Christ's enduring presence - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Christ's enduring presence

John 2:18-22

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18 Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?

19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

20 Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?

21 But he spake of the temple of his body.

22 When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.

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A few years back I visited Le Havre on the Normandy coast.  It was almost entirely destroyed by bombing in the Second World War and was rebuilt according to the designs of a modernist architect Auguste Perret between 1945 and 1964.  I quite like modernist architecture but I was very aware walking the streets of Le Havre of a sense of loss; the loss of history, of those places where people had lived and died.  There is a cathedral in the town and I remember being particularly struck by the altar.  It's an enormous slab of stone. It appeared to me to be an attempt to assert some material permanence in response to loss.  It cried out - this isn't going anywhere!  If that was the intention, it's very understandable.  If your environment has been destroyed then in rebuilding it you might well what it to have a sense of permanence.

When we look at this evening's reading from John's Gospel it's important to recognise the history of the temple's destruction and its significance to Israel.  The arc of the covenant containing the tablets of the law had been carried in a portable tabernacle as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness.    The temple became its permanent home under King Solomon.  It was the heart of the nation, the place of God's presence on earth.  Its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians caused utter desolation.  Our Old Testament lesson, taken from Haggai, was a prophecy of the temples restoration.  At the time of Jesus that had been realised and Herod the Great used its rebuilding as a means of strengthening his rule over Judea.  His work included extending the temple mount with enormous stones estimated to weight as much as 50 tons each.  I've stood next to them and I expect that they to were intended to lend a sense of solidity and permanence. 

When Jesus saw how the temple was being used he drove the traders and money lenders out.  The Jewish authorities challenged his authority and when he replied "destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" they mocked him.  The scripture tells us he spoke of the temple of his body and after his resurrection the disciples recalled his saying.  In Christianity the emphasis on the 'place' where God resided on earth shifted to 'person' - as God stooped to share our humanity in Christ Jesus.

Today we celebrate Christ's Presentation in the Temple and there is a particular connection between the events that we remember on this day and the words that are sung at every evensong, of the Nunc Dimitis, the Song of Simeon - "Lord now lettest though thy servant depart in peace according to thy word".  Forty days after the Christ child's birth the Holy Family visited the temple in observation of the ritual of purification - because Mary would have been regarded at ritually unclean for forty days following the birth; and the new child was dedicated to God.  During the visit they meet Simeon and Anna, both elderly and devout Jews who spent their time in prayer.  We are told that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ -the anointed one, the messiah, the consolation of Israel foretold by the prophets.  Simeon on seeing the child takes him in his arms and praises God saying "Lord now lettest though thy servant depart in peace according to thy word". 

Simeon certainly doesn't cling to any sense of permanence in this life.  Rather he feels that his life is complete, it is accomplished.  Not for him that 'rage against the dying of the light' as Dylan Thomas put it.  But Simeon's words carry the sense of another phrase that Thomas coined, 'that death shall have no dominion'.  "My eyes have seen the salvation which though hasn't prepared in the face of all people".  Salvation, not death, has the final word. 

I was blessed during my training for ministry to spend some time at St Joseph's Hospice in Hackney with the Chaplaincy team there.  Commonly we struggle to face our mortality of course but there were many at St Joseph's who I found to be in a place of peace, a testimony to it I think and sadly far removed from my experience of the deaths of some of my family members.

On the subject of the death of loved ones, immediately after his words about the Christ child, Simeon says to Mary "yea, a sword shall pierce thy own soul also".  What might Mary have made of this and how might the incident have resonated with her in later years?  There was the visit to the temple that we are told about in Luke's Gospel.  Jesus was twelve at the time and the family visited the temple as apparently they did each year at Passover.  They travelled in a large group and when they made their way home it took them some time to realise that the boy wasn't with them.  They returned to Jerusalem, eventually finding him three days later in the temple.  We can imagine that his parents must have felt at their wits end.  "Why have you treated us like this?" his mother asks and Jesus' response appears hurtful "why were you searching for me?" he says "did you not know that I must be in my father's house".  We're told though that on returning home Jesus was obedient to his parents and that Mary "treasured all these things in her heart". 

Later of course scripture tells us that Mary stood at the foot of the cross; it is difficult to imagine a more agonizing experience for any parent to have to endure. Surely a sword pierced her heart then.  When the event is represented in art the scene is often one of extreme suffering. Occasionally though Mary is presented as serene.  That's not meant to realistic I'm sure, rather it belongs to the tradition of emphasis on symbolic meaning.  That she looks beyond the suffering and death of the cross to the resurrection of which the Lord spoke "destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up". 

That brings me back to that altar in Le Havre because my initial comments concerned its material presence but of course the altar also carries symbolic significance. The altar is the place of sacrifice; it is a symbol of the Eucharist and of Christ's enduring presence amongst us, it is the place where we come to meet with Christ.

To him be all glory, now and to the ages of ages.


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