Rorate Caeli

Sermon for Candlemas: And then there was silence

Fr. Richard Cipolla

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.   For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”  (Luke 2: 29-30)

He waited in the gathering darkness as he had every day for so long now.  He tried to think back how long he had been doing this, but his mind seemed not to work well in thinking about the past.  He remembered the fasting, giving to the poor, how no one was ever rejected who came to his house, he remembered saying the prayers, keeping the faith.  What else did he remember?  He remembered the longing and the dread.  The longing for an end to this waiting, he remembered the words of the prophet Malachi: the Lord will suddenly come into his temple. Into his temple--those words, those words which he had taken as a sign that he was meant to wait, and to wait here, not sure what he was waiting for, but he knew that his life was to wait against that dread that would envelop him especially at night when he could not sleep, that dread, almost a vision of a future of blackness and death. In these hours he feared for his children and his children’s children, what would they know when faith was gone, what would they know when the obligations of love were denied, feeling a hovering over a birth season of darkness.

He stood in the inner court and could see in the distance the flame of the lamp which burned, always burned, burned to remind him and all of the presence of God in this place, the shekinah, the dwelling of God with his people in this special place, where sacrifice was offered, this special place of presence. And the light burned. It burned and cut through the gloom.  And suddenly there was a burst of light from the flame as if a strong wind had entered the court of the temple. The flame bent and danced and he could see the shadows moving around, and then it stopped. It just burned.

 He did not notice them coming in, so wrapt up had he been in this own thoughts and this strange burst from the flame. He did not notice them, but when he turned there they were, a nondescript man and woman, she carrying a young baby, he carrying two pigeons in a cage.  They walked slowly, she clutching the child to her breast as if she were guarding him against something or someone, the man following, the pigeons cooing.  They were walking towards where the priest would be at that hour.  As they approached, he saw the child.  He saw the child-- and he knew, he knew what he could not have possibly known. The waiting was over, his life was over, and this knowledge prevented him from speaking, so all he could do was to hold out his arms, to hold out his arms to the mother carrying the child. No word was exchanged, but she knew as well what she must do and she held out the child to him and he took him into his arms.

He took the child into his arms and he sang. He sang a song he did not know, but it was the song to be sung at this time, this time of end of waiting, this time when death was approaching, he sang from depths he did not know existed with that longing which was his life and the life of his people.  And as he sang the flame in the sanctuary lamp danced and gave a light that was impossible for a flame to give. It was as if the presence of God had suddenly expanded and exploded in that place. Nunc dimittis…Now, O Lord-- came the song-- I can die,  because you have been true to your word, for I see your Word, for I hold  Him  in my arms, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word in my arms, I have seen what I now know what I have been waiting for, for my salvation, for our salvation, that light, not the light of the lamp which points to God’s presence but this Light which is that presence that I hold and feel and touch, the promise and the glory of what we all have hoped for and seen from afar.

He handed the child back to his mother, and as he did so he saw in the dim light a sword that pierced her breast.  He paused, holding out the child, and waited until the sword retreated into the woman’s breast to place the Child in her arms, and he saw in her eyes that knowledge of pain and suffering, that martyrdom which, unlike the child’s, would be bloodless but yet martyrdom.  And the light in the temple once again flickered and then was silent.

Before the time of cords and scourges and
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
            (From T.S Eliot, “Song for Simeon”)