The Generous Gospel

Wednesday 2nd February 2005
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)
St Luke's, Brighton
Luke 2:22-40

I am told that the pictures of Titan taken two weeks ago by the Hugens space probe were spectacular; the descriptions reminded me of John Lennon's Tangerine trees and Marmalade skies. For me these pictures were filed in my imagination alongside those first wonderful pictures of our world in space; the vast black sky with a little, misty silvery ball with blue and green blotches. For the first time we could see ourselves completely from the outside, one little planet in space, in the same way that we can see other planets.

My next favourite result of space technology is a series of satellite pictures which map how the world looks at night. You can hardly see Australia at all, just a slight blaze for Sydney but not much else; in Asia Japan stands out like a beacon and there are some blurry patches on the coast of the South China sea for greater Hong Kong and Shanghai but most of it is dark; So is most of Latin America; and Africa is completely dark; even the United States, the richest country in the world, has vast areas of darkness hemmed by light from the great coastal cities; but the most intense light comes from densely populated countries like Holland and England.

It's so bright here at night with street lights that we have almost forgotten the stars. But if, by some trick of time, a spacecraft had taken the same pictures 1500 years ago, there would have been nothing; from space the world would have been completely dark at night. The lives of our ancestors were subject almost entirely to natural light and dark, they got up and went to bed with the sun which is one reason why Winter was so miserable; their only means of breaking the tyranny of the dark were torches and candles; not the lovely candles of today sold in all shapes, sizes and even flavours, in special shops but smelly, smokey, unreliable things; still, they were a source of survival and comfort in a hostile world.

This is why candles were so important in Church festivals and why light is such an important image in Scripture, above all the image of Jesus as the light of the world, summed up above all in the lighting of the fire and the lighting of the Pascal candle at the Easter Vigil.

Candlemas was another such occasion and, like all Church Festivals which have survived for so long - our first record of Candlemas dates from 432 - it is invested with layers of symbolism, some inherited from pagan times. This day was half way between the Winter and Spring Solstices, celebrated in Celtic lands with the lighting of fires; it was a significant dividing of time.

The same is true for the the Church's year. Today marks the end of the forty days of Christmas and in a week from now we will begin the forty days of Lent. And so it is significant that in Luke's gospel for today we read the first reference, at the close of the Christmas story, to the death of Jesus; Mary's heart, Simeon says, will be pierced and this makes us think of the lance that pierced the side of Jesus as he hung dead on the Cross with his mother at its foot. Candlemas, the dividing of the ways, also helps us to link the two seasons; for Christmas without Easter is nothing.

But this feast, variously described as Candlemas, the Purification, and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, establishes an even deeper continuity, a link between the liberation of the people of Israel in the Exodus from Egypt and the Passion of Our lord which liberated all mankind, another theme which we celebrate during the Easter Vigil. The obligation of the Jews to present the first born son to God, to be claimed back, or, to use Scriptural terms, to be ransomed or redeemed, is first set out in God's instructions to Moses before the Passover in Exodus Chapter 13; God will destroy the first born of the Egyptians but will pass over the houses of the Israelites who must, in turn, dedicate their first born to Him. The details are set out again in Exodus 23 and 34 and Leviticus Chapter 12; and these are the laws which Mary and Joseph were obeying when they took Jesus to the temple; they were dedicating Him particularly to God and then claiming him back, or ransoming him, through offering their humble sacrifice; they were poor so they offered a pair of birds. And in the course of their observances Simeon anticipated the greater ransom or redemption, the price which Jesus would pay for our salvation through his death on the Cross.

Simeon, we are told by Luke, had been promised that he would not die until he saw the Messiah and he expressed his joy in one of the most celebrated prayers of our Church, the Nunc Dimittis, which promised salvation not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, for the whole world. Anna, a prophet who had spent every day in the temple, had also waited all her life to see the Messiah. However salvation was to come about, it wasn't going to be dramatic; this was to be a Gospel of patience. How could it be otherwise when the carrier of the child, first in her womb and then in her arms, was Mary, who is portrayed by Luke with immense sensitivity as a young woman of great patience and self restraint.

And so it came to be; the Gospel of patience prevailed in a harsh and impatient world and the light of salvation spread from that tiny, backward Roman province of Palestine throughout the world. It spread from a people deeply committed to an exclusive view of their destiny to all peoples; from the time of Simeon's proclamation it was a generous, inclusive salvation, not the property of a narrow, exclusive sect.

So on this feast of Candlemas I want us to think about the generosity of the Gospel of salvation. We may not entirely agree on doctrine with all our fellow Christians; we may be uncomfortable with some of the views, for example, of African Bishops or some of the more exotic sects which occupy that huge central land mass of the United States; but Jesus, as Simeon before Him had prophesied, opened up salvation to the whole world.

And who are we to complain? If that satellite which we talked about earlier, which mapped the intensity of physical light in the darkness, were to map spiritual light, if it were to measure where the Gospel of salvation is daily received and celebrated, how would the world look? Well, there would be a great deal of light coming from Africa and a great deal, too, from the centre of the United States; Latin America would not be doing badly, and Asia would be getting brighter every night. But what about us, the densely packed people of Western Europe with all our worldly light, how would we fare, viewed from that spiritual satellite?

I think if we are honest we would have to say that we would not be glowing so brightly now as we used to. We have fallen into an ungenerous Gospel; we are too worried about conformity and uniformity, authority and power, liturgical nicety and linguistic purity; we are ungenerous to difference and dissent. We are not in Christ's church; He is in ours.

Next time, then, that we come into contact with Christians who are different from us, let us remember Simeon. We, after all, were not only Gentiles in Simeon's terms, we were  not only non Jews but at the time when Mary and Joseph were observing their temple rites, sanctioned by some 700 years of tradition, our ancestors were still dancing around Stonehenge. The patient, generous Gospel took more than 200 years to reach our shores after the death of Jesus. Let us, then, filled with the example of simeon, Annah and Mary, given new hope through the ransom paid by Her son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, let us proclaim a patient and generous gospel as our personal candle to lighten the world.