(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
‘A light to enlighten the pagans
and the glory of your people Israel.’ (Luke 2:31-32)
Last week during the notices I made a passing comment on how many traditions the Church treasured for centuries have been thrown away like the baby with the proverbial bath water. This streamlining of traditions can sometimes be a positive thing, but more often than not it has been prompted by a misguided belief that progress has made certain things redundant. Even the today’s feast has undergone drastic changes. Although it is still nicknamed Candlemas, many of the ceremonies have gone and this celebration has been completely rebranded to reflect a shift in people’s perceptions of childbearing, and to put more emphasis on the Lord Jesus, who – though an infant – is at the very centre of the gospel reading. Slightly older members of our congregation might remember Candlemas being called “The Purification of the Virgin Mary”, but today it is called “The Presentation of the Lord to the Temple”. Back then the Feast of the Purification went hand-in-hand with something called “the Churching of Women”, a service at which mothers were blessed after giving birth and formally readmitted into the liturgical life of the Church. But now, the Churching of Women has been largely discontinued by most Christian denominations, and so has the ancient name of this Feast. Back then the Feast of the Purification was a special festival in honour of our Lady; but now our attention is drawn especially towards her Son who enters in his own Temple at Jerusalem as God-made-flesh for the first time. Reflecting the gospel reading, now our Lord is at the centre of Candlemas; and he is once more the reason for our celebration. The old focus of Candlemas was Mary and Joseph coming to the Temple to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish Law. Now the liturgy calls us to look upon the infant Jesus with the eyes of Anna and Simeon, and to see in him light and salvation.
One ancient tradition, however, survives; the blessing of candles. About one thousand years ago Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching on this feast said of these candles,
‘The wax which is the product of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divine nature.’
And a few moments ago, we were holding the same lit candles, the same symbol of Christ, like the people in Anselm’s congregation did, and like countless generations of Christians before them. One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of this tradition is found in our gospel reading where Simeon describes Jesus as ‘a light to enlighten the pagans’ meaning that, through Jesus, God is revealed to all, not just God’s ancient people. Through him – our Emmanuel, God-with-us – no-one is barred, and in him everyone is given access to God. Then, Simeon also says that the Jesus has come ‘so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare’; meaning that, in his brightness, the Lord is able to bring to light our innermost thoughts, even those things we hide from ourselves. So our candles are visible tokens of the spiritual enlightenment Jesus brings. They remind us that for us nothing should be more vital than the light of Christ; that we must learn to rely on his light while we journey on, rather than our sense of direction; and that we should follow the road that Christ illuminates for us until we reach our home.
Traditions may come and go. A few may be discontinued for good reasons; others may just fall out of fashion only to be revived later on. But what remains of Candlemas has survived unchanged because it is a practical representation of Christ – the light at the centre of our celebration and, more importantly, the light that must shine at the centre of our hearts.
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.
‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’ (Mark 1:15)
One of the most annoying things a satnav can say is, “Use the next roundabout to make a U-turn.” Unfortunately, it is also something that I hear often. And if you’re anything like me, you would find it rather frustrating precisely because there, in the middle of your plodding along and trying to find your way through the traffic, the satnav suddenly reminds you that something has gone wrong – heck, not something, but that you have gone down the wrong road – and that only possible way to reach your destination is to turn around immediately and go back to the appointed route.
Today’s gospel – and first reading for that matter – does precisely that, as we hear the Lord Jesus saying, ‘Repent, and believe the Good News.’ To repent literally means to turn around. To repent is to turn around and away from what we are doing, and to re-orient ourselves toward Jesus. Just as at Mass we all orient ourselves in one and the same direction towards the Lord present on the altar, so we are called to do in life, as Jesus invites us to make a U-turn from our self-centred, self-seeking (and sometimes self-destructing) ways, and start to follow after him instead. Simple enough to say, but what does repentance actually look like in practice? Perhaps unfortunately, repentance has been badly typecast, and I guess most of us would associate it with doing penance, with giving up things for Lent, with fasting and putting on sackcloth like the citizens of Nineveh, and even with a time of boring, joyless sobriety. But all these things are just tools to lead us to true repentance, which is simply a genuine movement of both heart and mind towards Christ… the start of a journey in his direction.
Mark’s gospel gives us a practical example of what repentance should look like by describing how the first disciples begin to follow Jesus. Last Sunday we read together a passage of John’s gospel where Jesus is manifested by John the Baptist as the Christ. In that version of the events, John and Andrew immediately start to follow Jesus after that testimony. But Mark presents us with the different version of the events, where it is Jesus who calls Peter and Andrew, and then James and John to follow. So which one was it? Which version of the events is more likely to be a true account of what happened when the first disciples encountered the Lord? I personally would suggest that John’s description of how him and Andrew begun their journey with Jesus is probably the more accurate, because John the Evangelist was actually one of the people involved.
However, there is no need to set one version against the other, because they both agree in putting the same two points across. First, Jesus is this hugely charismatic and compelling figure and whether his call to them was individual and explicit or not, the disciples are instinctively drawn to him, to attach themselves to him. Secondly, to follow Jesus means repenting; turning away and leaving one’s life behind in order to be with the Lord. And this aspect is more prominent is Mark’s version. See how Peter and Andrew are surprised by Jesus in the middle of their working day, and how James and John are called by the Lord in the ordinariness of their daily routine... When the Lord calls them, it’s not like they don’t have anything else to do. As fishermen they own their own businesses, so to speak; they have families to provide for and things to do. Yet, all of them turn away from what they were doing, because they can instinctively see that to follow Jesus is far more important than anything else. So without a word they make their first steps in a new direction, in a new life. And for them this is the beginning of true, life-long repentance.
It is never easy to realise when we are going wrong, to eat humble pie and to make a U-turn. But if we carry on and let ourselves be guided by social conventions, bad habits, unfulfilling occupations, or human values with very little meaning, our journey through life can easily become an aimless (if not disastrous) wandering along unsuitable roads. Yet, turning around is always possible and well worth the effort; to repent and accept the gospel is to make the first steps is a new direction toward something different, something better, and something altogether more satisfying.
‘Andrew met his brother and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ and he took Simon to Jesus.’ (John 1:41-42)
The Sunday readings between the Feasts of the Epiphany and Candlemas present us with a number of other epiphanies, other moments in which Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, the Christ. Last week a star led the Wise Men to the Lord and they adored him as “King, and God, and Sacrifice”. Today John the Baptist and the Apostle Andrew are among the first to lead other people to Jesus – not coldly and from a distance like the star did, but in a warm and personal way. Andrew and the beloved disciple John are the first to become disciples of Jesus after John the Baptist revealed him as the Saviour, the ‘Lamb of God’ (1:35). As Jesus sees the two men literally walking behind him, he says to them, ‘What do you want?’ Jesus didn’t expressly invite them to follow him, so his question might seem entirely reasonable, if a little abrupt. But Jesus implies something more meaningful; “What is it that you actually want? What are you searching for?” And when they tell him, Jesus invites them to become his disciples with a very simple invitation; ‘Come and see’ (1:39). “Come and see where I live, the way I live” the Lord seems to say, “and stay with me as long as you wish.” Then it is Andrew’s turn to reveal Jesus as the Christ to someone else. He finds his brother Simon and leads him to Jesus after announcing to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (1:41). We are not told Simon’s feelings about being taken to meet Jesus; maybe he goes with Andrew out of politeness, maybe he is just curious, but one thing is certain; Andrew’s words change his brother’s life forever, so much so that Simon is even given a new name by the Lord; Peter.
After this, the series of revelations and invitations to follow Christ continues, even though our gospel reading today ends with the joining of Peter. A couple of verses later, it is the turn of another disciple – this time Philip – to go to Nathanael (one of his friends) and to say to him “We have found the Messiah” (Cf. 1:45) followed by the simple invitation first extended by Jesus; ‘Come and see’ (1:46).
John the Baptist, Andrew, and then Philip give us examples of what to do. They all led someone to Jesus, but not someone at random – Andrew and Philip especially did not stand on street corners talking about Jesus like the preachers one finds on Oxford Circus. No. John the Baptist, and Andrew and Philip led to the Lord people whom they already knew; a friend, a family member, a companion… Their invitations were warm and personal, and so should ours be.
But where does this leave us? When I was young my parish priest quite often used the same refrain at the end of a poorly attended service, “Next time” he would say, “if we each invite someone else – a member of our family or a friend – there’ll be a few more of us at Mass”. And this is what today’s gospel invites us to do as well. We are called to act like John the Baptist, Andrew, and Philip. Our common vocation is to reach out, to our family members, friends, and neighbours, showing them something about the joy of having found Christ. We are called to invite the Simons and Nathanaels of our times to “come and see” the Lord Jesus present in our midst, “come and see” how his presence reshapes our lives; “come and see” how he teaches us ways of justice and love.
‘Come and see’ is an open invitation to join that community that the Lord calls “his church” (Cf. Matt 16:18), because it is this unique gathering of extremely different people that Christ has chosen to be a continual epiphany, a constant manifestation of his presence in the world.
‘…falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Matthew 2:11)
The story of the Magi has captured the imagination of countless generations of Christians, and why wouldn’t it? The Wise Men appear mysteriously on the scene lead by a star; they turn up to the house of the Holy Family unannounced; they bring with them precious gifts, they worship Jesus as Saviour and God, and then they leave as quickly as they arrived… Rivers of ink have been spilled about these star-gazers from the East, and there is so much we could talk about after reading their story. But perhaps the most important thing we can do this morning is to travel in spirit to Bethlehem with the Magi, and to learn something about worship from the way in which they greet the Christ-child and the gifts they bring. We read that the Magi ‘fell to their knees’ – or as the Greek text puts it, they prostrated themselves before the Christ-child. This is the way people acknowledged the presence of God in ancient times, and the way in which followers of other religions still worship now. Yet, we seem to suffer with stiff knees, don’t we? And when we cannot avoid kneeling we do so begrudgingly. Yet, the Wise Men teach us that kneeling in prayer and greeting the Lord is this way is an act of devotion, of love, which – if we are able – we should imitate.
The Magi offered gold. Tradition associates this gift with the Kingship of Christ, because in ancient times only rulers and members of royal households could afford to wear gold, and only the palaces of kings or the temples of the gods could be decorated with it. But there is more. Gold was also a currency – as it still is today, and in offering it to Jesus the Magi offered financial support to the Holy Family who found themselves far from Nazareth, and on the brink of a perilous journey into Egypt. It is as if by worshipping Jesus with gifts of gold, the Wise Men were the first to put into practice the commands Jesus will give to assist those in difficulty. Likewise, the gifts we ourselves offer to the Lord – both to make his house a beautiful and resplendent place fit for the King, and to lift the poor out of misery – are an essential part of the Christian life. And the Wise Men teach us that giving is an important aspect of the way we worship God.
The Magi offered frankincense. Tradition associates this gift with the Divinity of Christ, because in ancient times incense was offered only to the gods. In the Jerusalem Temple an altar was dedicated to this purpose alone, and in the house of Bethlehem the Magi offer incense to the Christ-child, to our God-made-flesh. Likewise, the incense we offer in this place (and more generally the beauty and the ritual of our liturgy) is part of the Christian life.
The Magi offered myrrh. Tradition associates this gift with the Passion and Death of Christ, because in ancient times myrrh was often used to preserve the body from the effects of death and stay its decay. And in this sense it is a gift we cannot offer to the Lord anymore, because he has risen from the dead and death does not have power over him. But there is another meaning behind this gift. Myrrh was mixed with oil for anointing and consecration, so through their gift the Magi honoured the Lord Jesus as the Eternal High Priest who sacrificed himself for us. We too have been anointed with oil mixed with perfume at our Baptism and Confirmation, then – like myrrh – our life are ought to be a fragrant gift to God through the Lord Jesus
‘…falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Matthew 2:11)
We may not be able to follow a star to Bethlehem like that Magi, but every time we approach the altar we too come into the presence of the Lord Jesus, so our worship and love of him should be inspired by theirs. These mysterious travellers teach us that the worship of Christ is something beautiful and all-encompassing; including our emotions, our senses, our posture, and our possessions. Or as a Passiontide hymn puts it,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.