Sunday 3rd February 2019 - Presentation of the Lord -Candlemas - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN CANDLEMAS 10.30: Malachi 3.1-4; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40

The story told in today’s Gospel is both poignant and familiar. Poignant in its portrayal of Simeon and Anna, each nearing the end of their lives, but each joyfully greeting, in the fragile form of a little child, hope for a future they would not live to see. It is familiar, of course, from the countless times over the centuries that Luke’s story has been read, or Simeon’s prayer sung in the words of the Nunc Dimittis. But familiar too, I suggest, from the no less countless times something said about a young child by a family member or friend has influenced who and what that child became.  In an interview last year on Radio 4, for example, the Liberian Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president of an African country, recalled a story told to her by her parents when she was young, at a time when she had no prospect of her future achievements. As was the local custom, an old man had come to see the new baby, and looking at the infant Ellen had said to her mother: “This child will be great”. Had the old man, or other old men or old women, said that or something similar to the mothers of other babies, who did not become great in the way Ellen did? Quite possibly. But then perhaps these other children became great in more hidden ways; or again, the future foreseen for, and achieved by them, was of different aptitudes or success, in sports perhaps, or music, or science, for example.

Too often to be ignored, memories or half-memories of what others have observed about a growing child, have influenced who and what the growing child has become. And this is but one instance of the more general truth. No man – or woman – is an island. We do not make ourselves by ourselves. We are social animals, and who we are is co-created, not only by ourselves, but also by one another. ‘I am because we are’, ‘I am a person through other persons’. And if this is true of the rest of us, so it must have been true of Jesus. We do not know the true historical circumstances of Jesus’ birth and infancy, but something like today’s story about Simeon and Anna sounds not at all improbable.

But that was not the only story told about the infancy and childhood of Jesus. As well as St Luke’s story of Jesus’ later visit to the Temple, where he listened to and asked questions of its teachers, many other far less likely stories began circulating, some of which were highly fanciful: the boy Jesus makes clay birds and brings them to life; when his brother is bitten by a snake, the boy Jesus heals him; when another boy punches Jesus, he curses him and the boy dies; when the neighbours complain, they are miraculously struck blind by Jesus. From a modern point of view it is easy to see why the Church eventually did not include such stories in the New Testament. But why were they told at all?

One reason seems to be this. In the two or three hundred years after Jesus’ life on earth, the first generation of Christians came from many different backgrounds, Jewish, Greek, and Roman. Their understanding of the world had been formed by many different mythologies, philosophies, social circumstances and superstitions; and against this background they were trying to find words to express their faith – words to express their faith in Christ, the risen and ascended Jesus, who was also so intimately present with them, in prayer and worship, in community and in the conduct of their lives. And one of the ways some of them did this, was to talk about Jesus’ life on earth as if he was like one of the gods from Greek mythology - one who, although disguised as a human being, really knew all along what was going to happen and was perfectly in control of events. In the New Testament, St John’s Gospel sometimes comes closest to this; and in the light of their faith in the risen Christ, it is perhaps understandable why many early Christians wanted to honour him by making him in his earthly life seem more than human.

In the end however, the Church decided this just would not do. However difficult it was to explain, in his earthly life Jesus had been as much human as divine, for if he had not been truly human, one of us, how could his life and teaching have encouraged us to go on living and learning, or how could his suffering, death and resurrection have assured us to live - and die - in faith and hope and love? To elevate Jesus’ divinity at the expense of his humanity, the Church decided, was the heresy of Docetism, from the Greek word dokein, to seem, to only seem to be human. And, the Church added, what was true on earth is true in heaven, however we understand that mystery. As the old Scottish paraphrase of some verses following those of today’s Epistle to the Hebrews later would put it: ‘Our fellow-sufferer yet retains/a fellow-feeling of our pains; and still remembers in the skies/his tears, his agonies, and cries.’

Jesus was truly human then, then and now. But was he not also divine? From time to time, the temptation to Docetism would continue to appear, sometimes in hymns, as when ‘Away in a manger’ continues, ‘the Baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’. A baby and no crying? I wonder. As a wise man has written: ‘children are, by nature, cheerful foes of silence’; and however much divinity, surely did not make Jesus a Victorian child who was seen and not heard.

But what did divinity mean in Jesus’ case? For centuries, the Church struggled to find words, ideas, concepts, to express this, and if you care to read theologians today, you may conclude that they are still struggling. The reason I think is this. To spell out in consistent prose what we know intuitively in prayer, is ultimately impossible. It is just as impossible as it is for a human lover to prove to anyone else by reasoned argument why their beloved is so loveable, or indeed for a true friend to prove to anyone else by reasoned argument why their true friend is their true friend. The only real answer is: “Because she is she and I am I”, “Because he is he and I am I”. And with God, matters are even more mysterious. God is not some being somewhere whom we can, or ever could, encompass with the fitful and fragmented human understanding that serves us for other purposes. God is the ultimate personal reality we do not understand, but by whom we trust we are personally understood. In music perhaps and in poetry we may have some obscure intimation of who God is. But our deepest knowledge of God is more akin to the silent understanding of a human handclasp or embrace, or in Christian terms, the silent moment of communion, in bread and wine.

Is there anything more to be said beyond that silence? In practice perhaps, simply the knowledge that we worship God, not because God is great, but because God is good, because God is love. That God is great goes without saying, because God is God. But that is not what the God and Father of Jesus Christ, wants us to know through Jesus Christ. In his powerlessness, Jesus was side-lined and silenced by those who loved their religious and political power. Yet mysteriously but decisively, the power of his love proved greater than love of power of his earthly judges. Today as always, the love of power provides temptations that are subtle and all around us. The temptations of the love of power are there in our daily desire to bolster our own inadequacy by appearing right when we perhaps are wrong, certain when we perhaps do not know, better than others when we perhaps are no better. And all this can be seen not only in the infirmities of our personal lives, but also in the inequities of our society and in the inadequacies of our politics. In all these respects, the power of love seeks patiently to persuade us to see and feel otherwise; and it is when we begin to listen to the power of love that we begin truly to understand. It is when we begin to listen to the power of love in our personal lives that we begin to see and feel that we are no more right, or certain, or better than one another; and it is when we begin to see and feel that, that the power of God’s love tells us that we, even we, are life-forgiven and redeemable. And it is then too, perhaps, that we begin to be able to cease despairing of our society and politics, so that when we have played our part as best we can in the present, we can, like Simeon and Anna, have faith in hope for a future we ourselves may not live to see. It is then, as the power of love begins to set us free from our dismal self-centredness, that we begin to see each new day as truly open before us, and every evening to say our Nunc Dimittis, to go to sleep in peace, for our eyes have seen God’s salvation.