Today is The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas. In Tudor times, this day marked the fortieth and last day of Christmas.
Much more recently, the first Thursday in February has been designated Time to Talk Day, a day to help us overcome the stigma of mental health problems. A day to recognise that talking, and listening, really does save lives.
The Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today – Luke 2:22-40 – tells of the elderly Simeon and Anna encountering Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus within the temple at Jerusalem. It is instructive to read the account through the lens of mental health awareness.
Simeon takes the child in his arms and praises God, saying:
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…’ (verse 29)
Simeon has an encounter, a healing experience, that enables him to move forward – ultimately, to have a good death – in a state of peace. This implies that he was not, previously, in a state of peace. We might note that, habitually or formatively, Simeon has been particularly aware of those around him in need of consolation (verse 25). He has most likely shared something of their need.
We might also note that the encounter does not reflect a change in external circumstances, nor a change in internal outlook (there is no simplistic connection between devotion and peace). Rather, what we have is a moment of coming-together, in which Simeon, Joseph, and Mary all discover – perhaps not for the first, or last, time; but discover in this moment, nonetheless – that they are not alone.
Simeon goes on to specifically address Mary, telling her:
‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (verse 35)
Here is an acknowledgement of wounding, not at a physical level but at the level of the soul. The soul is not something we have: we are a soul. In biblical understanding, the soul is what is brought about in the coming-together of dust and breath – the human formed from the dust of the earth, having life breathed into it by God. And so a soul is all that we are: bodily, cognitively, emotionally, wilfully.
To have our soul wounded is to bear a wound that hurts us bodily, without being physical; that damages our ability to ‘move’ free from pain, in thinking and feeling and in making and acting on decisions.
To have our soul pierced is a description of what we, for want of a better word, refer to as an issue of mental health. It impacts us wholly.
Mary’s soul will be pierced in very particular experiences, very particular moments. Not everyone’s soul is pierced by watching her son being executed in front of her. But, of course, everyone’s soul is pierced in very particular events in our personal history. To have one’s soul pierced by a sword is an inescapable aspect of being a mother, a wife, a woman, of being a human being.
And yet this unavoidable truth is acknowledged in the context of the act of blessing (verse 34), the intentional invocation of relationship between Creator and creature, the deliberate act of recognising another soul.* This blessing is a lasting moment of soul-healing, however often the soul might experience piercing and be in need of healing again.**
Candlemas does not always fall on a Thursday, but how wonderful that it does this year. Following the example of Simeon, whom might you have a conversation about your mental health with today?
*soul = dust + breath, or, the deep connection between creature and Creator.
**please note that Simeon is not a priest: to bless in such a way is not reserved for priests.