This candle here, in this red candle holder, this is one example of what is commonly known as the presence candle. It is lit and placed near the aumbry or tabernacle (a little cupboard in churches where the reserve sacrament is kept). The reserve sacrament is any wine or wafers that were consecrated but not eaten during a celebration of Holy Eucharist. We call this sacrament reserve meaning set aside, usually for hospital and home visits. This candle—nearby and always lit—it signifies the constant presence of Christ.
In synagogues, in Jewish temples, there is a similar candle. It’s called the sanctuary lamp and it hangs in front of the ark, this ornate cupboard. Inside the cupboard are the sacred scrolls of the Torah. Like the presence candle, the sanctuary lamp is never extinguished.
I imagine Jesus and his parents on the day of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. There they are, the sanctuary lamp in the foreground, the Torah scrolls removed, read, and returned to the cupboard. A man, Simeon, who is well known and respected in the temple participates in the service. He preaches a sermon about the promises for a Messiah that were made to his ancestors and how these promises have been fulfilled with the arrival, with the presence of this child. The sermon—it’s a real barn burner! The congregation eyes wide, hair blown back. While Mary and Joseph are stunned by what is being said about their child, we can imagine it comes as no surprise. After all, Jesus’ presentation in the temple happens in the wake of the edict that was sent out from King Herod for all boys under the age of two to be killed to get rid of this newborn Messiah who was rumoured to be king.
So the presentation ceremony is wrapping up; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus ushered away to prepare, perhaps, for the next family who had come to the temple that day. All has been fulfilled, it would seem. But then, an old woman named Anna comes hobbling down the aisle. Of course, she’s making her way all the way from the back and she’s singing out with a voice that’s gone hoarse with age. She may be old, but dammit she’s got something to say!
The text doesn’t tell us what Anna says but it does tell us where she’s from, which gives us a clue as to what she might have said. She is daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, which will later be known by historians as a “lost tribe”. Anna is a descendant of Jacob and Zilpah (Genesis 30). Zilpah, a maid who bears the children of her mistress’s husband making her an unlikely matriarch in one of the royal lines from which Jesus and Anna trace their ancestry.
This is maybe why Anna is a constant presence in the temple, never leaving, worshipping day and night. This is her home; these are her people and there is meaning to the arrival of this Messiah that for Anna hasn't yet been told. You see, when we think God’s promise of salvation has reached the farthest it could possibly reach, turns out there’s always a little left over; more to be said; the “reserve sacrament” waiting to be taken out and received by those who are called lost, those among whom God’s presence has maybe been forgotten or still to be recognized.
Consider for a moment an example from our modern-day context.
In her book, How poetry saved my life: a hustler’s memoir, Amber Dawn reflects on her life and sex work in Vancouver.[i] She tells a story about the “square stucco building next to a four-lane highway” dubbed “Melhos” a play on words from the famous soap opera Melrose Place. She describes “the faded pink awning . . . the rusted barges on the ocean front . . . and the red lanterns” hung in apartment windows.
She goes on to talk about how she has “certain truths that she pushes forward to prove that sex workers are worthy of esteem, dignity, and sanction” while leaving other stories in reserve, ones that complicate the good/bad binary of how sex work is viewed in society, stories that have in her experience led people to discredit her as a writer. Her memoir is, in part, the telling of these stories.
At one point, Amber challenges her readers, sex workers and non sex workers alike, to “Locate yourself within the bigger, puzzling, and sometimes hazardous world around you.” Then she asks, “What spectrum of identities do you hold dear while the larger world tells you these identities don’t even exist? What personal and public rituals do you perform to be seen?”
What parts of yourself does the larger world tell you don’t even exist? What is it about yourself that you have tucked away in cupboards, while candles in churches and synagogues and red lanterns in apartment windows keep vigil? What stories are held in reserve?
I imagine there were some at Jesus’ presentation who would have preferred that Anna hadn’t reminded them of the spectrum of Jesus’ identities. There were some who might have preferred that Anna didn’t use this public ritual as an opportunity to revisit the family history. I imagine there were some who would really rather have been presented with the Jesus who the majority could stomach rather than the Jesus with whom the minority were waiting to be fed.
What are the truths that have been constant in your life? Present them to the Lord and to the world. And take heart: even when there are stories about ourselves that we or others have put in reserve, Christ’s presence burns bright, a light that is never extinguished. Amen.
[i]Amber Dawn, How poetry saved my life: a hustler’s memoir (Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press).