Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)
29th Jan 2017
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2017
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Today’s great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple extends and enriches the vision of the prophet Malachi that ‘The Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple’. In his prophecy lis the meeting of past and present realities; a meeting between Mary, Joseph and Jesus and old Simeon and between the Jesus who is presented to us this morning. In it, we are given a picture of the God who is close to us and who beckons us into his presence.
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, lies a great sculpture of the Virgin and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. It is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. The sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing behind her infant, with her hands open towards us in a gesture of generous giving and openness. The child at Mary’s feet has his arms open to greet us, waiting to hold us and embrace us. The image carries for us a meaning far beyond that of just any mother and child. It draws us toward it like a magnet because it speaks to us in the way it communicates the strong purposes of God in and beyond the surface meaning of stance and gesture. It has an everlasting quality in the way it promises something profoundly human and eternal. In it lies the promise of the presence of a God who is close by; very near us. He is not a God who is inert, but rather, One who beckons.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event is made clearer to us in the telling of a second or background narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Both are elderly. This couple provide a contrast in time and in place to the young family Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was routine and traditional to present a boy child and for the mother to be ritually cleansed after the birth of her child. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the blessing and the cleansing ceremony there includes a meeting and a greeting and taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meeting the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. A coming to life in us of things done and spoken long ago, and of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, claim ownership of those things which this meeting offers, for our world's posterity.
As the Christ was presented to God, to Simeon and to the world, so we in our procession present ourselves to Christ. In turn Christ is presented to us, just as he is and just as we are, rather like that sculpture in Cavendish Square. This is ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as the hymn reminds us. This is the God who is very close to us, as one prayer has it ‘closer is he than breathing; nearer than hands and feet’. Let us then enter into this closeness with God and abide in him, as he abides in us. At least let us be open to the idea of his closeness and open our hearts to greet him. Let be present to the sureness of his being, just like Simeon.
Another sculpture across Cavendish Square and down a side road takes you to John Lewis’ store in Oxford Street where Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture ‘Winged Figure’ is also a beckoning presence. It offers a response in kind to Epstein’s 'Mother and Child'. The little walk across the square and into Oxford Street might tell us that this beckoning God is for ever present to us. We are invited now to seek him, and if possible to find him, just as Mary and Joseph and Simeon did all those years ago. Go and see for yourselves. After all, it's not too far away...
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
22nd Jan 2017
Epiphany 3 (2017)
One thing I have asked of the Lord that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. Psalm 27.4
I used to visit a monastery near Newbury in Berkshire, Elmore Abbey, about two hours from London. It was a place where I could hear myself, and in the course of a little time hear God, too. But it would always take me about a day before I could get properly quietened, and I would then begin to hear things that I couldn’t hear in my normal semi-distracted state. I could begin to see things a bit more clearly and notice things that would otherwise pass me by. This was truly restful. And all this within a framework of proper rest and regular prayer.
Life today, whether we live it alone or in family groups, with partners or friends, whether our lives are frantically busy or whether we spend time alone is said to be more stressful that it’s ever been. This stress can gnaw away at us, and sap our vital energies. The ‘phone might ring and it could as easily be a friend or loved one who is offering a welcome ‘hello’ or as possibly the offer to reconnect you to another gas supplier at a discount rate, or even perhaps a wrong number. A letter through the door might be sent with loving greetings or it might be another one of those letters offering you a platinum credit card, or telling you that a local estate agent is interested in buying your property. All sorts of things can go wrong during the day and many of them are beyond our immediate control. The stress build up insidiously.
After my first day at the monastery I became aware not only of the quietness but also of the fine detail of my surroundings. In particular I remembered the way in which the monastery chapel was built. It was even then only twenty years old but it resembled an great old medieval barn; and made entirely of oak. The huge wooden oak beams and buttresses were held together by misshapen wooden pegs. The oak was seasoned and matured oak, which when originally used for building is really quite soft and useless. It had to be weathered and left out of doors for two or three years before being used. What becomes green oak is an organic material which expands and contracts with the atmosphere and then hardens, and then becomes very hard and becomes a tough skeleton for a building that will likely last for centuries. I was reminded of the hymn to God as ‘the strength and stay upholding all creation’. The oak joints are more than capable of holding up and holding together the strong pressures that push against them. The apparent cracks that you see in the wood aren’t cracks at all but wooden stretch marks. This is a result of the building’s having expanded and contracted. It literally grows into its place. It lives! How appropriate that house of prayer should display these characteristics!
That barn, that place of regular and sustained prayer, was a visual sign for me for the existence of the Church as a body of faith and an organic whole. It was like an upturned boat or the inside of Jonah’s whale. It tells us that what holds us strongly together is the unity God gives us in which is His gift of himself to us. For we are the body of Christ, knit together, bonded and united and made into an organic whole “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread’. It is in the wholeness, the completeness of God that our lives find their wholeness and completeness. The Creator and the created (you and me) are to become one in love and trust.
This morning’s psalmist expresses this great movement as a prayer that he may live in the house of God all the days of his life. For within this house lies God himself, the One who alone gives life and ‘peace which passes all understanding’. The poet William Blake converts this message into a practice when he says, “We are put on this earth a little space to bear the beams of love”.
In the middle of this service we share a sign of peace with one another, a greeting; usually a hand shake, and this is begun when the priest says ‘We are the body of Christ. By one spirit we were all Baptised into one body. Let us keep the unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace.’ This unity and these bonds of peace are like those wooden pegs that hold the monastery structure together. Life today often places us under great strain, and the reaching out, the offering of the hand in the sign of peace is an expression of solidarity with the those outside of yourself, the wider community, whose members have all at some time or another suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and who are like you also ‘bearing the beams of love’. May we like the psalmist, learn to live in the house of God all our days. May that inhabitation be for our spiritual health, like the habitation of my barn monastery. May it be a source of healing and love as it invites us to a prayerful response to the presence of God, the centring of our being with an active willingness on our own part to ‘bear the beams of love’.
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
8th Jan 2017
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2017 (Year A)
Depiction of the Magi from The Church of St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 550 AD.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek epiphanos, which means ‘the showing of a sign’. The sign here is the manifestation of something startling. This is followed by a sudden and new perception of realities. We can see that one epiphany leads to the other. The first and obvious one is revealed in the birth of the Messiah, the one which draws our three wise men to travel to see the sign which had been announced by the angel Gabriel and promised by Isaiah; of the appearance of the Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”.
The second epiphany tells us about the effect that the showing of the sign has upon those who witness it. The sight of the child in the manger at Bethlehem is the one which changes the understanding of God’s identity and purpose for the world he has made. He has done this in becoming human himself:
The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands
And in a manger laid.
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.
The Story of the Three Wise Men is not just one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in what Eliot calls ‘the old dispensation’ . It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God and his relation to us as remote. No; God has in Jesus come to us in flesh and blood, has come to earth as a pauper child, has come to raise us all into the likeness of God Himself.
But Jesus epiphany is also a disturbing sign. For Jesus is the sign “…destined to be rejected…” In the words of the high priest Simeon this sign is set “…for the rise and fall of many in Israel”. Luke 2.34. The picture we have of Christ’s birth is both pastoral (the shepherds) and mystical (the wise men) but it is also foreboding. It is one which falls within the range of King Herod’s destructive mania. There is real and mortal danger here. Just as the wise men ‘depart by another way’ so Mary and Joseph will later flee to Egypt in the wake of the slaughter of the innocents. There is already in this epiphany the strong suggestion that the Christ-child comes into a world which is very ambiguous about this coming. It is not one which is ripe and breathlessly expectant for The Good News.
Like the wise men who have travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too trace that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts as we come to the place where we see and know Jesus and where we stop and stay. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our own being; of the deeping of our witness and our time.
To speak like this is to speak of this Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs and mystery and foreboding . It becomes a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us as vitally necessary for us if our lives they are not to be sapped of vital spiritual life giving energy. Christ’s Epiphany is ours, too, a necessary re-kindling of faith at a time when the refreshment that the Christian faith offers our world today, its spiritual oxygenation, is needed more than ever.
Sermon for the Feast of The Naming of Jesus
1st Jan 2017
Sermon for the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus
1st January 2017
“…and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel”. Luke 2.21.
The early Church not only embraced The Holy Name of Jesus. It internalised it. It lived it. It was in the name of Jesus that the community found its reason for being. This was at variance from Judaism, which saw its identity as a chosen people and nation. For Christianity, the identifying mark was that of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ himself. The identity was named not after a place or a people but in one person, Jesus. The Church did not exist as a personality cult : the manner of Jesus’ sacrificial death was crucial to its spiritual identity. From the beginning of its life, the early church shared a eucharistic meal, which remembered and re-enacted the Last Supper, and in which the words and gestures of Jesus became significant of themselves. In this meal, the community were brought together in their shared faith and became at one with Christ and with one another. As St Paul put it,
…we who are many are one body, because we all share in one bread. (Romans 12.5)
The Didache, a very early Century history of the Christian community, was written in 90AD and shows a very distinct eucharistic community. It recognises its Jewish inheritance and yet the scope of its new Christian vision is breathtaking. It is revealed in this simple eucharistic prayer:
As this broken bread once scattered on the mountains, and after it had been brought together became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
The Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Mass was to become the mainstay of the Church’s existence. It was the sacrament which claimed dominical authority from the lips of Christ himself when he said ‘do this in remembrance of me’. And the sharing in the Eucharist developed from being at first a fellowship meal which encouraged the faithful and remembered the Passover sacrifice to becoming, during the centuries of persecution under various Roman Emperors, a powerful means of keeping the group of beleaguered yet growing faithful together.
By the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 320 AD Christianity was influential and widespread. It now had, in terms which all could understand and respect, a world standing. It had been a faith strong enough to establish itself in the hearts and minds of individuals and communities from very diverse backgrounds and cultures. The name; the life and death and resurrection of Jesus communicated itself to the then known world in ways it could understand and honour. It was in the sharing of the Eucharist that the name of Jesus was manifest within and then increasingly beyond the compact Judaeo-Christian circles of the earlier centuries.
If you go to Ravenna in Italy the mosaics in the Church of San Vitale tell you that The Church has by this time become the beating heart of the history and culture of the western world. The Emperor Justinian is surrounded by his bishops who occupy with him their place of honour. It is from these early centuries that the eucharist which sustained the beleaguered early communities became emphatically communicative and ceremonial, in which movements and gestures, vestments, the carrying of candles, the making of corporate confession, the reading from scripture, the procession of the Gospel book, the saying of great eucharistic prayers and the establishment of great churches and the building of altars all contributed to the church as we recognise it today.
But with all this came the concern for the life of the people generally and the attention given to the poor and the needy. The life of Christ was manifest not only from within the Church’s worshipping life, but outwardly in its relation to the world around it. This was one of the causes of its strong survival. Jesus was synonymous with the practice of a vital and sacrificial love. Where he had gone, the Christian Church was to follow. The scale and scope of this was evident, convincing and humanitarian.
I have offered this thumbnail history of the first five centuries of the Christian Church’s life for two reasons. The first of these is to come, on this first Sunday of a new year, to underline the importance the church attaches to the name of Jesus. In this name and in this identity do we stand or fall as Christians. This name is made present in this and in all celebrations of the Holy Eucharist in which we, though many, we are made one body in Him. To receive Jesus in this way is to lay claim to the Christian inheritance of faith in its entirety.
It is of crucial importance that we recognise and honour the Christian inheritance. To do this is not to look upon a narrow range of local possibilities but to catch sight of a broad horizon in which we, living in this seventeenth year of this twenty-first century, embrace a tradition which takes us back to Christ himself. In this Eucharist, we participate in the life of Christ with all those who have ever gone before us. All those who in whatever time or circumstance have come to receive Christ in this holy sacrament, and in receiving him have been granted a share in the divine life. It is “through him, with him and in him” that we hear the words of Luke in today’s Gospel. “He was called Jesus” , the name given not by a messenger come from the father, an angel sent to fulfil in Jesus the truest expression of the love of the Father:
Father we thank Thee who has planted
Thy holy name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus The Son to us imparts.
Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,
Didst give man food for all his days,
Giving in Christ the bread eternal;
Thine is the power, be Thine the praise.
Watch o'er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in Thy love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in the broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy Church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.
From The Didache, 90 AD.
New English Hymnal No. 284.