Sunday 31 January 2010

Candlemas: Holy Trinity Winchester

Not long before Holy Trinity Winchester has its own (House for Duty) priest. We have been going there with other retired clergy for almost four years now. So Candlemas was very special for us today. This is more or less what I said in the Sermon at Mass.

Since all the children share the same blood and flesh, Jesus too shared equally in it.

A week ago we were in France, not far from Limoges. We were visiting old friends who have a house there, and during our four day stay we saw many local churches. In each of them, the crib was still in evidence… some very grand indeed, where at the touch of a button the lights came on and music played… One had a watermill, and beyond it a caravan of camels which had, no doubt, brought the kings. Today, our simple crib, like those far grander ones, will be stowed away, as we brace ourselves towards Lent. In ancient Roman statuary, Janus, the god of the start of the year, has two faces, one looking forwards, the other back. For Christians, it is this Feast which looks both ways, the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; or the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary; or more simply, Candlemas.

Over our shoulders, receding into the distance, is Christmas. It was easy then to be caught up in the beauty of it all. We also recall the Nativity today; as the time when Jesus shared our blood and our flesh, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it. But mention blood and flesh, and we are alerted to another aspect of the Nativity of the Saviour. As we think of his birth, we are made to face towards his suffering. We look ahead as well as back.

In reality, this is how it is in every Mass, though we are not always aware of it. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we show the Lord’s death until he comes again. The altar is where both the death of Jesus and the birth of Jesus are presented week by week.

The symbol which the Church took for this festival is the candle. We have had so many far brighter sources of light in the modern world – incandescent bulbs, fluorescent tubes, floodlights and streetlights. Yet no one seems to write poetry about them – well, maybe John Betjeman did, you will have to remind me. But candles have always attracted us, like so many moths. “Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light” we sang in Sunday school; “My candle burns at both ends” wrote an American poet, and we know just what she meant – and ‘candle in the wind’ was adapted, as we all remember, for Diana’s funeral. It has to do, perhaps, with the inevitable end of the candle – nothing but a pool of wax. It has been used to measure time, and to light the way to dusty death. Above all, it is used in Church for the sheer wastefulness of it, like the precious ointment poured over Jesus’ feet. The mock, flickering electric replacements are always poor imitations.

The candle is individual; it can be held in the hand without being connected to a source of power – and when it is the real article, a genuine beeswax candle, then it connects us with the mystery of the natural world and God’s creatures, the bees, as the Easter Hymn exsultet puts it.
Five years ago on this Sunday we were ending our month of looking after the English Church in Copenhagen. (We dpn’t spend all our time abroad, though). There in Denmark, and all through Scandinavia, candles have a very special place; indeed, our leaving present from the church was a pair of little glass candlesticks. In those dark winter nights the Danes always put candles on their tables, not just to lighten the darkness, but to lighten their hearts – even at breakfast!

All these themes come together in this Mass; Christ who is the light of the world suddenly comes to his temple, and the temple is illuminated with his presence. Some of the great painters of the Renaissance had a way of depicting Christ in the manger as the source of light; his mother’s face glows in his reflected light as she leans over him. We light our candles today to remind us whose light it is that is come into the world; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the Glory of his people Israel.

He is come in blood and flesh; that is to say, he shares our nature. Not only our human nature though, he also shares our suffering .. and in sharing it, transforms it. Instead of being totally negative, suffering borne for the sake of Christ becomes part of his offering to the Father. Those outside the church often misunderstand this, and make us out to be masochists, valuing suffering for its own sake. Not so; but in every life, suffering of some sort is inevitable. How much better that it can be transformed, to the glory of God, rather than that it should become destructive and embittering.

This gives us a context for our coming Lent, when we shall be disciplining ourselves to be ready for Easter. We give up things which in themselves are harmless, good even, for the greater good of entering, in even a very small way, into the sufferings of Christ. Not the suffering of Calvary, but something of the self-denial of his time in the desert. It will be only very small things that we can do; but they will help make straight the way of the Lord.

Above all, though, at Candlemas, we should consider the light; that our light is to shine before men, that they may see our good works and glorify – not us – but our Father who is in heaven. The candle gives itself, that is what it is for; and eventually it expires. For us, though, our hope is full of immortality; that we shall be raised up into that greater, light of eternity. There in that house we shall dwell, “where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light”. As so often, John Donne says it for us, in words we would struggle to find. No little separate flickering candles, but in the end, for us all, one equal light.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. Indeed a thought-provoking and illuminating sermon.