SMC 3rd February 2019
I would like to begin by thanking Fr Morris for inviting me here this morning, and to you, all of you, for welcoming me. For those of you who do not know, or perhaps are trying to remember why my face is familiar, I was pastoral assistant here between 2012 and 2013. When I was about to leave, I asked whether, should I be ordained, I might return to assist at the Mass in the community which supported me on my journey from layman to deacon. Well, here I am, so thank you.
Returning to places from our past is a moving experience. Those of us who live far from our hometowns, even if we do not particularly like where we were born or raised, cannot escape the feelings that we associate with those places: our old schools, the houses of our early childhoods, the places we used to visit with our friends and family, the places where we spent time sad and lonely. Whether with nostalgia or sadness, humour or horror, returning to those places which have formed us always provoke a reaction. Homes have particularly strong memories connected with them: think of your own homes, what decorates them, which memories you have framed, or represented in the objects beautifying your rooms.
Every year we return to this story, part of the architecture of our spiritual upbringing, and the verses describe a homecoming of a sort as well, and one filled with mystery, like a home filled with cherished objects, each one with a story behind it. Yet, it is not only a mystery of the moment, or a homecoming full of history, but a sneak-peek of the end of the story of Jesus’ life. Many parts of the Bible only make sense, or only reveal their true senses, when read in the context of the whole. The Sacrifice of Abraham has to be read in relation to the Crucifixion; Noah’s Ark and Isaiah’s healing of Namaan in relation to the baptism of the New Testament. What, then, are the mysteries, the truths which this day recalls to us?
When Mary brings the infant Jesus to the temple, the day that we call ‘The Presentation’ or ‘Candlemas’, it is something of a homecoming for Christ. Newly born, yet eternally ancient, the infant Messiah comes to be presented to his Father, and Mary comes to make an offering for her purification, as the Law required. Perhaps this experience was profound for them: I would not like to guess, but certainly we who read this passage should be moved. Why should Jesus need to be presented to his Father, to whom he is united as John 10:30 tells us? Why should Mary need to be purified when all that she has done has been according to God’s will and the power of the Holy Spirit? Upon revisiting this passage, we at first, probably, feel disturbed or confused.
The answer, of course, is that Jesus, in taking on our human weaknesses, shows us how we must love. ‘Honour thy father and thy mother,’ God commands, and so God the Son honours God the Father. How could he not? Jesus was the one who became obedient, even to death on a Cross, for preaching the Good News, for telling us the message of God’s love, and calling us to repentance and obedience. He could hardly have begun his earthly life flouting God’s commands, now could he? Jesus is full of surprises, from before his birth, through his childhood, and beyond into eternity, but a rebellious child, he is not. So he models for us here that obedience to God’s will: obedience in the Law, obedience in sacrifice, which will be displayed before the world upon the Cross. We, brothers and sisters, must find in our hearts that same obedience, if we want to be like Christ.
This is the essence of the Candlemas feast, that from the beginning of his earthly life, just as he was at the beginning of all life, the Son was at work in the world, showing us how to live, showing us through his own life and the lives those around him what was and is to come. Even the birds offered in sacrifice hint at the life Jesus will lead: the turtle-dove’s constant, gentle calling foreshadows Christ’s preaching; the pigeon, the humblest of birds, his humility, for although he did not need to, he became like us, lived just like us, subject to our human frailties, as Paul writes, ‘in this way he became completely like his brothers, so that he could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion’. He is trustworthy, because he has lived like us. Not apart form us, as God in Heaven, or as a King on Earth, but as one poor and humble. He has been through temptation, so he is able to help others who are tempted. He has suffered, and so we know that he can help those who suffer.
In the 21st Century, it is the new, the exciting, the unknown, which is sold to us. Whether it is material possessions, food, or experiences, we are encouraged by the world to chase the new and then, as soon as we have it, to discard it for the next thing. What is tragic is that this extends to the human soul: self-help books, quack medicine, pseudoscience and superstition all claim to put new spins on age-old wisdom. But rejoice, brothers and sisters, because we do not need a new spin on old wisdom because we have Scripture, God’s word, which does not change, and it is to Scripture that we should return to give thanks in times of joy and to find comfort in times of distress. Scripture is a home, a place of upbringing, to which we return, or should return, time and time again. We must not read it passively, brothers and sisters; we must not let distractions take us from listening to the Word of God when it is shared amongst us in the Mass. Each time that book is opened, it is like the door of a house opening, the door of a friend, welcoming us in. Which one of us would turn aside, get out a book or a telephone when a friend is trying to welcome us, trying to rejoice with us, trying to comfort us? None, I would hope. So why do we let these distractions take our attention away from our truest friend? Why do we let our obedience to God be shaken?
God shows us what it means to be obedient, to be truly obedient, in his Son, who for our sake lived and died in perfect obedience to God’s will. He emphasizes the depth of meaning in Scripture through symbol: the birds which tell us about Jesus’ message and his humility; the elderly Simeon who takes Jesus in his arms, embraces him, and knows that he is saved, just as we must reach out and hold on to Jesus for our own salvation. God keeps us returning to these places of wonder and mystery in Scripture and in the life of the Church. He does all these things out of love, as a Father loves his Son, so that we may see clearly the light before us, the light to enlighten the gentiles, the pagans or, in other words, us. God has not come into this world for some other group of humanity, brothers and sisters, we are the ones who must hold before our eyes the light of Christ all the days of our life. That is why, every year, preachers scratch their heads and try to work out how to make Candlemas fresh again, how to talk about about candles and light without repeating themselves. But that is not what we are offered today, not really. What we are offered is a home, a place within the mystery, loving, well-lit, filled with the promises of the past and hope for our future.
Brothers and sisters, this Candlemas, let us pray that wherever we go, and whichever places we may visit or return to, we keep the light of Christ before our eyes, that we may follow in his footsteps, be obedient as he was obedient, and live a life rooted in the Scriptures, constantly renewed by God’s Fatherly love. Amen.