The ‘now’ that is forever
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
31 January 2016, 10:30 (THE PRESENTATION OF CHRIST ~ CANDLEMAS)I don’t know if any of you have counted but there are 333 shopping days to Christmas!
Yes, as we bring our Christmas worship to its close today, some people are already looking forward to Christmas 2016.
It is amazing how quickly the world forgets Christmas and already the shops are stacked with cream eggs and hot cross buns.
All of us inhabit this world of looking back and looking forward: it is a defining quality of our humanity to have a sense of time with the power of memory and projection and expectation.
But we all have a different take on the past and the future.
Some people are convinced and tell us that things were better in the old days and that the present is regrettable and the future frightening.
Others on the other hand are happy to ditch the past, saying that it is irretrievably gone and thinking about it is mere sentiment or selective in its memories and it is only the future that matters – things will only get better...
And this spectrum of emphasis and disposition is often a generational difference:
the young being young, are future–oriented - visionary, optimistic
and with many years before them;
this then becomes becalmed in middle age where the future begins
to look very different from how it was imagined;
and then in old age memories and past times, of which there are many,
bring comfort and sometimes completely colour the present
and obscure any sense of the future.
All this brings me to Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – a festival known as The Meeting in the Eastern Church.
This celebration forms a threshold where the 40 day old Jesus is presented in the Temple by his parents as required by the Law. And after the rites of the first-born the family are met by two elderly people: Simeon and Anna who recognise the baby as the promised Messiah. The Meeting is not just an event in which Jesus is presented in the Temple by his parents and meets these two very old faithful Jews yearning and waiting for God’s promise.
This moment of the Meeting is a window of faith which opens up a new way of seeing and believing. Candlemas promises that we are no longer the helpless prisoners of time and mortality.
Yes, we only have a number of days in which we live on this earth but there is more – and it lies beyond our powers and faculties and yet is given to us in the gift of God’s presence in Jesus.
This past week saw the first of this year’s Reith Lectures given by Professor Stephen Hawking broadcast on the radio.
The talk was on black holes. Now black holes and dark matter about which we know relatively little and which challenge everything we take for granted about the laws and certainties of the physical world constitute some 90% of the universe.
Science itself is forever discovering new truths which challenge past assumptions, constructs and certainties.
Stephen Hawking informs us about black holes through mathematics because they are invisible to our eyes and cannot be measured physically because they are anti-matter.
Candlemas is rooted in our world of matter on this tiny speck of planet earth but there in a human baby is the origin and the destination of all life, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.
This is not just science or poetry or theology but revelation.
Revelation is the initiative and the power of God to speak and touch his creation and his people.
In Jesus he inhabits not only history as of 2000 year ago but more importantly in the ‘now’, the present moment.
And this ‘now’ is more than a passing random moment: it is the ‘now’ that is forever.
This is the heart of a sacramental experience and conviction.
We Christians talk of and celebrate sacraments
– when the present moment is filled completely beyond
its normal capacity so as to contain eternity
– when matter not only carries spirit but is overwhelmed
by the meaning and purpose of everything – God himself.
That is what happens at baptism and in every celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
We are touched and filled by the power of God himself – and creation as we see it and know it is utterly changed and renewed.
It is a gift and not a feeling: it is objective although it may be accompanied by thoughts and emotions.
Candlemas is a sacramental moment for God’s people – the realisation that the light of the nations and the glory of Israel is held in a mother’s arms (and indeed in the aged Simeon’s) and yet all that has ever been and all that shall be is actually present in this tiny form.
And this miracle asks such extraordinary questions of us today:
who am I?
– am I the newly born infant?
the growing child?
the burgeoning adolescent?
the young adult?
or the elderly?
Am I the same as I was – and will I change in the future so as to be someone other?
If you were to picture heaven, what age do you see yourself as having when you encounter the maker of all?
Does this matter for everyday life; is it relevant to 21st century people?
I believe it is, for age determines so much of our everyday identities and activities yet we are in a constant state of change and development. Even our aging bodies as they progress on their return to the dust from which we came are part of a greater call in the light of eternity.
Christianity is a vocation, whereby God calls us into being, into eternity and into union with him through our material creation.
Yes, there is a but.
A child of a few minutes is as precious and as real as an adult of 105 years. God’s heaven sheds from us all the limitations of our mortal form. The eternity of God’s kingdom brings a different perspective which challenges the values of selfish and self-centred living.
And the world must know of this truth and this promise.
As Christians and as the Church we have failed to win the intellectual argument in our land and western society.
Schools, colleges and universities see Christianity as holed below the water as a vibrant intellectual adventure that is as valid, compelling and penetrating as those of atheism and agnosticism. Stephen Hawking is regarded with respect but Christians are mostly dismissed as being blinkered and prejudiced in the open world of thought, learning and progress.
Even the biblical stories that are integral to a holistic interpretation of the meaning of our human identity and the wider cosmos are no longer known by people under 30 or 40 years of age.
We have so much to do as people of faith and we seem to have no strategy or sense of priorities in our mission and service to the world.
Our Candlemas readings also take us to the judgment and values of God and how they are reflected in our daily living.
The friends of God must carry his light, like the Candlemas candles we will process this afternoon, to the darkness of our world.
Candlemas points us to Lent, Holy week and Easter and to the terrifying night that we are making by our behaviour as the human family today.
The infant Jesus grows into the man who will be abandoned into the darkness and evil that we perpetuate through our failure to speak out and act as children of the light.
Our news is full of crises:
the zika virus is a new and deadly threat to human health;
we have seen the disparity between tax and justice in our society
over recent days;
...and all against a background of war and immigration with the tensions
of compassion for refugees being formed in practical and realistic
policies by the family of the world’s nations.
So there is another ‘now’ – the crisis of the moment in which we learn that everyday people are starving in Madaya in Syria.
Earlier this month, two emergency convoys of food and aid supplies were delivered to Madaya, where up to 40,000 people are believed to be trapped in appalling conditions.
To this the UN says some 400,000 people are trapped and in need of emergency assistance in 15 locations in Syria.
And all this is in addition to the millions that live on or near the borders in makeshift camps and the two million plus who have fled to Europe.
What is the point of faith and the presence of God if nothing can be done?
In a few moments the incarnate One will risk his life for you anew in the moment of Holy Communion. Into our hands and our lives he places himself, the Son of the Father, the bread from heaven.
Let us pray for help and courage and the disposition of determination in the words of the early Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria:
As we stand in the temple and hold the Son of God and embrace him,
let us pray to almighty God and to the child Jesus that we may be found
worthy of release and departure to do better things, for we long to speak
with Jesus and embrace him. To him be glory and power for ever