To Be A Light

Sunday 31st January 2016
The Forth Sunday of Epiphany
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Luke 2.22-40

We are Gentiles. We are the people of whom Simeon spoke when he described the infant Jesus as "A light to lighten the Gentiles" but, Simeon goes on: "and to be the glory of His people Israel", a point that we have often forgotten in our history with catastrophic consequences in the 20th Century.

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in The Temple became a wonderfully symbolic and domestic Feast in The Middle Ages: symbolic, because it marked the end of Christmas and is approximately half way between the shortest day of the year and the beginning of Spring; domestic, because in many countries this is the day when household candles were blessed.

But, I believe that keeping this Feast, as opposed to letting it wither in the wake of the Assumption, The Ascension and The Epiphany. And it all revolves around the idea of light, best illustrated in what we actually do at Candlemas. One person lights a taper from the Paschal Candle and lights a congregational candle at the end of a pew, and that candle lights the next candle as the taper moves to the next pew. Light is not something pervasive and overpowering in this case, like light emanating from the stars of the universe, it is a property which we pass from the Paschal Candle of Easter to one another.

So, what should we be passing from one to another? To answer this question we have to go back to Simeon who says that this Salvation promised through Jesus is for all people. That perception of universality is a wonderful promise reflected in the Gospel and Acts of Saint Luke but we have lost it along the way. The manner in which we organise Christianity means that we are seriously engaged with exclusion and inclusion criteria rather than assuming that Simeon's prophesy of Jesus was correct. We have been taken over by the language of contract: if you do this, Jesus will do that. Terrible though this may seem for those who so painstakingly try to lead good lives, the people we look down on the most, the people most different from us, are going to be saved. The only problem is that they don't know it because we haven't told them, being too busy explaining why they can't be saved unless they meet certain conditions.

A candle is a delicate thing: compared with electricity its light is feeble; compared with electricity its light is always in danger from the wind; but we, feeble human beings, living in the uncertain winds of the world, cannot individually build the power stations that generate electricity; we can have our candle lit by a friend and proceed to light another candle, bringing our own little store of light and heat which does not decrease when we pass it on. This is because love is a property, not a possession; our store does not decrease if we give some away, rather the opposite.

But we are not spreading the good news because it makes us feel better - though that is a pleasant by-product - but because it makes other people feel better.  Our job as Christians is to improve the lives of others as best we can rather than judging them for who and what they are or, worse still, condemning them to their faces, a disorder that has become so dominant that many people think that Christianity exists primarily to judge the behaviour of others with which we disagree.

And yet, our inheritance of the Good News must be what defines us. We see in the Prophets, particularly in Nehemiah, Ezra, Zechariah and Haggai, how The Lord promised to put right the damage done to his Chosen People through their exile in Babylon by using the Persian conquerors of Babylon and the remnant of His people to restore the Temple and its worship on the site where Simeon stood to make his proclamation to Mary and Joseph. The posh word for our mistake is anthropomorphising God, or describing God's behaviour in human terms, as if all 'his' activity was based on rules which we set. This tendency to reduce God to human terms might more simply be called pride but its damage is much wider than that which we do to ourselves through this process: our indifference to the power and glory of God because we can't reduce it to our own terms blinds us to the light that we must pass on to "those who live", as we have just said in the Benedictus "in darkness and the shadow of death." We need today because it is one small way of reminding us that ours is not a faith based on fear but on hope, based on charity not retribution. As Christians we are supposed to go around smiling because we are Easter children who live  in the knowledge of the Good News. Yes, we may waver in our faith because the mystery of God's goodness is too large for us to grasp, his power so great, his glory to overwhelming, but then we must think of God in Jesus, the celebration of whose birth ends today; for we are not just Easter people, although that is the side of us that tends to get down-played, we are also Christmas people, the people who recognise that same God as a vulnerable baby as well as a glorious heavenly power. Some people might say that we are trying to have it both ways, the vulnerable and the almighty, but the wonder of the Trinity is that we are, precisely, allowed to have it both ways or, rather, to be technically correct, three ways, because it is in the power of the Holy Spirit that we attain our incarnational and salvific perceptions; it is through the Spirit that we know God both as human flesh and beyond our understanding.

And so, on this day, while we are sad that our Christmas celebrations have come to an end, we may rejoice in the candle that has been given to us so that we may receive the light - and pass it on!