lap. Going to the barber is a sobering experience for many, but then again at least I can console myself with the fact that I still have the need to go to the barber. It reminds me of an old joke about the man who preceded every request to his wife with endearing terms – “Honey,” “My Love,” “Darling,” “Sweetheart,” etc. The couple had been married almost 70 years and, clearly, they were still very much in love. While the wife was in the kitchen, his friend leaned over and said to the old man, “I think it’s wonderful that, after all these years, you still call your wife those loving pet names.” The old man hung his head. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I forgot her name about 10 years ago!”
Despite the jokes and the poems, aging is a serious business. People sometimes come and talk to me about it: the concerns about becoming dependent, being a burden, the fear of decline – they’re all very real. And perhaps that’s the motive behind the woman in Jenny Joseph’s poem who, facing the onset of old age, realizes that now is the moment she needs to start growing old disgracefully, that tomorrow never comes and that the here and now is the moment to make the difference.
It’s with these issues floating around inside my head (and with my graying hair being cut off of it) that my thoughts turned to our Gospel reading this morning, and especially to the two elderly people we meet in it, Simeon and Anna.
Simeon and Anna are older people. The passage tells us that Anna the prophetess was eighty-four years old which, in a culture where a 45 year old was considered elderly, is an extraordinary age to have reached. Simeon’s age we don’t know but the context of what he says give us a clue that he could well be approaching death. What we do know from what Luke tells us is that both were devout and prayerful people. Anna is a person who is always present in the temple, Simeon is someone on whom the Holy Spirit rests. They are people who are open to God, ready to be prompted by his Spirit.
And that is what happens in this story of the presentation of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t actually do anything in this reading and he’s too young to speak. Mary & Joseph don’t say anything either. The speaking is reserved to these two older folk whose lives of dedication to God bear a rich fruit in spiritual awareness. Both of them speak of Jesus’ future as Redeemer of God’s people. They speak of the one whom God has raised up to bring his promises true. Through their spiritual awareness, fostered through a lifetime of prayer and worship, they are able to recognize the key moment in the story of God’s people. They know that this is the moment they, with all God’s people, have been waiting for. They recognize in Jesus the central point of their lives.
This is a sober reminder to our culture. One of the ironies about 21st century Britain is that, while we’re an aging population, it often seems as if life is built around the needs of the younger element of the population. Every now and then there’s a news item about aging or an interview with an aging celebrity in which surprise or determination is expressed to live as full a life in older years as possible. We’re told by Esther Rantzen or someone like that that there’s much that can be achieved in older years. What is surprising about this is that it needs to be said at all but, for me, it points to the fact that many younger people, and not a few older ones, think that life cannot be full of newness, surprise and discovery once fifty has been reached.
Simeon and Anna had the most significant and life-changing experience of their lives near its end! They met and recognized Jesus as the Redeemer of Israel in what we would call their Third Age. So part of the Gospel in this story, the good news that this particular passage has for us, is to remind us that life is full of potential right up to its final days. There is no age limit on life-changing experiences. We are not prevented from growing or changing or maturing just because a certain hurdle has been passed.
And that’s just as true in our walk with God as it is in any other dimension of our lives. We may not wish to grow old disgracefully – going out in our slippers in the rain and picking the flowers in other people’s gardens and learning to spit – but growing old gracefully does not have to imply a sort of passive acceptance of the onset of decline into a slightly befuddled niceness. Growing old gracefully can mean aging with a growing awareness of God’s love, rejoicing in seeing new opportunities and potential in each day. I’m reminded of Raymond Lenton, a man of great prayer and insight from a church I worshipped at when I was young, a man who took an interest in the missionary work that some church members were doing. He knew he couldn’t do it himself, but he prayed, he corresponded with the missionaries and I know from the missionaries concerned that they were always keen to receive the benefit of his advice and wisdom when difficult decisions were to be made. Raymond made the most of every day of his life. Right up until his dying day, he prayed and was concerned for others. Simeon and Anna remind us that, whatever our age, the best may yet be to come. The most significant moment of our lives may still be waiting to happen.
It is worth remembering, though, that Simeon & Anna’s encounters with Jesus would not have take place had they not been shaped by this spiritual awareness that I’ve been speaking of. Their lives were lives of prayer and worship, they were sensitized to the work of the Holy Spirit because through prayer and openness to God. On the whole, I think spiritual awareness is a learned thing. We may discover God through some revelation, but developing that discovery only comes about through a developing pattern of prayer, bible study, worship and encounter with other Christians. By steeping themselves in prayer and worship, Simeon and Anna have an awareness of God that gives them insight into who Jesus is. When we put ourselves in a position to meet God, then our own spiritual instincts will be honed and sharpened. It’s easy to think of prayer & bible study, regular worship and belonging to a house group as chores and duties. But in reality these things are about placing ourselves in relationship to God and one another that our openness to the Holy Spirit deepens and develops. So worship, for example, then becomes less about what hymns we sing, or whether everything is done properly and certainly less an opportunity to think about how things always used to be much better (have you ever thought that nostalgia might be a sin?). Instead, worship becomes about placing oneself consciously in relationship with God and his people in a way that allows God to speak to us, shape us and change us. That’s what Simeon and Anna teach us: they show us how to place ourselves in a position where God can do his best with us.
There’s a wonderful verse in John’s Gospel that has much to say about aging. When John the Baptist hears news of the Messiah – Jesus – he says, “He must increase; I must decrease.” The inevitable slowing up of aging reminds us of the reality of our diminishment. It must have been very hard for eighty-four year old Anna to get around the Temple, after all. But what these two old saints show us, as they rejoice in their discovery of Jesus the Messiah and the Light to lighten the Gentiles, is that being diminished can be a creative thing when, in relationship with Jesus, the future becomes more important than the past and we are set free to live as full a life as we most possibly can, whatever our limitations might be.
We can even wear purple and red hats that don’t go.