Tomorrow is Candlemas, and I was asked to contribute this reflection to the Church of England’s online service on Sunday (click on the link to see it at about 9 minutes in).
When I was a baby, my parents brought me to church. Having moved into central London when I was about a year old, my mum set out to find a place of worship for our family. When she walked into the parish church, I was the only child there. She put me in slippers so that I could pad up and down the aisle during the service, and surprisingly, nobody complained. We kept going, and after a little while, another mother with another baby joined. Between the two of them, they arranged a creche, taking it in turns to hear the sermon. They each had another baby. By that time, more families had joined the church, each one seeing as they stepped in that there was something for children there. By the time I finally left that church to go to university, I was on the teaching rota for one of the three age-based Sunday school groups that met every week.
I am grateful, not just for my mother’s determination, but for the congregation that didn’t turn to scowl at a tiny slipper-footed invader of their child-free church. I don’t know why the church had no children when we arrived, but I do know that my parents brought me to church as a baby, and because of that, not only do I still belong in church, but so, perhaps, do many other people who were children at that church both then and since.
Bringing a child into God’s house may look like a small thing, but it’s an action that resounds in heaven, significant both for the child and for the people waiting to receive them. And in today’s reading, we see a picture of Mary and Joseph bringing their child, Jesus, into God’s house for the first time. Like any parents, they are hoping for welcome, blessing, comfort and, as the passage says, ‘to do for him according to the custom of the Law’. Perhaps they are not expecting their presence there to be particularly remarkable; they have come for the ceremony, just as everybody does.
But there to receive them are Simeon and Anna, whose effusive joy when they recognise the Son of God in this tiny baby matches that of the shepherds and the wise men. But instead of travelling to see the Messiah, Jesus has been brought to them in God’s house. They had to wait a long time, but they didn’t have to go anywhere. Long before the shepherds saw the angels, Simeon had been promised a glimpse of the redemption of Israel. God’s promise was fulfilled when a child was brought to the temple.
I think there’s a little echo of Candlemas whenever a child is brought to church, especially for the first time. It’s always a holy moment, and a fragile one too. As the children’s worker here, I believe that the best way to welcome children is not necessarily to have something flashy and fun in place, but to be there, to be waiting for them, to have a space that is theirs ready to be filled. I know how my own children’s lives have been enriched by their church relationships, and that some of their favourite people are not the other children they meet at church, but the adults who have time for a chat, who take an interest in their latest fascinations, who save their favourite biscuits. That’s why this pandemic has hit us so hard, because a physical space in which the youngest and oldest members of a congregation can sit together is and always has been very precious.
When I see a picture of Simeon or Anna with Jesus, I think of what they are receiving from one another: the prophets receiving the fulfillment of their hopes and prayers, and Jesus receiving a joyful welcome. In a world in which he would face rejection, there were open arms waiting for him in God’s house.
May we as parents have the faith of Mary and Joseph to bring our children into God’s house; and may we in the church welcome them with Simeon and Anna’s joy.