It was no place to take a child ...
Candlemas, 31 January, 2010
Canon Andrew Nunn, Sub Dean Southwark Cathedral
Preached at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
It was no place to take a child. This was no pleasant visit to the local parish church that Mary and Joseph embarked on that morning; this was nothing reminiscent of a baptism or a christening. The temple was no place to take a child. The crowds, the money changers, the noise and the smell — it wasn't pleasant. The screams of the frightened and dying animals, the blood and the lingering smell of burning flesh and fat — this was no place to take a child.
Yet into this scene, that would seem to us more like a badly run abattoir than a place of worship, this couple walk with their young baby. She was carrying the child; he was carrying a cage with two pigeons in it — their offering for the life of their first born son.
They'd gone into this barbaric place for a barbaric reason. God was to be appeased — and the only way of appeasing God, who wanted the offering of the life of their newly born son, was to buy God off with an alternative, a replacement sacrifice — and they being poor — could only afford the pigeons, the cheapest option. Joseph knew they'd been ripped off by those who sold them — but what could he do, he had no choice — the law had to be obeyed.
As they entered the gloom and the stench of the place they were spotted. Someone else had come that morning to the Temple — an old man — he'd come because God had told him to go and see what he'd been waiting for. He was old and tired, he'd had a life time of waiting — of watching and waiting — and he was here again in this place where crowds poured into the courts to do what the law asked of them.
And he saw them. They were no different from the other couples with babies there — but there was something different, he knew it, he just knew that they were the ones he'd been waiting for, that this child was the answer to his prayers.
He made his way through the crowd to where the couple were standing; they were confused. From their clothes he could tell that they were from out of town and when he spoke to them their northern accents gave them away. They looked at him, unsure what this old man wanted — yet in his eyes they knew that they could trust him — and so when he asked if he could hold their baby they said yes and handed Jesus over. And the man, holding in his outstretched hands the baby, looked up to heaven and sang.
His words were so beautiful that Mary was transfixed and when he'd sung he turned to her and his words astounded her — 'and a sword will pierce your own soul also'. And then out of the gloom came an old woman, a prophet in her own right, a woman who never left this place and yet who too praised God for the child.
It was no place to take a child — but Mary and Joseph knew that they must take him to the Temple and make the offering for his life.
It was no place for a child — but God knew that he must send his son into the world to redeem the world, that a sacrifice was required for which there could be no substitute — that God should offer his own self for his own sons and daughters. It was no place for a child — but as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us he 'had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.'
This Feast of Candlemass brings to a conclusion the Christmas Season. We began the journey in the poverty and the brutality of the stable and we end it in the brutality of the Temple and the old law. You'll remember that the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his book 'Leviathan' described the human condition as 'nasty, brutish and short'. It's something of a depressing description of our reality and we might want to argue with him — though for too many people in the world today it's far too accurate a description.
But into this reality of the human condition God enters and it's that truth, that amazing, life-changing truth that for forty days we've been celebrating. On Christmas Day we heard that most wonderful reading from St John's Gospel 'and the Word became flesh and lived among us' and we rejoiced. The incarnation is God's act of embracing who we are in Jesus, who's 'not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters', who's not ashamed to become as we are.
What Simeon sees in that Temple is a light which will bring illumination to the whole world, which will transform our understanding of God, our misunderstanding of God.
My brothers and sisters, how could we love a God who wanted us to sacrifice our first-born, who needed to be bought off with pigeons? Of course we couldn't. How could we not love a God who is born in poverty, lived among us, embraced the cross and died and rose again? Of course we can do no other — we cannot but love the God who we meet with in this child, of whom we sing with Simeon and Anna. He's the one for whom the whole of humanity has waited, he is the fulfilment of the promise, he is our life, he is our salvation.
It was no place to take a child — but God risked everything for you and for me, out of sheer love. It's the most staggering truth that's at the heart of our faith. The gloom of the Temple, the horror of the old law, the old covenant, is replaced with light, is replaced with the law of love and is replaced with a new covenant not sealed in the blood of pigeons and doves and sheep and oxen but in the only blood that could make a difference. For love of you, for love of me, God enters the Temple and gives himself totally, sheds tears and blood so that we might live for ever.
And God continues to do that for you.
Some Christians do not like the truth; they don't seem to like the light that Christ brings. They can't believe, they don't want to believe that God loves us without partiality, that God loves you simply for who you are. Some Christians, some Anglicans who would seek to tear our church apart, cannot bear the fact that your gender or your colour or your sexuality or anything else about you makes no difference to God — they cannot believe that we are children living in the freedom of a new covenant not in the shackles of the old. But we are — and God has set us free and God has included each one of us in his embrace, because he loves each of us for who we are, because we are his own creation.
And how do we know this?
It was no place to take a child — but God always embarks on risky behaviour and he continues to do so in this Mass. Not only did Jesus die on that cross, not only did he rise on that first Easter Day but he gives himself to us each time we come to his altar, come to his temple. Like Simeon we hold out our hands and we're given the child to hold — Jesus, in this most holy sacrament, is placed in our hands, is placed in your hands as proof of how much you are loved.
God in the Eucharist risks everything as without a word, without a demand he's given to you, is given to me, so that we can live his life.
It's no place for God — in this world, in our hands — but it's where God chooses to be, he chooses to be with you, whoever, whatever you are. The waiting is over — God is here and we are saved.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.