(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
The Ascension of the Lord, apart from being an astonishing event in the life of Jesus, can somehow bring a little sadness or melancholy to some Christians. The Lord goes up to heaven, to sit at the Father’s right hand, back to the Father’s bosom from where he descended at his Incarnation, and we are left here; maybe looking up and wandering whether he sees us, hear us, or even care for us. But Jesus knew this sense of loss would come, and so he prepared his first disciples for the moment of this glorious departure. He said to them, ‘In a little while you will see me no more’ (John 16:16); to St Mary Magdalene, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’ (John 20:20); and finally, before leaving, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). The Lord indeed has gone us to heaven but, as he promised, he is still with us in many ways; the Holy Spirit breathes the life of Jesus in us, other believers represent and interact with us as Christ, the poor and the marginalised personify Jesus in the world, and most importantly the Lord is still with us in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Eucharist. So, tonight we can celebrate with joy Jesus’ return to the Father without feeling bereaved or abandoned by him. We can celebrate with joy at being with the Lord who is with us here and now on the altar. Here his presence is life-giving, constant, and real until the end of time; here we can physically hold on to his Body and cling to him as the source of all life and love.
But we don’t come, or we shouldn’t come, in the Lord’s presence alone. As we begin the 40 Hours we join the Thy Kingdom Come prayer wave which will sweep across the world over the next nine days, praying that more and more people will turn to Jesus in faith. Each of us is encouraged to pray for five specific people, that they might come to believe, and so we ought to come into the Lord’s presence with them, with their names on our lips and on our hearts.
In my opinion, one of the most beautiful and outstanding miracle stories of the gospels is the one of the man who was let down through the roof of a house (Mark 2:2-12 and Luke 5:17-26). In this story a group of people tries to get Jesus to cure their friend, but the house where the Lord is staying is completely packed and, try as they may, they can’t get the man (who is paralysed on a stretcher) to Jesus. So they cut a hole in roof of the house and lower their friend right in front of Jesus. And at this point the gospels say that the Lord ‘saw their faith’ and he both cured the sick man and forgave all his sins.
During these forty hours we are the people mentioned in the gospels. We are the ones who need to make every spiritual effort to get our friends, family, and neighbours in the presence of the Lord through our prayers. We are the ones to ask (in faith and on their behalf) that Jesus might free them from the paralysing sickness of religious apathy, atheism, and misbelief.
In the gospels Jesus saw their faith. He sees our faith now and he is here to heal, to cure, and, as the 1980s hymn goes, to minister his grace.
‘Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.’ John 15:4
A couple of years ago, when it was revealed by the press that Justin Welby’s biological father was not the man who raised him, the Archbishop was asked how did this make him feel, how did it impact on his sense of identity. He replied, ‘There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.’
We might think of this response as very pious and archbishop-like but, of course, Justin Welby’s reply does not apply to him alone. Our family relationships and situations may be completely fine and within traditional parameters, but they could also be happily unconventional or sometimes even down right problematic to say the least, but like the archbishop pointed out, our identity should not be determined by where we come from, our birth certificate, how we were raised, or what society thinks of us. Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And from this point of view we are able to see ourselves as children of God, sons and daughters of the eternal Father, regardless of our background or social history. Only a couple of weeks ago we read a passage from 1John which said,‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ 1John 3:1a.
If we are in Christ the words of Scripture are fulfilled in us when they say,
‘Even if my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up’ (Ps 27:10).
‘Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you’ says the Lord (Isaiah 49:15).
Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And today’s gospel reading gives us a surprising picture of what it means to have our identity in Christ, as Jesus likens himself to a vine and each of us to its branches. This comparison might sound slighly odd to us, or a bit farfetched; “In what sense is Christ like a vine?”, but it comes from an image which would have been very familiar to the first disciples. In the Old Testament the vine was a symbol for the people of Israel, of all God’s chosen people;
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade… (Ps 80:8-10)
And today we here the Lord saying that he himself is the true vine; and so, like in times of old, God’s people are part of him, the new vine. We are the branches; by Baptism we have become part of the true vine which is Christ. We were grafted into Christ through the wounds that were cut into his body on the Cross. We receive nourishment from Jesus through the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, which is gifted to us by the Lord as the sap we need to thrive. And finally, as branches we are ‘pruned’ (John 15:4) by the words of the gospel; that is, we are directed in what to do, and trained in order to bear fruit.
Issues around personal identity are particularly strong in our society; maybe even more so than what they were in the past. And a lot of people, particularly young people, seem to be burdened by anxiety and social pressures stemming from simple questions such as “Who am I?” “What is unique about me?” “What is my sense of self-worth?” “How do I fit in or stand out?” “Where can I find home and acceptance?” To all these questions, Jesus simply and calmly replies, “I love you. Make your home in me, and let me make my home in you.”
Our sense of who we are is founded in who we are in Christ, and this means being inextricably part of him and to grow in him; it means being one in Jesus as children of God, one in him and God’s people, one in him as the beloved of the Father.
1 John 5:1-6
Who can overcome the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God: Jesus Christ who came by water and blood, not with water only, but with water and blood. (1 John 5:5-6)
During Eastertide we begin the Parish Mass with the sprinkling with Holy Water which replaces the usual introduction and prayers of penitence. As we receive the water we are reminded of our Baptism and we sing praises to Christ, who says in John’s Gospel, ‘The water that I will give will become in [believers] a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14b). This rite of sprinkling is properly called the “Vidi Aquam” (Latin for “I saw water”) because the chant that usually accompanies it sings,
‘I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple, alleluia;
and all they to whom that water came were saved,
and they shall say, alleluia, alleluia.’
This chant and the sprinkling are clears echo of the words of the prophet Ezekiel which we read during the Easter Vigil where the prophet has a vision of the Temple at Jerusalem and says this, ‘there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple … south of the altar’ (Ezekiel 47:1), and that water brought life and healing to all.
This idea of flowing, life-giving water finds its fulfilment on the Cross. The first three gospels describe the moment when Jesus died as the moment in which the curtain of the Temple is torn from top to bottom. As this barrier rips we can glimpse directly inside the sanctuary, inside the holiest part of the Temple, and look, as it were, upon God and his mercy. However, this dramatic moment is not reported be the evangelist John, who at that time was standing near the Cross of Jesus; instead he focuses his attention on something else; the piercing of the side of Jesus with a spear. For John this is the very moment when the true curtain of the true temple is torn. As the skin and flesh of Jesus are cut by the spear blood and water pour out, and here we can genuinely look upon God and upon his mercy.
Time and again the gospels tell us that Jesus himself, his very body, is the true Temple in which we are able to encounter God – because in that body divine nature meets and joins our human nature. The Letter to the Hebrews testifies to this saying, ‘we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’ (Hebrews 10:20). And as the spear cuts into the side of Jesus it is as if the tide of God’s mercy and love is released over the whole world purifying and giving life to all whom it reaches. This is the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s vision, and this is what our sprinkling during Eastertide celebrates.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure…
This Sunday in particular, the second Sunday of Easter, is sometimes called “Divine Mercy Sunday” and, among other things, it leads us to reflect on the marks of the crucifixion, which the Lord Jesus bears of his body even after the resurrection. These are the “visible identification marks” by which the disciples are filled with joy in recognising the Lord, but more importantly, these are the points from which Divine Mercy streams for us, the springs of God’s love.
Are we struggling with something? Let us look at those marks and see the wounds through which every strife has been overcome. Are we suffering? Let us approach those scars which have inflicted a fatal blow to every sorrow. Are we weighed down by guilt or feeling undeserving of love? Let us approach those marks which have brought us divine mercy and love.
Jesus said to Thomas: ‘Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ (John 20:27b) The apostle Thomas approached the marks of Jesus’ passion as a way of testing the Lord, but just by seeing them he was restored to faith. We should approach them with full trust in Jesus, knowing that it is through those wounds that we are saved.
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with water flowing from thy side.
…deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.
Jesus said to the disciple whom he loved, ‘Here is your mother.’
And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:27).
Mothering Sunday has a long tradition according to which the faithful would visit on this day their mother church – the parish church where they had been Baptised and received as sons and daughters of the whole Church of God. Today this tradition has largely been forgotten and the focus of the celebrations has shifted from the Church to motherly love in all its forms.
Our gospel reading invites us to turn our attention towards Calvary to help us in finding the best pattern of motherly love in the most unlikely of places. As we look at the crucifixion scene we find the greatest example of motherhood in Mary, and, recapitulated in the Blessed Virgin, we also find all the unconventional mothers listed in the Scriptures. These are women who loved their children with boundless affection and trusted in God without any reserve. Among these remarkable women we find Sarah the mother of Isaac, Jochebed the mother of Moses, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. But if Mary is the best example of motherhood, why do our readings focus on such a terrible moment? Why do we have to look for a model of motherhood in such a desolated place as Calvary? Well, because it is in this place, at the foot of the Cross, that Mary is given by Jesus as “the” mother-figure for all people – not at Bethlehem, not at Nazareth or in the Temple, but on Calvary.
At first, the whole scene may seem a little distant to our society that mainly associates pretty flowers, jewellery, and pastel colours for “Mother’s Day”. Mary is a widow whose Son has been condemned as an outlaw. Sharing in her son’s pain as only a mother can, she stays by the Cross, refusing to abandon Jesus. Her Son’s friends, many of whom she knew well, have all left apart from the youngest of them – John is little more than a youth. The adoring crowds who often stood between her and Jesus have gone as well. Those who are left do not care for her; they are there to bully her Son, to taunt Jesus even as He hangs from the Cross. Mary finds herself powerless, speechless at the impending, painful, undignified death of her only Son; her immaculate heart is broken, pierced just as Simeon had predicted when she presented Jesus to the Temple. But there is more, in these tragic moments Mary’ social position becomes even more precarious in a society that cared nothing or very little for women without male relatives. At the foot of the Cross, Mary knows that, once Jesus will draw his last breath she will find herself to be a nobody for ancient society.
So, yes. Mary at the Cross does not exemplify motherhood in the most conventional, soft, and rosy sense we are so used to. But as we look closely at this scene, we can find faint echoes of it throughout history, even in our days; women whose love for their children is shown more often through the courage of their actions than through displays of affection; women doing all that is within their powers to be with their children no matter what the circumstances may be; and again women whose social position is determined only by whom they marry or who their sons are. As we look closely at this scene then we see that the challenging model of motherhood expressed on Calvary is able to speak to us all today too.
But we ought to go a little further than this in looking at Mary’s motherhood, because even in this moment all is not lost. Mary may feel devastated and forsaken as she watches her Son. Yet, in this moment of absolute desperation, Mary’s motherhood is changed for good. As Mary feels that in losing her son she has become useless, God still sees her indispensable. In this profoundly dark night of her soul Mary receives from Jesus a new motherhood, the gift of a new son. John becomes her son, and with him Mary receives all followers of Christ in her care and embrace. At Calvary Mary is given as a gift, to all believers.
So today, as we think with affection and gratitude about our own mothers and all the mother-figures we have encountered, the Church invites us to do a twofold task; to take Mary in our homes as our Mother as John did, and also to pray for those mothers who, like Mary, find themselves in difficult, painful situations.
Today and everyday may we hear Jesus saying to us, Here is your mother (John 19:27). Amen.
Jesus said, ‘Take all this out of here
and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.’ (2:16)
Being a priest I often hear belittling comments about church worship. There is the timeless “I don’t need to go to church to speak God, I can do it from home”; or again “I don’t go to church because I don’t like x, or y, or z…” This last one is, in my opinion, the best one of all because it crosses boundaries between every Christian denomination. So, this morning I would like you to take a few minutes reflect the attitude we ourselves have towards worship, church buildings, and religion in general. As we do this, John’s gospel presents us with the story of Jesus clearing the temple – a well-known episode in which Jesus gets angry and starts to teach the crowds by using a whip rather than his words. In this reading there are three aspects about Jesus’ attitude towards sacred places, worship, and religion which we would do well to imitate ourselves.
First, we are told that Jesus travels to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and once there he enters the temple. Jesus is God-with-us, God-made-flesh, yet he longs to be in that holy place, as if he was incarnating the words of Psalm 84, ‘My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord’ (Ps 84:2). Jesus burns with holy enthusiasm for that sacred space. Isn’t this bit of a far cry from the apathy many Christians feel towards church buildings?
Then, Jesus speaks of the temple as his ‘Father’s house’ (2:16), the house where Jewish people believed God dwelled among his people from one generation to another. The ‘Father’s house’. How many times Christians employ possessive language about churches saying “my” church, or “their” church, but rarely ‘God’s house’ or the ‘Father’s house’?
Finally, we see that Jesus does something we might not expect. He does not dismiss the temple and its worship; instead he compares it his own body (cf. 2:19). How many self-professed Christians stay away from churches because what goes on inside is not their “cup of tea”, rather than seeing buildings such as these as physical representation of what it means to be Church?
In this text Jesus shows what we might think as un-Jesus-like emotions such as anger and strong disappointment towards the people in the temple. But, looking closely, Jesus drives out of the temple only certain types of people and not others. He drives out neither the worshippers – who bought the animals sold on the market stalls – nor the priests – who offered the sacrifices. In other words, Jesus does not cast out of the Temple those who, like him, used that sacred space for its appointed purposes – for worship and for encountering God. Instead, rather tellingly, Jesus drives out those who use religion in order to pursue personal gain, and are rather cynical about the spiritual significance of the Temple In other words, Jesus casts out those who use religion, worship, and holy places like parasites. For example, Jesus throws out the money changers and overturns their tables because of the corruption that underlined the business of converting different currencies into Temple money. Jesus drives out the animal stock not to put a stop to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant but because by buying them worshippers were encouraged to become lazy, to spare themselves the trouble of bringing a genuine offering, something truly valued, from their own homes. Come to think of it, as well as corruption and personal gain, is it possible that Jesus is casting out “lazy worship”, I wonder?
The story of the clearing of the Temple should make us think of the people driven out by Jesus in a much broader sense. It should remind us as of those who misuse religion and church buildings for other purposes besides worship and the sustainment of the Church. It is in this sense that St Augustine, in interpreting John 2, says ‘Those who sell in Church are those who seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ.’ Then, how do we make use of these things?
Our religion, our worship, and our churches are all incredible gifts of grace through which the world can encounter God more readily and build a stable relationship with him. To misuse of this grace in order to be fickle Christians or to pursue personal gains are great sins. So this Lent, let us examine closely how we look at our churches and our worship. Let us God for true repentance and for forgiveness for all the times we have misused of these gifts and we have behaved like parasites of the Temple, so that we may learn again to selflessly put the liturgical worship of God and the service of others before any other pursuit.
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.
‘Christ himself, innocent though he was, had died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.’ (1Peter 3:18)
Lent has been, from its beginning, the time in which catechumens, the candidates for Baptism, prepared to be welcomed in the Church at Easter. And on this first Sunday of Lent our readings lead us to consider this sacrament as the beginning of the new life we share as Christians. Our second reading compares the sacrament of Baptism to the time when God saved Noah and his family in the ark, and gave them new life in the world he has cleansed from evil through the great flood. So too, at our Baptism the Cross of Jesus was our ark, and God saved us through waters of the font, giving us new life – but not new life in a world purified from evil as in the times of Noah, rather new life in his Son. Since our Baptism the life of Christ has been grafted in us and we have become part of that new creation God brings about in and through the Lord Jesus. This is why Saint Paul writing to the Corinthians says, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ (2Corinthians 5:17). So Lent should teach us that, if we are receptive to the grace of God, this new creation, this new life, will keep growing in us, transforming us into ever better likenesses, images of Jesus. Many aspects of Lenten liturgy (the colour purple, the sombre hymns, the silencing of the alleluias) call us to think about our failings asking God’s forgiveness for our sins and strength to rectify, if possible, our wrong decisions. But this is only the beginning of our Lenten journey; because essentially these forty days are given to us by God and by the Church to re-establish more firmly the life of Christ within us. We are not meant to metaphorically sit on a pile of ashes wearing sackcloth for six weeks feeling sorry for ourselves but actually do nothing to reverse our condition… Lent is a time to be active in the spirit and in the service of others.
There are various schools of thought about Lent and about what one should or shouldn’t do during this season. The Church of England, being a broad church, keeps it nice and loose telling us that this should be a time of self-denial. But the substance of the matter is that the time-honoured practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer can be the source of great and unnumbered blessings as we enter the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection and we prepare to renew our Baptismal commitments Easter.
Through fasting, abstinence from certain foods, prayer, and charitable giving we do not exercise self-loathing or try to reproduce what Jesus went through on Calvary in some measly way. This should be quite clear to everyone – even though people outside these walls might make fun of the whole Lenten enterprise, or think of us a bit dim for denying ourselves things we like. Rather, by fasting and abstinence we aim to refresh the spirit and focus on our spiritual needs; by deeper prayer we aim to reconnect more clearly with Jesus; by giving to charity we aim to imitate the generosity of the Lord himself. And through all these Lenten practices together we aim to free ourselves of those old habits that have taken hold on us; we aim to spiritually die to sin in order to give space for the life of Christ to grow vigorously once again, until we can say with Paul, ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).
There is a beautiful hymn, “And now, O Father, mindful of that love” which puts these thoughts about being one with Christ in a neat verse. It says,
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.
Through Baptism we have become one with Christ. Lent calls us to make a genuine effort to move beyond ourselves, to rediscover our Baptism to find ourselves, our true identities, in Christ – in the one who leads us to the Father.
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
‘Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.
‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ (Mark 1:33-34a)
The gospel presents us with a miraculous healing which ends up spreading Jesus’ fame as a healer and wonderworker to such a great degree that by the end of it people from far and wide come to seek the Lord’s help wherever he went (Cf. Mark 1:45). And out of this short story there are two key elements I would like to look at with you. First, let us look at the leper himself. We read that a nameless man suffering from leprosy (or more likely by an unidentified skin condition) approaches Jesus to ‘plead on his knees’ (Mark 1:40). He does not profess faith in Jesus in any explicit way, but his posture before the Lord gives away what he actually believes; in Biblical time, and perhaps even today, kneeling and/or bowing down was a manifestation of “worship”. This man somehow knows and believes that he is standing before the Son of God. And in him we see a person who comes to Jesus asking for healing with confidence about the Lord’s power and faith in him. St Mark doesn’t give us his name so that each of us could picture him or herself in his place, kneeling, pleading before Jesus; ‘If you want, you can cure me.’
Then, we should look at the issue of ritual purity. Last week’s gospel showed us how Jesus healed those who sought his help under the cover of night – probably because nigh-time was the only time they could have wandered around without being judged against the strict standards of Jewish purity laws. Today’ story follows on from that, by showing us yet another person oppressed by the sigma of being ritually unclean because of their illness, someone who had to live outside built up areas, had to warn others about his uncleanliness, and had to abide to the purity rules set out in our first reading. Undoubtedly, Jesus could have cured the man without even a word. But instead he chooses to reach out to the man and to touch him, jeopardising his own ritual integrity, and contracting the same social stigma by association. Why?
‘Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to!’ he said. ‘Be cured!’ (Mark 1:33-34a)
Jesus feels sorry for him. Or, in a better translation, Jesus has compassion for him; Jesus in that moment is moved by the literally gut-wrenching feeling of compassion – “suffering with”. He reaches out to heal and to give the poor man that human contact which had been denied to him since the very first moment he had been pronounced unclean. But in touching the leper Jesus also shows that nothing whatsoever we could bring to or share with him could ever make him unclean – he has authority over illness, the law, and whatever stigma we can think of.
On Wednesday we will enter the holy season of Lent. This time of spiritual renewal calls us each year to do two things; to return to God with all our hearts, acknowledging our sins, so as to discover anew forgiveness and freedom in Jesus; and also to exercise self-denial and charity so as to break bad habits, growing into the likeness of Christ. During this time our church will look increasingly sombre as the weeks will go by, we’ll put ash on our heads, a few of us will give up pleasurable things, and others will redouble their efforts in doing good works and in giving to charity. In all these things, it is as if we humbled ourselves before God, so as to move him to move his compassionate heart towards us, and through compassion to win pardon and grace. So, as we stand on the threshold of Lent, today’s reading teach us something about the season we are about to enter. First, as Jesus shows us that no illness can make ritually unclean, let us imitate him in the way we show compassion and reach out to others. Today, the Lord Jesus shows us divine healing powers which we do not possess, but the principle behind his actions holds true for each one of us. By imitating Jesus, striving to grow into his likeness, let us be moved to compassion towards those affected by the stigmas of our society. And in compassion let us reach out to heal. Secondly, on a personal level we are all like the leper who approaches Jesus; sin is something that not only we do, but something that pervades our society, something that we cannot cure ourselves. So during Lent let us approach the Lord Jesus with the same confidence and faith shown by this man. Let us fall on our knees and say to the Lord with one voice; “If you want, you can cure me.” Let this be our Lenten prayer – If you want you have the power to save me, my family, my neighbourhood, my world. Please, Lord, do it!
‘The whole town came crowding round the door,
and he cured many who were suffering’ (Mark 1:33-34a)
Not many months ago news of proposed changes in the NHS Devon trust sparked a debate across the Country; should the NHS offer routine surgery to morbidly obese people and to smokers only when these have either shed a few pounds or quit smoking? Or should the system be left as it is, offering appropriate care for all? According to officials, the proposed changes were driven by an attempt to save public funds and to focus the attention of healthcare professionals on those patients with better chances to make a full recovery, without “wasting” – for want of better words – resources on those who were considered more prone to illness because of the their lifestyle. However, this debate quickly revealed a broader ethical dilemma at the root of our society, about whether or not to deny treatment to those who have brought illness upon themselves through bad habits. That is to say, “Who is worthy of care?” and “On whom should we invest our limited resources?”
“Who is worthy?” This was (and still very much is) the underlying and divisive question which transcends NHS care to encompass every aspect of our lives. “Why should we show compassion to those whose conditions ae ultimately self-inflicted?” “What charity is more deserving of our money?” “Why should I worry about people outside my family or circle of friends?” To all these questions, and more, a growing number of people might respond that we should not pay for those who have been the cause of their own downfall; that “charity begins at home”; and that limited resources should be invested on those who promise better returns. “Who is worthy of care?” In our first reading Job, a just man whose life has been turned upside-down by circumstances beyond his control, speaks about his dreadful condition. He is very ill, all the members of his family have died, and his great fortune is lost. As things stand, nothing is can bring joy or hope to Job, and in the lowest pits of depression he feels completely abandoned by his friends and by God. Those around him reproach him saying that if he is so stricken down it must be because has sinned; he must have brought illness and misfortune upon himself; what he is experiencing just retribution for his behaviour; and it would be of no use to help or comfort him until he has changed his life and abandoned his bad habits. The people who professed to be Job’s friends are indeed the first to shut their ears and hearts to his plea because, as they see it, he himself it the cause of his own tragic condition, and therefore he is not worthy of care.
However, as we turn to the pages of the gospel Jesus teaches us a different way. Here we see the Lord curing those who came or where brought to him without assessing their worthiness, asking them about their faith, or enquiring about the cause of their conditions. But, what we might find even more interesting is that Jesus does not turn away, or judge, or scold anyone, even those who may have brought about their own illnesses. As Jesus meets people in difficulties, people who may well have been in the depths of despair like Job; he just cares for them and cures them. In fact, this scene has two beautiful features; silence and night. Mark tells us that the sick started arriving after sunset, when they could leave their homes or hiding places without fear of being judged or driven away in cold light of day. Then Mark does not report any words said by Jesus – a silence only occasionally interrupted by commands to the demons to shut up. There, in the dead of night, in the silence of prayer, the Lord administers healing beyond comparison and demonstrates that love and care is available to everyone who approaches him.
“Who is worthy of care?” We may not have the gifts of healing Jesus demonstrated; yet Jesus gives us a pattern of life for us to imitate, so that we may strive to bring relief to others like the Lord did in the gospel. Our resources, both as a society and as individuals are always limited, yet, the moment we start to question whether a person is worthy of our care, that is the moment we depart from the path Jesus traces for us.
‘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.
‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
to you is born this day a Saviour, who is the Christ, the Lord.’ (Luke 2:10-11)
Earlier this week a BBC programme claimed that up to 25% of people who wouldn’t normally class themselves as religious believe in angels. So, it seems that even in our post-Christian, secular society many people still retain something of the time-honoured belief about these heavenly creatures. And the Christmas story we come to celebrate tonight is full of them.
Reading first couple of chapters of Luke’s gospel we encounter angels everywhere – speaking, singing, catching people by surprise in the ordinariness of their lives, and bringing to them messages from God. They pave the way, as it were, for the Christmas story to unfold; as if directing a large theatre production, the divine drama of the Incarnation, they invite each character to play their part… They speak to the Virgin Mary, they speak to Joseph, at the beginning of the book they even speak to Zachariah about the birth of John the Baptist, and tonight they speak to us… ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy’, says the angel; and confronted by these news, what should our response be?
If anything, 2017 has been the year of “Fake News”; at best these have been stories where the truth was side-lined in order to read as sensational headlines, and at their worst fake news have been clever pieces published to deceive or gain some dishonest advantage. So, when we hear again a two-thousand year old Bible story about heavenly creatures delivering incredible news, a few people, now perhaps more than ever before, may quite reasonably remain a little sceptic. But unseen, unheard, the angels speak to us tonight – the words of the gospel reading and the verses of our Christmas carols re-echo for us the first song they sang to the shepherds about the birth of Jesus Christ. Unseen, unheard, the angels speak to us in this place, and they bring us messages from God, true news about a child born for us. Unseen, unheard, the angels come to worship with us that child who is their King.
The Bible story speaks of shepherds living in the fields; people with whom we have probably little in common. But we have already travelled in the cold winter air, like the shepherds did, to worship the Christ-child. And the angels’ message for us is about another journey that lies before us; to travel yet further to a spiritual Bethlehem, to travel with our hearts to Jesus, to see him with in humble condition in which he was born for us, and to invite him to enter our lives – tonight – that he might live with us, and us for him.
‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
to you is born this day a Saviour, who is the Christ, the Lord.’
Whether we remain sceptic about angels, or we take all news with a large pinch of salt, the good news proclaimed tonight remains; our salvation, our peace, our future lies wrapped in cloths in a stable, where God himself has come to be one of us. Like the shepherds, it is up to you to reach out to meet him.