In praise of age and experience…words for Candlemas, Adel Parish Church.

simeon and anna

In praise of age and experience…words for Candlemas, Adel Parish Church.

When our daughter was small – one of her favourite books was called ‘Staying with Grandpa’. It told of a small girl enjoying visits to her grandparents…and the ‘monkey business’ that always took place. I think Kate loved it because it was an only slightly exaggerated version of her own stays with her grandparents. Even as an adult – one of the things she’s missed most this last year has been ‘staying with Grandpa’.

There’s often something beautiful about the relationship between young and old. It’s one of the joys of the parish church system that because it’s based on place, churches are spaces where different generations from a community come together.

Today – Candlemas or the presentation of Christ in the Temple – we celebrate a famous meeting of very old and very young. In the Eastern church it’s called ‘The feast of the Holy Encounter’…and I think it reminds us to value age and experience.

Two key players in today’s story are Simeon and Anna. The main things we learn about them are their great age, and their closeness to God. Here are two people who have lived long and experienced much. In their later years at least, when life was perhaps less busy, they devoted themselves to God.

It’s a beautiful story of the wisdom of age, of the fruits of years spent with God. Simeon and Anna are steeped in the Jewish faith…longing for the promised Messiah. I guess, like many others, they were expecting him to come in glory, bring freedom from Roman oppressors and take his place at the head of a kingdom. Yet when he comes in the form of a tiny baby born to poor parents…they know him straight away.

Far from the stereotype of elderly people unwilling to change, the time they’ve spent with God makes them more, not less able to recognise this radical picture of salvation.

Mary and Joseph were probably still trying to work it all out…still wondering how that tiny, vulnerable scrap of humanity could be God’s message of salvation.

At that moment they needed Simeon and Anna…they needed the support and recognition of those whose age and experience lent weight to their words. Today’s gospel celebrates the place age and experience have in the Christian story…and it’s just as true today.

At the start of this pandemic, with its particular threat to older people, I know many of our more mature members, stuck at home, felt frustrated and even ‘useless’. For some (though definitely not all) the move to new technologies has made it harder to feel involved.

Yet, since then I’ve been reminded many times of the value of wisdom and experience.

When the first lockdown began, many younger members linked up with older people…to offer practical help…to reduce isolation. But I’ve heard again and again how it’s proved to be a blessing both ways.

Resilience, optimism and faith, developed over decades has supported younger, newer Christians through these difficult months. Chats and exchanges of letters have not only brightened lonely days – but also provided a listening ear. They’ve helped ease anxieties over childcare, home schooling…elderly relatives.

I’ve found the same. I make pastoral phone calls…and find I’ve been ministered to. The optimism, and faith I come across give me hope and renewed energy.

In these times where the ground is constantly shifting, we find ourselves feeding off the grace some people have developed over years of faithful worship.

This is also true in the corporate life of our church. The last year has been a time of new technologies, of finding new and different ways to worship and to be a church. But they only work because they grow out of traditions faithfully practised over years.

In our gospel, Luke is at pains to show the continuity of the Christian story with the faith of the Old Testament. Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the Jerusalem temple to ‘do for him what was customary under the law’…that is the Law of Moses. Though poor enough only to afford a sacrifice of pigeons – they still journeyed to Jerusalem to fulfil a tradition…to be part of a wider faith story.

Jesus brought a new and radical gospel – but he saw himself as building on, not wiping away, the faith history that came before.

Sometimes (rightly) we become frustrated with the slow pace of change in the Anglican church. It can feel that the weight of age and tradition stops us moving on…stops us engaging with today’s issues, and especially with the young. Today reminds us how the best of the new grows out of the old.

Candlemas itself is one of the oldest feasts in the Christian calendar. From at least the 7th century, people brought candles to church to be blessed. Candles were processed around the church, some were left burning in church as a sign of worship. Others were taken home to be lit in storms or when people were ill, or placed in the hands of the dying to light their final journey.

Superstitions from a simpler time? Perhaps. But there is grace and beauty in the reminder that the blessings we receive in church are meant to spill over into the rest of our lives. We may have the wonder of virtual services, but I think we still need the ancient wisdom that says Christ can come to us in physical things…in traditions shared for generations.

Today – on the feast of the Holy Encounter – we have a picture of the church at its best. A place where the grace and wisdom of years helps the community recognise Christ their Saviour…where the faith if the elderly nurtures a young family. An occasion celebrated down the years for what it teaches us about Christ.

As we share today in the ancient traditions of Candlemas, I pray that we will continue to value wisdom and experience; that new ways of sharing God’s love will develop from treasured traditions…that our church will truly be a place of Holy Encounter.

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