Too much talk of truth and not enough talk of love
Candlemas: 3rd February, 2008
Fr John Davis, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
This feast day we are celebrating today at the beginning of February is a wonderful one. It brings together some final themes of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. It honours both our Lady and our Lord. If we are northerners in cold mid winter it reminds us of the power of light in the darkness. If we are southerners like ourselves we may well have many memories of candles ever so gently bending sideways, in a very pleasant pattern together, as the temperature goes past that critical point when candles actually no longer work. In keeping with traditions going way back, we take this opportunity to have our candles thoroughly well blessed for the year to come. On this day 40 days out from Christmas, we rejoice to take the light that came into the world with the birth of the Christ Child on with us in our regular lives. We connect our remembrance of that time of celebration with our ongoing sharing in all that is to come — so far as the church year is concerned, we are immediately moving into the penitential season of Lent. This time of preparation, this time of trial, this reminder that hard things are often close by — all this is now just ahead. The lives of ordinary people have their ups and downs like that too — we know it and we share in it, as a community of faith. But today we celebrate.
At the cathedral yesterday 27 new deacons were ordained. This we were told is the largest ever diaconal ordination in the history of the diocese. Amongst them were Philip Bewley from this parish who is now serving on the Surf Coast, and Chaplain Soma, now part of our ministry team here at St Peter's. It was indeed a great occasion and our own choir filled that huge space with a most beautiful sound. It was very encouraging to be in a packed cathedral and sharing in the church's recognition and affirmation of the call to ministry and service of so many and varied people. It was good for so many of us to be part of this moment. It is not the sort of thing that you easily forget.
So now we are celebrating the beginning of two new ministries here in this parish. Br Chaplain Soma, fresh from his ordination yesterday, joins us with his fine family. He is our new assistant curate. Also joining us for two years is Fr Matthew Healy, our new assistant priest. He was previously the rector of the parish of West Wangaratta and the Warbies. We are delighted to welcome them both. They will each offer us significant ministries.
They are each now placed here in the generous sanctuary space of our church alongside other members of our ministry team, stipendiary and non stipendiary, ordained, religious and lay, further surrounded by a serving team, themselves representative of the larger number of key voluntary ministries that so many here offer so generously and sacrificially. This is a very substantial team ministry that Br Chaplain and Fr Matthew are entering. We rejoice in that.
At the High Mass, everyone present will on a couple of occasions through the service hold and carry a lighted candle as a reminder not only that we are all in this together, but also that it is Christ's light that we are carrying. The whole church will be filled with this light. And we will take something of it away with us.
Our gospel today from Luke 2 tells us of the bringing of the child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to do for him according to the law for a first-born son. This involved a journey, a sacrificial offering and rites of purification and blessing. Given too the great dangers of child birth in those times it would have also been an occasion of thanksgiving for the mother. Mary and Joseph did all that was to be expected. But there were two interventions recorded by Luke that were striking. Two people greatly respected declared this child to be special indeed. The song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis of evening prayer, is one of the loveliest expressions of thanksgiving to be found in the Scriptures.
Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace:
Your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation:
Which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
A light to reveal you to the nations:
And the glory of your people Israel. (Lk2:29-32.)
This old man took the child in his arms and praised God in that way.
Luke notes that the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. And Anna, also of a great age, well known and greatly respected, declared that this child was to be the way of redemption.
The family went home to Nazareth. "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him" (Lk2:40)
After three weeks dealing with the start of the adult ministry of the Lord, we have had this flash of a reminder once again of how it all began. The candles that we are taking away with us and the ones that we are leaving here to be used through the year that is ahead, in good times and in hard times, are each a small sign of that continuing gift and grace first seen and recognised in Bethlehem and then at the Temple in Jerusalem and yes perhaps today here in this church and in our lives now. This is indeed an important reminder to take with us. And we give thanks.
There is a notice in the pew sheet this morning regarding an important preachment coming up here. On the Sunday after next, Lent 2, we will be welcoming one of our significant leaders in the Middle East, Bishop Suheil Dawani. His cathedral is St George's Jerusalem. He will be preaching at both later morning masses and there will also be a reception after evensong. Bishop Dawani is the bishop who has requested that the alternative conference of bishops and others who are not proposing to attend the Lambeth Conference this year not be held in his city, but so far as is known it is going to happen there, despite his pleas and objections. At present the bishops in Sydney, Nigeria and several other African countries are proposing a boycott of Lambeth. There are layers of division and discord particularly relating to the participation of the American and Canadian churches in the international Anglican Communion that are well known and ongoing. Differences of approach are clear in Australia, and actually becoming more obvious.
I had an interesting contact this week from the editor of our diocesan newspaper asking if I would be prepared to respond to an article he has received from a young evangelical in this diocese saying essentially that the game is up, division is certain and inevitable because there is not agreement on fundamental truths. He suggests a return to the 39 Articles of 1562 in their completeness. He concludes that differences of approach to Scripture and the way Scripture is read and received and applied are just too basic. You can be polite and courteous but you cannot remain in the same Church.
I said to Roland Ashby when he said he expected that I would take a different approach to this gloomy prognosis, that on the contrary, division was quite possible, if indeed there is a significant enough and powerful enough group who simply do not want the present understandings to continue. It is the same as when an irretrievable breakdown occurs in a personal relationship. If the bishops of Sydney for instance, and the Archbishop in particular, will not attend Lambeth, will not talk, will not pray or share the sacrament, how can there be any movement that is positive towards some reconciliation of current differences? Have things indeed gone so far?
But I will attempt a response. It will not be a 'unity at any price' response. But it will be a reminder that classical Anglicanism has always been much larger and more generous than what he is proposing — and still can be. There is too much talk of truth and not enough talk of love in these formulas for me. There will of course be much more of this before we are all through.
In times that are turbulent and uncertain, when respected and articulate leaders are pulling in opposing directions, the fundamental basic that we are called back to is a living relationship with that same Jesus whose presentation in the Temple we remember today. It is the sign of the light that is to be found in that relationship, that we carry away with us this morning. As we move into Lent this week, may that relationship with 'the Lord the giver of life', be deepened and strengthened.
The Lord be with you.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.