Updated: Feb 10, 2020
We were delighted this weekend to welcome our Archdeacon, the Venerable Meurig Williams, Archdeacon of France, to our Chaplaincy.
On Sunday 2nd February, Archdeacon Meurig joined the congregation in Toulouse for their celebration of the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
He has asked us to publish the sermon that he preached in Toulouse on our website. It is therefore reproduced, in full, below.
It’s very good to be with you, today, on this pivotal day in the Christian calendar. Candlemas is the day when we conclude our Christmas celebrations. Today is a day when we are surprised, shocked even, by the glory of God. Today is a day when our assumptions and perceptions are challenged. It is a day when we discover that God rarely conforms to our expectations.
Our Old Testament reading, this morning, has a ring of dramatic theatre about it. “Suddenly” we are told, “the Lord whom you seek will come into his temple”. We might be tempted to imagine a drum roll, a clashing of cymbals, as the lights are turned up, and God appears like an iconic celebrity, or an unchallengeable world leader, surrounded in a blaze of light. This is a god, we might be temped to think, who draws the plaudits of the crowd, tells us what we want hear, who might be looking for our vote, or making impossible promises. But this god is at a safe distance, not wanting us to get too close, surrounded by an intimidating aura – if not phalanx of bodyguards.
But the Gospel we’ve just heard suggests that it is, somehow, all rather different. Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus, forty days after his birth, to fulfil the Jewish Law, to present him to the Lord, much as parents today will bring a child to church to be baptized. At the temple they are met by two elderly worshippers who greet the child as though they have been waiting years for this moment. It is a moving, but unspectacular scene. We are given a picture of the huge temple with its candlelight and shadows. The bent figures of Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph with their baby, the old man taking the child in his arms, praising God and then going on to say astonishing things: that this child is Israel’s salvation and a light to lighten the Gentiles; that this child will meet bitter opposition and that his mother’s soul will be pierced by a sword of sorrow. It’s unexpected, unsettling, and not what we necessarily want to hear.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the Jewish temple at the time of Jesus was not like a present-day heritage site or even like our rather clean and tidy European cathedrals. It wasn’t like going to Notre Dame or the Palace at Versailles. It was more like the Souk in Marrakech or the Bazar in Istanbul: a busy, bustling, confusing place that would have smelt of blood and roasting meat from the constant round of sacrifices; blood faintly disguised with barbecue smoke and, of course, clouds of incense. It was also a place of study and debate, of commerce and conflict. So think of something like the European Parliament, Santiago de Compostella, the Palais de Justice and the Stock Exchange all rolled into one - with Les Halles attached for the distribution of sacrificial meat.
Luke knew that the Greek and Roman temples of the ancient world were built around an image of the deity, the god associated with a particular city, who was worshipped, usually in the form of a great statue. But Luke also knew that the Jewish temple had no image. In the Temple of Jesus’s time, there was simply a curtained-off empty space. This was the Holy of Holies, the shrine of the all-holy God who could not be seen. To this shrine, to this empty space, Mary and Joseph bring their infant Son.
What Luke wants us to grasp is how the visible image of the unseen God is brought to that empty space. He comes as a baby in arms, brought by parents so poor that they have only a couple of common birds to offer in sacrifice. They are not met by a drum-roll, a cymbal clash, or ushered into the celebrity spot-light to be greeted by a delegation from the High Priest. They are recognized by two elderly people whose comings and goings normally pass unnoticed. Those who are usually brushed aside by people with more status, energy and money are the ones who see the glory of God in this tiny child and his impoverished parents.
Yet this, I think, is the point of the story. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple does not happen with great display of grandeur, with trumpets and bells, and the announcement of thunder. It happens in the shadows of the temple, on the edges of things, where old age, poverty and infancy strangely meet. In this story, judgment lies in the hands of the poor and the unimportant, the very old and the very young, the people who feel they have neither power nor influence. This is where the revelation of God’s glory happens. This is where we see the light of the nations. The little scene in the temple is a cameo of what matters to God. God judges and heals us not from above but from below, as he slips quietly into the very heart of the human world, to get involved in the mess, the fear, the disorientation and despair that often punctuates human life. This is, to use the technical, theological jargon, how God becomes incarnate. He becomes like us so that we can become more like him.
That’s worth remembering, living, as we do, in a society that has drifted further and further away from the practice of faith. Our public life, and the people who shape the way we think – our politicians, our newspaper editors, and those who are quick to share their views on social media – have drifted away from recognizing the presence of God in the poor and the needy, those struggling with mental illness, the unemployed and the disabled. We have become rather complacent about our values, believing that social virtue is what all nice and good people believe in and practice, and that we have no need for the nourishment of prayer and worship, no need to be resourced by the Temple and all it signifies. How often I hear that pious little phrase, ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’. And that other one, ‘I don’t know if I believe in God but I have my personal morality’. And all that may be true. But too often our goodness, our self-determined morality, is just too narrow in its scope. It’s all about self and not about others, let alone God. We are lured into thinking that all we have to do in life is to favour those who favour us, and call that virtue. If we have money in our pocket, are living a relatively comfortable existence, with the trappings of relative prosperity to show for it, while insulated from the pain and distress of others, we assure ourselves that everything is just fine.
But, today, scripture holds up a mirror to all that. Scripture brings us to the Temple, to the Holy of Holies, to a God so holy that he cannot be seen. And because he cannot be seen, he cannot simply be just another flattering reflection of ourselves. ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’. God comes to us as a baby; calling out of his dependence and need for our love and delight. But today is also the day when we are invited to leave the crib and look towards the cross and the dawning of Easter day. Today is the day, as one hymn puts it, ‘when Christmas meets Easter on Candlemas day.’ We unavoidably confront the truth of how the baby will grow into a man, a man who calls us to follow him, to service, to suffering, to sacrifice, and to a new and transformed life.
As Christians, we cannot live in a self-referential bubble where our only concern is ourselves and our own material self-improvement. Christians care about society’s well-being and cohesion. Christians are called to drink deeply from the well of justice and holiness, to immerse ourselves in the wisdom of our tradition. As we see from the example of Simeon and Anna, greeting the Christ-child from the shadows, only those who have something of the perspective of eternity know how to interpret the gift of the present moment. It is those with a broad field of vision and a depth of lived experience, only those who recognize the value of the vulnerable and dependent, who are most able to recognise the Lord as he comes to his temple.
If God comes to us in ways that catch us off-guard, surprise us, and even challenge our deeply-held assumptions, that tells us something significant about God. May be it also tells us something significant about ourselves – and who we are being called to be. As we journey forward with Christians throughout the world, making our way towards the celebration of Good Friday and Easter, how will we recognize the Lord as he comes to his Temple – and how will he recognize us?