Monday, 4 February 2019

When Christmas meets Easter...

It was a delight to celebrate Candlemas with the people of St John's West Byfleet - especially as the opening hymn was one of my favourites (Of the Father's love begotten). Candlemas is my favourite festival - because of its honesty about the challenges and sorrows of life but also because of its assertion that the light will continue to shine in the darkness.  The readings for Evensong were: Haggai 2:1-9 and John 2:18-22

Last night, my colleague turned a simple birthday cake into a dramatic extravaganza by adding an indoor fire work to the candles: on such occasions the association of food and celebration is self-evident.

Yet, our culture seems increasingly drawn into a commercially driven disconnect between festive food and seasonal specificity: Santa themed chocolate in August, mince pies in October and hot cross buns in December. 

But there is one item in particular which leads to shocked headlines:

Shoppers take to Twitter to express their disbelief alongside pictures of the offending eggs.

In the aisles of Aldi and Waitrose, shoppers complain; whilst store managers speak of storage space, sales figures and consumer choice. 

Yet today, we celebrate festival where Christmas meets Easter.

At Candlemas, we turn from Christ’s nativity to Christ’s passion; we move from cradle to cross.

Candlemas, or the feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, is my favourite festival because it straddles the seasons. It weaves together the themes of amazement and sorrow; joy and grief. It confronts the reality of death and the promise of new life.

Luke’s account of the presentation, blends together the hopes of infancy, the expectations of parenthood and the wisdom of old age. 

And at its heart is a dazzling brightness. 

Light shines in the darkness.

Darkness does not overcome it.

The light of the world comes into the Temple, in substance of our flesh.

Every time we gather for Evensong, we are drawn into this moment as we share in singing Simeon’s song: the Nunc Dimittis.

Simeon held the Christ child in his arms and he beheld his salvation.

He knew that this gift of hope was not his alone. 

He looks into the eyes of this infant and beheld God with us: the light to lighten the Gentiles; the glory of the people of Israel.

Or, in the words of a Candlemas hymn, he recognised that: A glory dawns in every dark place,  /the light of Christ, the fullness of grace.

Icon of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple

This evening, our readings don’t tell us about Simeon’s blessing and counsel; or the things that Mary ponders in her heart. We don’t hear of Anna’s exuberant proclamation of good news. 

Instead we are drawn into the fulfilment of Simeon’s words: this child will face opposition; this child will reveal the inner most thoughts of our hearts; this child will challenge authority and raise up the weak.

Our second reading, parachutes us into the middle of something; like tuning into The Archers or Casualty half way through an episode. 

Jesus is asked ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ But it’s not clear what ‘this’ is.

As an adult, Jesus returned to the Temple several times. On this occasion, he has been horrified that his Father’s house is a place of commerce. Commission got in the way worship; impoverishment got in the way of justice; exchange got in the way of gift.

The prophet Haggai had spoken of the ruins of the Temple compared to its former glory. It’s restoration was to enable God’s people to abide in that holy place - to listen to God; to be faithful to the covenant of love; to seek justice and mercy.

Perhaps Jesus recalled Haggai’s words as a rebuke in the midst of exploitation: How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 

We can imagine the scene - the clamour of money changers; the noise of the sheep and the doves. Jesus is consumed by zeal. Tables are overturned, coins scattered, people and animals driven out.

Christ driving the money-changers from the temple - Caravaggio 

What sign can you show us, say those in authority, for doing this? Why have you caused such chaos and commotion?

Jesus’ response claiming to rebuild the Temple in three days sound either ridiculous or arrogant, dismissive or some kind of riddle. 

Taking in a literal sense, his words are misunderstood. 

Jesus’ words aren’t fully understood until his death and resurrection. He is speaking of the temple of his body: of its sacredness.  

Three times, Haggai exhorts the remnant of God’s people to be courageous in seeking to rebuild the architectural splendour of the Temple. The God known in such beauty and majesty is now made known in the fragility and vulnerability of human flesh. 

Jesus body is the dwelling place of God; a new Temple. This body is the site of life and love; of mercy and justice. He is the Word made flesh.  A body which will reach out to bring a hope and a healing touch; a body which will be broken to bring wholeness to others; a risen body bringing abundant life.

In Christ, we are invited see our bodies as sacred too. If we live in love, we abide in God and God abides in us. By the power of the Spirit, the words of Haggai are fulfilled. The Spirit does indeed abide in us; we need have no fear. 

To appreciate the sacredness of our bodies to speak of personhood made whole. We are called to treat ourselves and others as holy. The human body isn’t a commodity or object; we aren’t a set of issues to be solved. We are in a profound sense the home of God; God’s Temple; the place where love dwells.

Jean Vanier writes movingly about the sacred space of our human flesh saying: This place, which is the deepest in us all, is the place of our very personhood, the place of inner peace where God dwells and where we receive the light of life and the murmurings of the Spirit of God. It is the place in which we make life choices and from which flows our love for others.

The implications of this vision runs deep. In the words of your vision, it means being committed to seek prayerfully to know and do God’s will. To be God’s holy people in this community is to go deep into the love of God through that rhythm of prayer and worship. 

To go deep means that the worshipping community is reshaped; becoming more open and caring; being a place where bonds of trust grow; where patient love and forgiveness create a safe place; a place where we can question and wonder; where we can see in the other the image of God. 

To go deep means that we are challenged and equipped to engage loving with the wider community of which you are part. That includes being zealous for justice; being committed to the demands of peace; but also seeking to live in a way which respects the integrity of creation, knowing our dependence on the honey bee demands a sacrifice of sustainability. 

The Presentation - Chris Gollon

Today, the light and glory of God fills the Temple in substance of our flesh.

Today, the power of the Spirit, the fullness of Christ dwells in us as we abide in God’s love. 

This Candlemas, as Christmas meets Easter, let us make Jean Vanier’s words our prayer: 
Church is the place where, 
in the midst of the demands of our daily live, 
we can come together with others, as a community of believers, 
to a place of silence, our inner sanctuary, 
to listen to the word of God, to hear the murmurings of the Spirt 
and to welcome into our being the presence of 
the Word-made-flesh, Jesus. 
As we welcome Jesus and become one with him, 
we seek to welcome each other 
and together to go forth 
to welcome others, 
revealing to them the compassion and forgiveness of God.

©  Julie Gittoes 2019