Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Presentation of the Lord - Daniel Sandham

This homily was given by Daniel Sandham, a final year seminarian and the Senior Student, at St Michael & All Angels, Brighton, on Sunday 1st February 2009.

‘A light to enlighten the nations.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Morning Prayer at St Stephen’s House is said at half-past-seven. Consequently, over the past few years, I’ve noticed more than ever before the way in which, at this time of year, the days lengthen rapidly. Soon getting up in the dark (for which I have a particular loathing) will once again be a thing of the past. The beginning of February marks the end of what’s called the ‘solar winter’, the three months of the year with the least light.

It’s a bitter-sweet paradox then that February is traditionally the coldest month of the year. And, if the weather forecast is to be believed, this February will be no exception. ‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger’ – so the saying goes. This is due to the oceans that surround our island country. The sea, like a massive radiator, stores energy from the summer sun, which is then slowly released back into the atmosphere over the winter months. But by February the sea has been emptied of its heat, and is at its coldest temperature.

Don’t worry. I haven’t spent the last two and a half years studying meteorology rather than theology. But it’s no mere coincidence that this feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, more commonly known as Candlemas, takes place at the beginning of February. Candlemas, like February, welcomes the light. This light is the light that is spoken of in the great prologue of John’s gospel, that ‘shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it’. This is the light that Simeon speaks of in today’s gospel reading, as he takes the child into his arms: ‘the light to enlighten the nations.’ This is the light that we commemorate in this ancient ceremony of the blessing and carrying of candles.

‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger.’ The charm of the Candlemas procession, and the seemingly idyllic scene of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the temple, form only part of the picture. For Candlemas, like the lengthening days of February, is bitter-sweet. Bitter-sweet because this scene in the temple would have been far from idyllic. Surrounded by other parents presenting their first born sons, and countless others making their blood offerings, the temple would have been a crowded abattoir, in which the sound of shrieking animals and the stench of blood would have been overwhelming. This ritual observance would have been grossly unpleasant.

More potently, Candlemas is bitter-sweet because of the remarkable words Simeon utters to Mary: ‘this child… is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’ I imagine Simeon to be rather like Dumbledore, the venerable headmaster of Hogwarts; ancient, long-bearded, and blessed with a mystical wisdom. The words he utters are confusing, impenetrable; but the quiet assurance and gravitas with which he delivers them guarantee the truth they contain. Mary and Joseph learn that this child will be a source of division. They learn that this child will be rejected. And Mary learns that she will suffer too; a sword will pierce her own soul, as she stands at the foot of the cross.

‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger.’ So, despite the great light that is brought into the temple, there is a great coldness that lies ahead of the child Simeon takes into his arms. Candlemas is juxtaposed between the incarnation and the crucifixion. Today we find ourselves with one eye cast back at Christmas and Epiphany, and the other looking forward to Lent , Holy Week and Easter. Today we realize that the child in the manger will be the crucified of Calvary. We turn from the crib to the cross.

I think that the bitter-sweetness of Candlemas is emblematic of the Christian life. To be a Christian is to be filled with light – the light of the world. But it is also to feel the coldness that is a constituent part of bearing of that light. At baptisms, the newly-baptised is presented with a candle, accompanied by the words, ‘You have received the light of Christ.’ This comes with it the vocation to ‘shine as a light to the world’. This vocation must be open to the possibility of coldness: the coldness of persecution, the coldness of rejection, the coldness of ignorance. In a progressively more secularized society Christians are increasingly confronted with these coldnesses. As we witness the watering down of our Christian heritage and the ignorance and hostility with which the church is viewed by many, we feel the bitter-sweetness of being a Christian in twenty-first century Britain.

There is undeniably a bitter-sweetness about being a member of the Church of England at the moment. There is the sweetness of our unique Anglican heritage, the sweetness of the broadness of our church, the sweetness of the potential for and signs of growth. But that sweetness is made bitter, the light is made cold, by our divisions over issues of sexuality and gender, issues which are far from resolution.

In the face of the bitter-sweetness of being a Christian and being an Anglican we must not be downhearted. ‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger’ is certainly true of the month of February, but we know that come the spring the light will triumph over the coldness and the temperatures will rise. We know, also, that as we observe Lent, Holy Week and Easter, Jesus, the Light of the World, will triumph over the powers of darkness. We know that, despite a sword piercing her soul, Mary will rejoice in her son’s resurrection.

So, if we believe in Christ’s power over darkness, there is hope for Christians in twenty-first century, secularized Britain. Despite the present darkness, the Light will triumph. But it won’t triumph unless we let it. We are to shine ever more brightly as lights to the world, faithful to our calling as baptized members of Christ’s body. Only by our courage and boldness will we turn the tide of indifference and negativity towards the gospel. We, like Simeon, are to proclaim Christ as ‘a light to enlighten the nations’.

There is hope too for the Church of England. In the darkness of division we are to pray earnestly for the light of charity to prevail in the church’s discussions and decisions. Furthermore, we are to remember that these issues, important though they are, must not absorb the church. Rather the church’s mission is to shine like a light in the darkness of the world: by strengthening the weak, by feeding the hungry, by clothing the naked, by letting the oppressed go free.

‘As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger.’ So, in these cold days of February may we set our hope on the Light of the World, and be active in proclaiming him as the ‘light to enlighten the nations’.