A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

By: Eleanor Wellford, Priest Associate


Have you ever wondered why you do some of the things that you do? Is it routine or ritual? If you get up early in the morning to walk the dog, it’s probably routine. But does being outside in the fresh morning air make it more ritual than routine? Think about sitting down with your family to have dinner. That can certainly seem like a routine. But does it shift to ritual when you bless the food before eating it?

So what’s the difference between routine and ritual? They sound so similar and are sometimes used interchangeably. A routine usually becomes a habit – we just do it without thinking about why. A ritual has more to it. It has meaning or tradition that stirs up something deep within us. It points to something bigger than itself.

Mary and Joseph knew that when they took baby Jesus to the Temple when he was only 40 days old and there wasn’t anything routine about that. They were a Jewish family and they followed the Jewish ritual of presenting their first born son to the Lord. Such a ritual was in gratitude for their baby and as a reminder of the sanctity of their relationship to God.

Although baptism is a sacrament, there are rituals involved in it that uncover its meaning for us – such as watching and hearing water being poured into the font, or watching the priest make the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead. They both point to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I had a christening gown which had been worn by my children and by generations of Wellfords before them. It looked and felt sacred to me in how delicate and well worn the material had become from so many years of use. When our first grandchild came along and my son and daughter-in-law were making plans to have him baptized, I found that christening gown, extracted it from layers of tissue paper and gave it to them to use.

They took one look at it and then looked at their sizable 8-month old son, and knew they needed a Plan B! As it turned out, that Plan B included a little white shirt, a little white sweater, little white shorts and white socks and shoes. All he needed was a little tennis racket and he’d would have been ready for Wimbledon!

The truth is, the outfit had no impact whatsoever on the sacrament or the rituals of baptism. They went far and beyond that gown in marking such an important event in our grandson’s life – in connecting him through the Holy Spirit to God’s unconditional love of him.

So rituals are significant. Just ask Simeon and Anna, both of whom were at the Temple when Mary and Joseph walked in with their infant son. Why did they happen to be there just at that moment?

It was no wonder that Anna was there. She came to the Temple in Jerusalem every day. She was a regular fixture there. She had been widowed early in her life and was thought to have been at least 84 years old. Coming to the Temple had become her life and the rituals of praying and fasting became what sustained her and kept her connected to God.

Anyone there would have seen how bent over and frail she was; and if they had gotten close enough they would have noticed her deep-set eyes and especially how luminous they were. She kept to herself, but when she spoke, people listened to her. She was a prophet, a woman filled with the Holy Spirit. Of course she would have been there when Mary and Joseph arrived. She wouldn’t have been anywhere else.

But what about Simeon? At nearly 200 years of age, he shouldn’t even have been alive, much less been at the Temple. But Simeon had had a visit from the Holy Spirit early on in his life and was told that he would not die until he had seen God’s son, the Messiah. He had been waiting and waiting for that to happen; and now his waiting was almost over. Simeon’s name means God Receiver and rituals were just as important to him as they were to Anna. He was a priest and a prophet and as we heard from Luke, he was guided by the Holy Spirit to be there at the Temple to receive the baby Jesus from his parents.

His reaction to the Christ child has been memorialized in what is known as the Song of Simeon or the Nunc Dimittis. And if you’ve been to any evening service such as Evensong, Evening Prayer or Compline, you would have heard it sung or said along with the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary.

After cradling the baby in his arms, Simeon understood that his life’s work was over and that God’s work in Jesus would be on behalf of all people – not just Israel – as he exclaimed: ”Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

Anyone in the Temple who was witnessing this ritual of blessing, had to lean in closely to hear Simeon. His voice was deep and raspy but there was no mistaking the joy that was there. Anna was watching all of this from a distance – from her usual place in the Temple that she claimed as her own. She was surprised by what Simeon was saying and by the catch that she heard in his voice. When she quietly made her way over to him, she noticed the tears in his heavily lidded eyes and the tracks they made down his hollow cheeks. It was then that she felt the full weight of wonder in being that close to God.

Through the rituals of prayer and patience, Anna and Simeon saw the glory of God in the face of that infant; and in lifting him up, presented him as well as themselves as an offering and sacrifice to God.

Today is the day that the church celebrates Jesus’ presentation in the Temple by a Feast Day called Candlemas which happens 40 days after Christmas on February 2nd which is today’s date. Some people believe that you can keep your Christmas tree up until this day. (I’m pretty sure they use an artificial tree, though.) Some churches use this day to bless all the candles that will be used in services during the upcoming year. So what about the use of candles. Is it routine or ritual? If they are used when the electricity goes off, then lighting them is probably routine. If lighting a candle sends up a prayer to a loved one, then that’s ritual.

Mary and Joseph knew about rituals. So did Anna and Simeon. They made a difference in their lives. They connected them to the sacred, to the Holy. And unless we let our busyness overwhelm our awareness of God, rituals can make a difference in our lives, as well.