Candlemass ~ 2nd Feb 2020
As I prepared for the latest bit of surgery on my gums a couple of weeks ago, I was lying down in the Dentist’s chair as the local anaesthetic began to take hold. The guy operating on me had a trainee observing and he asked her whether she had seen surgery like this before. She replied that she said, but it was on a younger patient! Even though I was losing my ability to speak coherently because of the anaesthetic, I said from my chair, “I’m not that old, thank you very much,” as they both chuckled, realising what they’d said.
Age is something we can be a bit sensitive about. Today we celebrate Candlemass, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which is the Church’s truly intergenerational feast day for we see a forty day old child presented by a teenage mother and and old dad to two old people, or senior citizens as we might say. Many institutions have successfully managed to remove those of a different age to the primary recipients of care in whichever place that might be, be it an old people’s home or a primary school. Work places are so often places where only the middle aged are. Churches - alongside family gatherings - are where you are most likely to interact with people of different ages. Long may it continue and we pray that here at the Good Shepherd we might continue to be a place where young and old come and worship the eternal God. It may be that by being a Sunday School Teacher or offering to pick up the elderly in your car you can help ensure that we continue to be such an intergenerational place. In Psalm 148, the vision of everyone praising God includes the phrase: “Young men and women alike, old and young together!”
Life begins at 40, many approaching that age say, and perhaps you’ll hear me saying it over the next few years as I get closer myself to it! Seriously though, we as Christians believe that life begins not at birth but at conception, when the child is knitted together in the womb of his or her mother, an image the Psalmist uses (139:13). Any attempts by the world to change that assumption must continue to be resisted and we are to keep that clear in our own minds when we consider what is inside the wombs of pregnant mothers: it is someone showing us how fragile life is and how the protection of the life of another is always our concern.
We can also celebrate that life does not end at death. The beautiful Eucharistic Prayer used at Requiem Masses puts it so eloquently when we pray: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended.” I cannot countenance how futile life must seem to those who have no faith in God and who believe they will simply cease to exist when they have breathed their last. I cannot compute those who will not worship the Living God who has given us this most precious of gifts, that of eternal life, made in His image. It is with this hope that Simeon can say those glorious words that I use as I cense a coffin at its funeral Mass: “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace.” How ridiculous a statement that would be if Simeon had neither faith in eternal life nor a living relationship with the God who would be judging him as he left this earth.
Often commentators in the media like to emphasise how age divides our country. It was often pointed out that many young people voted for the country to remain in the European Union and when Prince Harry and Megan decided to step back from their roles within the royal family, people would point out that the young were generally supportive of this action and were less convinced of the need for monarchy generally. I’m not sure what pointing out these statistics serves to do other than to stir up division. It is not a division that the Church can countenance. There is no such thing as junior church: there is simply Church. Some cited these facts I mention because they wanted the young to have a greater influence over decisions and the direction of the country but it’s a dangerous route to take. If the young are to have a weighted say in the way the country is run, all they have to look forward to is irrelevance in their old age. There would be nothing to look forward to; hope will have been lost.
The Church proposes an equality between the ages but like whenever the Church speaks of equality this does not rule out a difference in role or situation. Young are to learn from the old, recognising the experiences they have had, how things used to be, and what lessons they have learnt. So we read St Peter advising the younger in the Church to be subject to the elders (I Peter 5:5) and St Paul instructs the younger Timothy not to rebuke an older guy “but to speak to him as a father” (I Timothy 5:1-2). We might take time to ask an older person advice or if we are older we might use that wisdom to model and speak of a more excellent way.
This more excellent way is built on humility, and so the Church is not to be a community run just by the old or for the elderly, and certainly never run simply because that is how it used to be when we were young. Our Lord holds up to us the example of children as those who should instruct us in what faith looks like. When we consider what children are like we might remember for example how they are utterly dependent on their parents. Our churches then become places, yes, where we teach the young in the faith, but we also need to learn from them of what trusting obedience looks like as we seek to live out our baptismal identity of being God’s children. We learn to know our need of God’s grace.
For while this is truly the Church’s celebration of her intergenerational nature, we mustn’t lose sight of the whom everyone’s eyes are fixed on: it’s the youngest in the group and not just because no one can resist a baby but because He is Jesus, the Son of God, who is God, creator of all, head of the Church, Redeemer and Saviour of all. May this place be one where we encounter the God all ages. Amen.