Practising mercy

audio for sermon ‘Practising mercy’ by Martin Malina
Candlemas (photo by Martin Malina 2 Feb 2023)

If you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted …[1]

I stopped at the pronoun “your”. Your food. Not someone else’s. The food you had set aside for yourself. That is the food you give to the hungry. Feeding the hungry is about recognizing and acknowledging what we have first received.

I know a couple of households on our street—families with children. The moms got to know each other and have had a friendship defined by their helping each other out.

For example, just as breakfast plans were underway early in the morning one of these moms would run out of milk or eggs, essential items in anyone’s fridge. But they would simply run across the street to ‘borrow’ a couple of eggs or half a carton of milk. 

I wonder how much of that happens anymore. Not just to those two, but in general. Relying on a neighbour for help. Feeling confident in crossing the street, knocking on the door, and asking: “Can I borrow a couple eggs?” 

The pandemic certainly magnified this cultural trend underscoring a belief in self-reliance. Hoarding toilet paper. Doing it on my own time and whenever I want to do it. Using my own resources to make it through life. Survival of the fittest—the smartest, the opportunist, looking out for one’s own.

We’ve truly become a society in which relying on a neighbour’s help is not in vogue. It makes us vulnerable. It puts us in someone else’s debt, and we don’t like that. It shows weakness. Lack of personal organization. Not the qualities we seek in a me-first, success-oriented culture.

In the Psalm for today,[2] we read that the righteous are merciful and full of compassion. Merciful. What does it mean to be merciful?

One meaning of mercy is to “provide relief”[3].  When you provide relief for someone, you’re not necessarily solving the bigger problem for them. You are not counting the cost nor expecting to change the world. You are just in the moment with them. You are simply being merciful, cultivating compassion, relieving the suffering a bit.

This year we left our Christmas Tree up until February 2nd. For a couple of reasons. For one, my brother, his wife and daughter visited us last week for dinner so we could finally celebrate Christmas together! But we also wanted to observe an old tradition in the church.

February 2nd is one of the most ancient Christian holy days — the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus — also called Candlemas.It commemorates the events in the Gospel of Luke when Joseph and Mary brought their newborn son to the Temple in Jerusalem. The purpose of the temple visit was Mary’s purification, a cleansing ritual forty days after the birth of a son. Upon arriving at the Temple, they encountered Simeon, an elderly blind prophet awaiting the Messiah. He took the child from them and proclaimed:

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.[4]

This event marks the final festival in the cycle of light. Weeks ago, Advent began with lighting candles in anticipation of Jesus’ birth. Christmas, then was accompanied by angelic beams on the family in a manger. Epiphany celebrated the star directing seekers to his birthplace. 

And, as the season following Epiphany unfolds, the light expands, inviting the first disciples to “come and see.”[5] The final movement in the arc of light is Candlemas, where the entire world is set ablaze with God’s manifestation of love. 

Christian feast days are, of course, theological. But they are laden with cultural meanings as well. In the Roman world, and in Europe where Christianity would flourish, early February was an important time in the cycle of seasons, as it is here in Canada. Candlemas falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is the time when many of Europe’s ancient tribal people believed the earth woke up to new life. It marked the season of lengthening days — and was associated with fertility, the lambing season, and the returning of light. 

The tradition of Candlemas came out of this intersection of the Jewish story of Mary’s purification and Jesus the Light with the primal seasonal celebrations of Mother Earth and brighter days ahead. Thus, on February 2nd, it became a practice that many Christians would bring candles to the church to be blessed — and then walk through towns or villages in candlelit processions.

The long weeks of winter candle festivals — from Advent to Christmas through Epiphany — end with us bearing light into the world. In a way, it all began so passively. Waiting for God to act, to birth peace and justice in the world. God did something for us, gave us a gift of life and light. 

And the cycle concludes with a remarkable challenge — words that millions of Christians today hear from the Gospel: You are the light of the world.[6]

Yes, God created the light. Jesus is light in the darkness. And yet we — fragile and flawed human beings — are the light of the world. Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.”[7] Just like your food, it’s your light.

We are the light. [8]

How do we be the light and show mercy? What is the quality of faith that starts this journey for us? One place is right here, at the Communion table.

We come to this point of the liturgy every Sunday with this posture and maybe these words in our hearts and minds: “Here is my offering. Take it. Use it. Transform it. Make it beautiful.”

And so, we gather together and bring the stuff of our lives. We bring to the table our gifts and place them in the offering plate. We also bring all those things that may remain unnamed: our fears, worries, mortality, even sickness. We bring our dreams and our wounds. We place all of that on the altar and ask Christ to take it. To change it and make it useable. To transform it into something that can reflect the life of Christ—his wholeness, his hope.

Then, once the prayers are said over the bread and wine, bread and wine that symbolize all our named and unnamed offerings, we receive it back again, transformed. We receive it as something that can infuse us with his very life. So, what’s broken in us can be restored. What’s not enough can become enough. Our wounds and fears can be transformed into gifts—gifts we can offer the world so those who are hungry can be fed. So those who are suffering can find relief.[9] Find mercy.

We are defined, then, not so much by what we do in our self-sufficiency culture. We are defined by what we first receive. 

I want to close with a prayer, which is a poem by Wendell Berry:

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me please to carry 
this candle against the wind.[10]

[1] Isaiah 58:10

[2] Psalm 112:4

[3] Kathie Goertz Thompson, “Faithful High Priest” in Eternity for Today (Winnipeg: ELCIC, 31 January 2023).

[4] Luke 2:30-32

[5] John 1:46

[6] Matthew 5:14

[7] Matthew 5:15-16

[8] Diana Butler Bass, “Candlelit Faith: An Ancient Tradition, Full of Meaning” in The Cottage (, 1 February 2023)

[9] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Books, 2022), p.114-115.

[10] Cited in Diana Butler Bass, ibid.

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