St Bride's: Sermons

The glory of incompleteness

Luke 2:22-40

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22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;

23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)

24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.

26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ.

27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,

28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

33 And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.

34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;

37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.

38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.

40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

The glory of incompleteness

The Feast of the Presentation in the Temple

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

I once went to an art exhibition featuring the work of one of my former students, who had been a professional artist before she trained for ordination.

Amongst the exhibits, there was one sculpture that I found particularly startling.  It was a figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, shown crouching down, with a look on her face of such anguish that one could not help but find oneself drawn into her pain.  Seeing my reaction the artist whose work it was came and stood behind me and, somewhat to my surprise, asked me: 'What do you see?' 

I suddenly realized that I was not entirely sure quite what I was seeing, given the rather ambiguous pose of the figure.  Was the anguish on the face of Mary the pain of a woman in labour, a woman in the process of giving birth, creating new life?  Or was it the pain of a mother who has just seen her adult son nailed to a cross, and has watched him die a lingering and agonizing death.  Was her agony the prelude to something joyful?  Or was it a testimony to utter desolation and despair?  Or was it both of those things?  I wonder.

The feast of Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, has a significance that can easily be overlooked.  It is very easy to regard it as little more than a rather cosy and convenient way of rounding off our celebration of Christmas and Epiphany: in accordance with Jewish custom, the child Jesus is brought to the Temple to be presented to the Lord - and there he is recognized as the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel, by the aged Simeon, who greets him with rejoicing.  Full stop.

But there is far more to it than that.  In fact, there are three extremely important themes that today's story invites us to reflect upon.

The first is the motif of recognition.  Thinking back to the story of the birth of Jesus, you will remember that the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside had the assistance of a multitude of the heavenly host alerting them to the fact that the Messiah had arrived; the wise men from the East were conveniently provided with a star to lead them.  What makes today's story distinctive is that, for Simeon and Anna, it was an encounter with the child himself that enabled them, instantly, to recognize him for who he truly is.  So I wonder what it was that they had glimpsed?

Recognition can be a very strange and rather elusive thing to pin down.  When my elder daughter Sinead was very little I once overheard her playing with her dolls in a neighbouring room.  They had clearly been very badly behaved little dolls because she was giving them one heck of a telling off.  And I was perplexed by the fact that, in her choice of words, and phrases, and tone of voice, my little daughter sounded exactly like my mother.  Perplexed because my mum was so far gone in early-onset dementia by the time Sinead was born that she had never actually known her.  And then the chilling realization dawned: it was not in fact my mother that Sinead was copying - it was of course me.  It was the first time I realized that I was turning into my mother. 

Such moments of recognition can be very disarming, in the way they alert us to a truth of which we were previously unaware - particularly because the trigger can be something both fleeting and elusive.  It takes only a look, a gesture, a tone of voice - and the world suddenly becomes a different kind of place; and a previously hidden truth can be revealed in a way that is unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable.  And it was one of those powerful and life-changing moments of recognition that Simeon experienced.

The second important theme is, strangely enough, that of 'incompleteness'.  This is an interesting one.  Simeon has waited all his life to greet the coming Saviour - and yet, having seen him, he is content to die - even before he has been able to see the salvation he has so yearned for becoming a reality.  And there is something both noble and liberating about that. 

I can remember once observing a former parishioner of mine planting bulbs in her front garden for the following Spring - an event that would have been wholly unremarkable, were it not for the fact that the woman in question knew that she was not expected to live for more than a few weeks.  She knew perfectly well that she would not live to see those bulbs flower - and yet it mattered more to her that others would enjoy them even after she had gone.  Rather like the master architect of a great mediaeval cathedral, designing a building breathtaking in its scale and magnificence, who knows that he will not live to see his masterpiece completed because it will take decades to build.  There is something extraordinary about the quality of vision, and generosity of heart that says: 'I will not live to see this myself, but I will do all that I can to create this gift for those who come after me.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote a prayer that closes with these words:

'and you will enable me to go on doing as much as needs to be done.  And in so far as I do not manage it - that means that you have allotted the task to others.

The glory of incompleteness - I find that a wonderfully liberating thought.

And the third theme encompassed by our story today takes us back to my opening story about that strangely ambiguous sculpture of Mary.  Because the event that we celebrate today, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, weaves together in ways that are subtly but inextricably linked, both joyful hope and forthcoming tragedy.  Seeing the child Jesus, Simeon takes him in his arms and praises God, proclaiming him to be the promised Saviour of all, 'A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God's people, Israel'.  But Simeon then turns his attention to Mary and adds this:

This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed - and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.

This is no ordinary child.  This is a child whose coming brings with it judgment - the refiner's fire; this is a child whose presence will bring to light the truth of what is written in human hearts - and the people whose inner lives, whose self-serving priorities, pride, and hardness of heart are exposed as a result, are not going to like it one bit.  And the price of their resentment will be paid, not only by the Saviour himself, but by the one who loved him more than anyone else: 'and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.'

The greatest joy in human life is the gift of love; but genuine loving demands costly things of us.  Most challenging of all is the way in which it makes us vulnerable: vulnerable to rejection; and vulnerable to loss or bereavement; and the deeper our capacity to love the greater our ability to feel pain.

Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation in the Temple, marks the point at which our celebration of the coming of Christ into the world, through Christmas and Epiphany, finally comes to an end, and we turn our faces towards Lent.  We rejoice that God is with us; but we do so knowing that the road ahead is a challenging one - because that is the nature of human life.  But ultimately, what draws us into that journey, and sustains us while we are on it, is love.  A very particular kind of love; a love that was glimpsed by Simeon when he took the Christ child into his arms in the Temple; a love so powerful that it will never be afraid of engaging with the darkest things in life; a love that will ultimately and definitively conquer death. 

And thanks be to God for a love that is as powerful, and as wonderful, and as glorious as that.

Amen.

 

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