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The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)

2nd Feb 2012


My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Luke 2.28.

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 enter his Temple’. In his prophecy is the meeting in the promised One of past and present realities. Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The profound 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 is a meeting and the greeting and the blessing and the cleansing ceremony which is taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New is being revealed in the one time and the one place and in the one child, Jesus.

Luke paints this message on the largest 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, meet the new born baby and witness the outcome of his life’s longing. He sees salvation. And TS Eliot marks in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and eath in the immensity of time and sets it slongside Simeon as one whose life has come to completion:

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’.

As the hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’ tells us, the child is for us and for Simeon and for Anna,

 

Fulfiller of the past
Our hope of things to come!
We hail thy body glorified
And our redemption see.

Today for the Church is a Feast Day of Candles; Candlemass. In it there is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple, and in the carrying of candles, bring 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 the holding in our hands as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people. As the Christ was presented to Simeon and to God and the world, so we in the procession present ourselves to Christ as his lights. We as the Church revivify the echoes of passion and of prayer that echo down to us from the Temple chamber. The fulfilment of the past is granted in the utterance of Simeon, and in this happening there is another thing, which is the interlocking of human destinies. If Simeon is right, then ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ is a light which is the Creator’s light, shining on all people, and not just the chosen few or a hidden minority. All life is here.


This is the sensational message which Candlemass, the Feast of Candles offers us. That Christ is both fulfiller of the past and hope of things to come, and that all of us in Christ are set on a shared destiny. The light is the light of holiness and of truthfulness for us all. Like a bell, it rings for us and it rings true. In Christ we throw in our lot with one another and share a God-shaped destony. In this we may find peace, as time marches on and waits for none of us.

John Donne (1572-1631), Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris:


"Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.


For us in the Church, the effect of the Presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple has been to provide identity for the church and to draw us together with our interrelated fortunes and our experiences of the real in the here and the now of our existence. And in this we see the glory which has been prepared for us from long ago. In this we are given in Jesus the present moment that is in Him the fulfilment of the past and hope of things to come.





Dedicated Service

1st Feb 2012


When they found him, they said to him “everyone is searching for you”… Mark 1.36

St Mark’s Gospel is the briefest of the four gospels and the first to be written. It is known as such because it sets out the facts of the life of Christ in a deliberately succinct and informing way. It was, after all, written for the Church’s earliest believers. It contains the core Gospel message and the one upon which the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and refer, and from which they draw their own interpretation. With this brevity and clarity, there is also a refreshing sense of real and decisive action. We meet the Jesus who reveals himself in the doing of various ‘signs and wonders’; and there is also present the so-called ‘Markan secret’ - of the Jesus who does not wish his true identity to be known and of the Jesus who wishes to go to a place apart. The existence of Christ is both one of human involvement and of passionate inwardness. It is one of evidence and also of discretion. He is the man for others and the One set apart. He cares and heals as a public figure and yet he also withdraws from the scene.

To care and not to care,
Teach us to sit still                    
TS Eliot, from ‘Ash Wednesday, 1930’.

Mark seems keen to set forth the two aspects of Jesus ministry as the giver of God’s healing, and yet also the One who receives the energy and the spiritual power for that work from another source. If we are to speak at all about the true purposes of God in relation to the lives of men and women we must also speak of the  lives of those consecrated and dedicated to Him. It has been the Church’s practise to see all life and all living as a consecrated and dedicated life. The Consolata Community here in King’s cross shows us what the life consecrated to prayer and stability looks like, as we meet the sisters on the streets. Their presence is telling…

For the Christian, life finds its true source, its raison d’être in and through the life of Jesus Christ. To make that statement is one thing, to believe that statement is another, and then to live that statement is yet another. The Church provides markers or events, rites of passage, in which the believer receives consecration for dedication, particularly in the rites of Confirmation, Ordination and Holy Matrimony. And the making and keeping of vows is a vital part of the life lived in God. And this making of vows is an ancient order of practice which is much needed and a vital part of the human experience in its civilised form. This is because it values our lives and their purposes as a calling, as a vocation, a duty and a determined service.

We are entering a time when we hear people speaking of ‘an old fashioned sense of duty’ or the automatic disavowal of any line of authority which is ‘top down’. There is little talk of ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’. People look back wistfully to the days when the idea of the profession related not to some imagined expertise but to an inner sense of calling and a readiness to serve. We know too, of working environments whose planning is driven to meet impossible and endlessly shifting goals and which see the changing of structures as invariably good. The re-drawing of the school curriculum yet again is an example of this. There is, sadly a mistrust of healthy kinds of permanence and a wantonness about shifting people around, cutting people down, sacking them, with the obliviousness to the human cost and of human dislocation. I attended a school teacher’s conference entitled “How do we go from good to excellent?” The title was designed to see the presence of the ‘good’ as an end in itself, a place of departure rather than as a place from which to deepen understanding of itself…

The consecrated and dedicated Christ is the One who received sources of life and of energy from another source, from God himself. It was from this source and from none other than that he was able to draw the sustenance necessary for the task; of bringing into being a real human salvation. If this life is truly ‘in Christ’ it is also a life which refreshes itself from source. It is a life which is determinedly resolved in the words of Eliot ‘to care and not to care and to sit still’. It is a life which has come to know instinctively that we humans are at our best when our lives and hopes lie in harmony with the divine order, and not as though God did not exist and that life could be lived apart from its true source. Perhaps Alain de Boton’s idea of a ‘temple for atheists’ might provide something, but what would be the object of worship and unity….?

It is fitting this morning that we anticipate the 60th anniversary of the accession of our Queen to the throne. We are marking this with the singing of the national anthem not merely as old fashioned patriots but as Christians. It is as Christians that we honour the Christian understanding of the sanctified and dedicated calling. It is well worth watching the Coronation Service of the Queen in 1953 for its distinctively solemn and worshipful character and Christian expression. This is apparent not just because our country in 1953 was ‘more Christian’, whatever that means. No, it’s Christian because everything what flowed in and through the traditions of this country found a Christian expression, an expression embodied in the monarch, who, on the day of her coronation received an anointing (the only part of the service that was not televised). And in this anointing and in all the vows and promises she made, a life was consecrated and dedicated. The Queen’s dedication and longevity still provides us with a powerful reminder of how important it is for lives to find their point of calling and of dedication and duty. A point of constancy and sameness in a shifting world that all might find beneficial. Her life has of course been played out in front of a largely admiring world. Nonetheless she has mirrored for us in her own sense of duty that which of the essence of the call to serve.

In the face of the demise of former institutions which had a strong caring and dedicational ethic we now face institutions which, run on the models of business and endless change, growth predictions and league tables. They desperately need to rediscover that strong measure of calling which has been the mainstay of the nursing and teaching professions. A nurse friend I know regards as normal the fact of other nurses taking time off owing to stress and many having had nervous breakdowns through over work coupled with a sense of stressful purposelessness. If we treat people like machines they will break down like machines. Jesus allows us to see that a careful balance exists between work and rest and between consecration and obedience. He is the one who has lead us to the place where life finds its true purposes. He and he alone is the one who shows us what it is ‘to care and not to care and to sit still’ in the consecrated and dedicated life. Let us, then, remain faithful to what we have been called.

Let us inhabit that place most fully…





The Wedding Feast at Cana

22nd Jan 2012


Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory. John 2.11 

This holy season of Epiphany contains a natural kind of exuberance, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. For Epiphany is the coming into being of Christ as the glorious manifestation of power and presence. Outward and seemingly ordinary events become charged with the presence of the Creator God and burst into life. The Baptism of Christ which we observed last week was accompanied by the opening of the heavens and the voice of God crying ‘This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased’. We understand the Season of Epiphany as the beginning of several epiphanies or glorious manifestations. The coming of Jesus Christ as our Saviour has its own unstoppable momentum,

You go to my head,
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.      
Writers Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein.

You may think this champagne image a bit frivolous, until you realise that today’s Epiphany happening, the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, is the first of Christ’s miracles. And because it is the first miracle it has great significance for the Christian Church in the manifestation of God’s glory. It comes to us in the writing of Archbishop Michael Ramsey:

The glory of God is the living man
And the life of man is the vision of God. 
St Irenaus, inscribed on Archbishop Ramsey’s gravestone.

Christ’s life is to be our example, and it is to be a life lived to the full, brimmed full of expensive and exuberant love. It is a life of intimate connectedness and friendship and personal understanding and generosity. And this is revealed, sensationally, at the Cana wedding feast in the miraculous supply of wine. This is Christ’s epiphany as loving provider and life giver, or in the words of one of modern hymns, as ‘The Lord of the Dance’. “I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said he... The psalmist puts it in more elevated terms when he says “With you, O God is the fountain of life, and by your light we see light”. (36, 7b,8). God is the fountain of life and the waters of life dance to the tune of his voice. He is, before all else, a life giver.

Parties of whatever kind, and specially wedding parties, where members of different families are meeting in an intimate atmosphere as strangers, need some social ‘oiling’ to get them going.  In one of Alan Bennett’s plays, ‘Single Spies’, none other than our Queen Elizabeth II is featured, and we overhear a conversation that she’s having with the curator of her paintings. ‘Of course’ she says dryly, ‘When I meet people they’re always on their best behaviour, and when people are at their best they are invariable at their worst, and this is so fatiguing...’ The provision of good wine or drink is both an emollient, an ice-breaker, and also an act of celebration in itself, a toast to the bride and groom.

In the wedding feast at Cana, we are being given us a foretaste of the life that he has come to bring. His ministry is to be intimately bound up with the lives of those around him, and he is to promise his followers as he promises us in this Eucharist, not just life, but life in its fullness. His and our cup of life through the Holy Spirit is to run over, and promise deep and unspeakable joy.

In Christ we have fullness of experience at the earthly level. The fount of life is also the God who refreshes us within the very heart of ourselves, and warms our hearts with his gracious and generous love. There is no part of our lives that cannot be loved back into union with ourselves, with others and with God. However stubbornly we play dead with those parts of our nature that need healing, God beckons us into loving union with him through the life of his Church. This is why the Church has been referred to as ‘the bride of Christ’ : The Wedding Feast at Cana speaks of Christ’s willingness to espouse his ministry to the guests then and to us now, as he calls you and I into union with our maker. The only joy worth having is the joy of union with the Creator, and not with artificial substitutes.

Christ meets us and we meet him in this Eucharist, and as we say our prayers to God here and elsewhere and as we continue our journey in the Christian Faith, and as we encounter God here we become aware too that there is a joy to be experienced which lies beyond mere pleasure or satisfaction. There is a life to be lived which takes us beyond mere existence for its own sake. We have, after all come to church because we know that this deeper, richer seam of life is available to us in the worship of the Church and in union with Christ. We are living not for ourselves alone but for him who gave himself for us. For Him who reconnects us and our lives with our Maker. With him who, even though we still have to struggle with all that life throws at us, nonetheless find their meaning in Christ. It is in Christ that God can, in us, accomplish more than we can imagine or ask. And the sign that this joy, this glory, is present,  is sure.  As Isaiah says to us in this morning’s OT reading, “As the bridegroom rejoices in the bride, so God will rejoice in you”. (62.5). 

But in the meantime we struggle with what we have to bear in the knowledge and good purposes of his grace...

Some words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, scribbled in note form on the days leading up to his ordination to the priesthood in 1929:

‘My grace is sufficient for thee’. How do I need to look away
From self to God; I can only find satisfaction in Him.
My heart to love Him; my will to do His will;
My mind to glorify Him; my tongue to speak to Him and of Him;
My eyes to see Him in all things;
My hands to bring whatever they touch to Him;
My all only to be a real ‘all’, because it is joined in Him.
And this will be utter joy – no man can take it away.
Self, self-consciousness, self-will, the self-centre cut away,
So that the centre which holds all my parts is God.



Come and See

15th Jan 2012


Come and see”. John 1.48

Nathaniel said “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

It is meaningful for us to compare the infant Samuel in the Old Testament and Nathaniel in the New. The account of Samuel and Eli’s sleep in the sanctuary of the temple alongside the ark of the covenant and with the faint light waiting to be extinguished is very lovely. They old man and the boy share a time of sleep in the place of the divine presence, in which the child hears the voice of God - and yet thinks it’s the old man calling.  Eli knows after a while that it is no longer right to tell the Samuel to ‘go back to sleep’ but to instruct him to respond: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’. The Nathaniel account is a distinct contrast. It takes place in the great outdoors and in day time. But the issue remains the same, and it is one of the divine call and of human receptivity. Jesus has been found by Philip who now claims that he has met the Messiah, the promised one, and he names him as the son of the carpenter Joseph from Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel says offhandedly, to which Philip then replies ‘Come and see’. The call of God is one which tests our human perception. In the case of Samuel and Nathaniel comes the prompt not to see the presence of God as something incidental and distant, but one which may come calling…

Our worship of God involves a gentle challenge to our receptive capacity. Our lives and their meaning and destiny are bound to the life of the God we worship. The two are inseparable. We recognise our need of God, not from the point of view of a defensive and distracted mentality, but in the one whom we know has loved us beyond our telling. Philip’s reply ‘come and see’  is an invitation to come to God in whom to know is to truly be. To inhabit God is to inhabit the true reality.  “Come…..and see…” Philip says, “Come, and receive...”

But receptivity doesn’t always come to us naturally. Henri Nouwen knows this when he says,

Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God's loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Claiming and reclaiming our chosenness is the great spiritual battle of our lives, for in a competitive, power-hungry and manipulative world, it is all too easy to forget that God has always known us, and God has chosen us – even when we slide into self-doubt and self-rejection. Knowing that we have been and are known by God, and that we have been chosen, is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.

We are in fact and in deed, “blessed.” The word “blessing” comes from the Latin word, benedicere, which literally means to speak well of someone, to say good things about someone. We all have a deep need for affirmation, to know that we are valued not just because of something we did or because we have a particular talent, but simply because we simply are. This is for many of us a difficult realisation; because we so often place ourselves in the way of our own healing.

In a modern society where there is so much acquisitiveness, the idea of receptivity may save us from  what  is ephemeral. The experience of receptivity, channelled in God, is creative and fruitful. What then might a receptive Church look like? A receptive Church is one which has learnt to discern what remains true for us from what is suspect and counterfeit. This is particularly true of those situations where the language used and the assumptions made about our world turn out to be manipulative and lacking in human respect. A receptive Church is one which practises thanksgiving for what has been received. Thanksgiving as a gift and a necessity – preventing us from becoming casual and unthinking in our dealings with one another. A receptive Church is one which has learnt to listen, not only with the ear, but to listen to persons in the fullness of their being, no matter whom they may be and no matter how difficult this may be. A listening Church is one which can include and can hold together difficult elements in the one work and witness. A receptive Church is one which continues to learn what it is to practise the Christian Faith not as something completed and finished but as something which is continually being worked out and which will have no ending in this life. A receptive Church is patient. It has to be!

A spirituality of receptivity is one which is capable of inhabiting places of silence and even of disonance with composure. It is a spiritual practice which acknowledges God before all else. In John’s Gospel he speaks of God as not just pertaining to love but of actually being love itself. And love is not divided. A receptive church is undivided. To receive God is to be in receipt of a love which has already been freely granted to us. To be receptive in this way is to respond naturally to what God already is and to what God already gives – his own being. Our hope is to come to know this. But we place so many things in the way and we are all too aware of how we blank God out of our existences. Even so a receptive church is not discouraged; it lives in hope which is the Christ of mercy; He the One in whom we can see ourselves as we really are in the promise of his forgiveness. He remains present.

Nathaniel has said that “nothing good can come from Nazareth”, but indeed something has come from Nazareth –  goodness itself. In fact, its very incarnation. This is a part of his Epiphany; his and our glory.

To ‘come and see’ in this instance is to come before God as receptive beings, to inhabit that place and that love which is above and beyond all other considerations, and which makes it possible to reach beyond ourselves to that place of witness which is proved real. And in all this God lies before us to guide us in the right way.
 
Here is a well-known poem by George Herbert; a celebration of joy in response to God’s freely given grace in the repetition of summoning and receptive phrases:


Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast,
Such a feast as mends in length,
Such a strength as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move,
Such a love as none can part,
Such a heart as joys in love.


George Herbert.



The Feast of the Epiphany

8th Jan 2012


Today is The Feast of the Epiphany - that great festival on which Christians have celebrated the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.

Just as the showing forth of the glory of God in Christ takes many different forms, so our season of Epiphany commemorates many different things. First, the coming of the wise men from the East to worship at the cradle of the Infant Christ; then, tomorrow in fact, the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, with the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is the beloved son of God; then the visit of Jesus, at twelve years old, to the Temple at Jerusalem, where the learned doctors were astonished by his understanding and his answers; and then, a series of Jesus' miracles: the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana; the healing of a leper, and the centurion's palsied servant; and the calming of the troubled sea. Then, at the end of the season of Epiphany, we have prophetic lessons about the final coming of the Son of God, in power and great glory.

Many different things - a great diversity of commemorations; yet they are tied together by one common theme. They are all aspects of the showing forth, the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the Eternal Word of God, made flesh. Thus these many commemorations of Epiphany make up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the Christmas miracle - the miracle of God with us, God in our flesh, Emmanuel, God visible to human eyes, God audible to human ears, God tangible to human touch, God manifest in human life, judging, restoring, and transforming our world by the grace and truth he brings.

On the Feast of Epiphany we commemorate the coming of the wise men. Those learned travellers - perhaps Chaldean scientists, astronomers (actually, we know very little about them) - came first to Jerusalem, the Royal City, the obvious place to look for the new-born Jewish King. But, instructed by the Scriptures, they were directed further on, to Bethlehem, and it was a strange sort of King they found there: they found a little child there, with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. There, at the manger, they offered their symbolic gifts; gold, acknowledging a king; incense, the symbol of God's presence; and myrrh, the ancient funeral spice, recognizing the mortal human nature of the Son of God, destined to suffer and to die in sacrifice for all mankind.

What was there, after all, about the humble manger scene to suggest the divinity, the kingship, and the sacrificial destiny of the Infant Christ? How was divine glory shown forth there? Surely, it was a glory visible only to the eyes of faith: faith, to see in a helpless infant, who cannot even stutter, the Almighty Word of God; faith, to see the King of Kings, and Lord of all the worlds, in a swaddled baby, who cries for mother's milk;  faith, to see the Very Son of God in the poverty of a cattle stall, exposed to all the bitter winds of human indifference and disdain and the arrival of impending danger.

It does seem unwise of the wise men to come to Bethlehem and to seek after a helpless babe born of Jewish artisan parents. But this is their wisdom: a restless wisdom which seeks to find something previously unknown, something that will change their lives and the lives of others for their own good. This is a reminder that faith ever calls us back, to work out our salvation in the common, everyday life of the Christian fellowship, the disciplined routines of Christian worship, prayer and study, and in works of Christian charity. And yet faith also beckons us forward, is a point of departure, and our response to the given-ness of God’s grace is to accept it and to follow our guiding star, wherever it will lead us…

Christian life is not about emotional excitement: it is rather the careful, thoughtful learning of the Word of God, day by day, year by year; the nutriment of the Christian sacraments, and the deeds of love and mercy which flow from Christian charity. In the normal, everyday things of the Church's life - the words of Scripture, prayers and sermons, the outward signs of sacraments - the world sees only human words, only poor and common things: halting human speech, a bit of water, bits of bread and wine, and so on. But faith has eyes to see in all these things the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the Son of God, the miracle of God with us, Emmanuel. And faith has gifts to offer him; not much, perhaps, in worldly terms, but by his own grace we have that one best gift, acknowledging his divinity, his kingship, and his sacrifice, the gift he treasures most - the gift of adoration, the gift of the humble obedience of mind and heart.

Epiphany is a time to go with the wise men and “to see what things have come to pass”. It is a time to follow our deeper instincts and to go for that which has the power to make us whole. And our response is one which finds us here at worship, in this place and at this time each week we kneel before the God who appeared to the wise men as an infant child and who comes to us now as our life’s true nourishment and with it the experience and the promise of the glory which was and is and is to come.

"Fear not to enter his courts, in the slenderness
Of the poor wealth thou canst reckon as thine,
Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness,
These are the offerings to lay on his shrine.

O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness
Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"




 

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