Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Presentation of the Lord - Dr Sabine Alkire

Dr Sabine Alkire from The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative preached this sermon at a Sung Mass for the Presentation of the Lord (Candlemas). On this occasion we welcomed the Parish of SS Mary & John, Cowley, for their annual visit to the House - Mass was followed by a buffet supper and the opportunity for students and parishioners to meet.

Candlemas is more than the procession that closes Epiphany and signals the end of cribs and Christmas trees and a hesitant glance ahead. Tonight’s solemn procession of Christ’s entry as the Light of the World into the Temple, focuses our minds on an uncanny moment. We celebrate the moment in which God incarnate comes, for the first time, into that sacred space humanity made precisely for God – the Temple of Jerusalem.

Now for us, Candlemas is a minor festival on the Christian calendar. So we are mainly coming out this snowy night to have a meal together as neighbours or friends, as christians in east Oxford. Indeed in our parish yesterday there were many favourable comments anticipating the meal and wine and company we will enjoy. But candlemas has not always been so minor, and it is worth pausing before the meal, to savor it, that it may animate our prayer other nights of the year.

In her travels to Jerusalem over 1600 years ago, Egeria witnessed today’s procession. She wrote to her sisters, “The fortieth day … is …celebrated here with the very highest honour, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part… all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter.” [Travels. M.L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe, ed. and trans. London: SPCK, 1919. page 56.] A tradition that has not survived, you will be pleased to hear, is that in Egeria’s day all the priests, and after them the Bishop, preached on today’s gospel before the mass.

The procession of Christians with lighted candles, singing the Nunc Dimittis, is with Palm Sunday the oldest procession, and a major feast mentioned in sermons from the 4th century onwards. In the 7th century the Gelasian Sacrematary called it the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, making this the oldest festival in honour of our Lady. Around a millennium ago, Candlemas became the mass at which beeswax candles used on the altar as well as in people’s homes were blessed, and the mass affected many; the last poem written by the Little Flower of Jesus, Teresa of Lisieux speaks fondly of this occasion. [Why I love thee, Mary]

Why this prominence, which has now faded so? What were they celebrating? Churches often explain Candlemas services by referring either to the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary 40 days after birth (which was required) or to the presentation of Jesus, the firstborn son in the Temple (which was not). Yet Luke can be forgiven for a slightly blurry description of the event, because neither of these fully capture what ensued. This night we celebrate the moment in which God incarnate enters, for the first time, that sacred space humanity made precisely for God – the Temple of Jerusalem, and sees with human eyes, the space intended for his worship.

And the reason for our feast is not only the joy of Christ’s entry; it is this: in the arms of a man upon whom the holy spirit rested, and through the words of Anna, an old widow of prayer and devotion, God incarnate is received and recognised.

Such recognition is a feat – even in human terms.

Several years ago, an Indian economist became the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. As every non-EU citizen will know, when we enter the UK we must fill a form stating our address in the UK. Returning home, Amartya Sen put down as his home address, as usual, the Master’s Lodge, Trinity College Cambridge. The immigration officer was quite rather chatty and remarked upon this unusual residence. ‘Are you a good friend of the Master, then?’ he asked. There was a slight pause during which the Master considered swiftly whether he could be construed to be a good friend to himself, and deciding the affirmative uttered the awkward half-truth, ‘I suppose I am.’

This evening we have no such oversights of identity. Not here do we have, ‘he came to his own, and his own received him not’. For God the Holy Spirit had gone on ahead, and opened the eyes of Simeon and Anna. And they recognise and proclaim his identity with delight and reverence, praising God and blessing Mary & Joseph.

There is an irony. Later Jesus will visit the Temple at the height of his ministry. Later he will meet the Temple Authorities, the faithful people and beggars, the priests and Scribes and Pharisees. Later some will follow. Others condemn. Later a sword will pierce Mary’s heart too. But not now, not yet. When Simeon held Jesus, he blessed God. Whatever the initial reason for this visit, the incident that overshadows all else was their recognition and welcome of the living God within the very House built for God. This is how life should be – yet often is not.

How can this help us other nights when we pray?

Three lines of tonight’s reading, often called the Nunc Dimittis, were spoken by Simeon as he held the chid Jesus in his arms. Simeon’s qualification was not his age – for it does not say that he was old. It is not his ordination, for it does not say he was ordained. It was not his habits, for it does not say he came regularly to temple - the spirit guided him there this night. Simeon’s qualification was that he was holy, and God’s Spirit rested upon him.

An ancient Indian Jesuit [Madras Jesuit House, near the beach. 1991] once gave a strikingly simple description of a holy person. A holy person, he said, does all he knows to be true, and means every word he says. does all she knows to be true, and means every word she says. Which of us do that? Even in Church? for words of profundity roll relentlessly by, and our minds do not hold and mean each one.

Simeon’s opening words speaks of total release. If the departure this night be not to sleep but to death, even this will be welcomed in peace and trust. Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised.

The Nunc Dimittus is an ancient part of the Church’s daily prayer. The brief evening prayer recorded in the 4th century Apostolic Consitutions ends with it. It was used in Compline in the Roman Rite, and in evensong since the 16th century until now, when it is still the second canticle at most services of evening prayer. When those who are ordained promise to say daily the morning and evening prayers, they promise to include in their rhythm of prayer most days, these three lines. How might we draw on tonight’s feast when we say them?

On saying the first line of the Nunc Dimittis, we all, young and old, well and failing, daily make our peace with death. Simeon’s single act of sincere release puts all else into perspective. If today I pass from life to Death, all will still be very well, for You are, Resurrection love is, beyond life or death or thought. Just as the Rosary bids Our Lady’s prayers ‘now and at the hour of our death’, so Buddhists advise the faithful to meditate daily on their death, to think of each action as if it might be their last, and some Christians keep a skull or visual reminder of life’s brevity. Touching the doors of death briefly in prayer is not morbid or depressing. It does it deny our commitments and our joy in this sensuous bodily life. Rather, it gives us a sense of perspective. We learn neither to take our lives too seriously – or not seriously enough.

During the remainder of the Nunc, we might recall the day or week in a brief examen, remembering a few blessings, offering up the work we have done, our attempts to serve our Lord in the poor and oppressed, to remember to love all we encounter, offering up even our failures – our explicative thoughts, our mockery of others, the words we have said but not meant. We offer our days, as incomplete and imperfect as they are, as inspired and grace-filled as they are, as an essential but incomplete part of God’s acting on earth. For, as the prayer by Bishop Untner but usually ascribed to Oscar Romero puts it, We are workers not master builders, ministers not messiahs…prophets of a future not our own. [Said in homily by Cardinal Deardon, who was Bishop of Detroit, but written by Bishop Untner. “Origin and mystery of the ‘Romero prayer’” by Thomas Gumbledon, retired Auxiliary Bishop in Detroit] We welcome God, to enlighten us, to work through us, yet also to do what we cannot and do not try to do.

Tonight, and throughout the year when we say the Nunc Dimittis, we celebrate that moment in which God incarnate entered a religious house on earth for the first time, and was recognised and received. In becoming aware of the light of Christ, which spreads out from this day, our passion and vocation in this world might be tempered – that is both balanced and made stronger – by the perspective of our own death, tempered by our utter dependence on Christ, tempered by our joyful recognition of the Light of God, going always ahead.

Meanwhile, in the Christian year, we move from Candlemas to that brief time of peace when the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him. Amen.