Sermon for Candlemas High Mass Sunday 29 January 2017
PRESENTATION OF CHRIST IN THE TEMPLE, 2017 Sermon at High Mass preached by the Vicar
Most Thursday mornings in term time, I go up to Hampden Gurney School to help Fr. Gerald with the school mass. This involves. Among other things, blessing lines of children, who have not yet been admitted to communion. One parent, who is a churchwarden at St. Cyprian’s, said to me “it must be the loveliest part of your week blessing all those children.”
I am often reminded of the incident in St. Mark’s Gospel where people are bringing children to Jesus so that he might bless them. His disciples, who have taken on that rather grand and proprietary attitude towards their Master, as courtiers and disciples can. It’s the occupational hazard of serving a great man or woman.
Jesus, as you will recall, rebukes the officious disciples and instructs them to allow the children to come to him and then gives them a lesson in humility.
I wonder if, during those years in the home of Mary and Joseph, of which the gospel-writers tell us almost nothing, while he was growing in wisdom and stature and in favour with God, his parents told him of what happened on that day they took him to the Temple to present him to the Lord. How the old man Simeon, whom artists usually portray as a priest although Luke doesn’t tell us he is one – guided by the Spirit – recognizes who this child of humble parents really is and breaks into praise to God. And then his testimony is echoed by the old woman Anna – who until this moment had probably been regarded by most people as that dotty old lady who spent all her time in the temple: the patron saint of the old ladies who spend lots of time in churches like this one.
And if they had, surely this must have helped form his response to the parents and children who came to him that day and led him to overrule his pretentious disciples.
Among the characters around the child Jesus in Luke’s account of his infancy, are a number who are called “Anawim” – God’s little ones, God’s poor ones. They knew their dependence on God. They looked for him to come to save his people. They were not found in palaces among the mighty. They would not be expecting any great role to play in the drama of God and his people. Yet their devotion, their obedience to the law of their God, prepared them, all unawares, for the supporting roles they would play in the coming of Christ.
None of us can know when Christ will come into our lives in some specially significant way – but we persevere in the practice of our religion: its worship and prayers, its feasts and fasts, in scripture and sacrament, in self-examination and repentance, because these will, if we allow the grace of God to work in us, form in us those virtues which enable us to respond effectively and truly when Christ comes to us in one way or another: when someone speaks words of truth of encouragement or challenge, when someone comes to us in need. They enable us to recognize the good and welcome it, and equally, to recognize evil and resist it. They enable us to be faithful to long-term, even lifelong responsibilities laid upon us; in caring for spouses or partners, children and grandchildren, parents and grandparents. They enable us, too, to respond to the unexpected needs of the moment.
There are times when the Church has to sit down collectively and think about our stance on one issue or another. And there are times when it can seem painfully slow in going about it, as many gay and lesbian people are feeling at the moment about the Church of England.
There are times when we have to do this as individuals, when some great choice is before us. But most of the time for most of us, moral choices have to be made from the resources we already have, through God’s ordinary means of grace. Just as we hope that the disciples learned to have a different attitude to children and to sinners and the sick, from watching their master behave, so we too from giving our attention to the life and teaching of Jesus and of his saints, absorb these lessons both consciously and unconsciously. But when the occasion comes, we do not need to have long-winded conversation or consultation about it – we know instinctively what to do, because we our instincts have been formed.
Luke’s story is a beautiful one and even more so when told in the glow of candlelight. But this warm glow should not hide from us its cutting edge in the words which Simeon addresses to Mary:
“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that is opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
This child, recognized by Simeon as the “light to lighten the Gentiles,” the “light for revelation to the Gentiles,” will be the cause of division because the light he brings into the world will reveal the darkness of human hearts as well as the goodness.
We would all welcome that in theory, “But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears?” “Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me says the Lord of hosts.”
The words of Malachi have a startlingly contemporary ring about them, don’t they? They are addressed just as much to our age as to the prophet’s.
This child who has come to the Temple is the Son of God who has come to share our flesh and blood, so that he might destroy the power of death which enslaves humankind. As we follow his way to the cross in the weeks of Lent and Passiontide, we will be reminded again that he overcomes the power of death, not by using its own weapons of death and destruction, but only those of love and mercy; even on the cross.
And just as he became like his brothers and sisters in every respect, sharing in our suffering, so those brothers and sisters have to become like him, not only to receive his blessings but to share with him in the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. So those words addressed to Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul, too,” which we will remember as we sing the Stabat Mater during the Stations of the Cross and in the Liturgy of Good Friday, are addressed to us who are his disciples too.
But we are not on our own. We have a faithful high priest who is able by his grace to help us who are being tested; to purify us so that our offering in this life may be pleasing to God and that when our turn comes to die, we will be able to say with Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation…”