Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Candlemas: Tuesday 2 February 2011
2 February 2011 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
It was a strange privilege for me last Saturday at the Day of Prayer in St Margaret’s Church to read the four addresses that had been prepared for the day by my friend Bishop Kenneth Stevenson. Kenneth had known that he would be too unwell to attend the day himself and had agreed that I should read the addresses. But in fact death intervened and I read them three days after his funeral. It was a moving and wonderful day, appreciated by the hundreds of people who attended. Kenneth’s addresses, which can be read in the St Margaret’s section of the Abbey website, were on the subject of the Transfiguration, addressed from his personal perspective on the difficulty and importance of prayer. For me, it was most helpful when Kenneth reminded us that, “It is, after all, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ that we can pray at all in the first place, to the one who according to the Letter to Hebrews is able to sympathise with our weakness (Heb 4:15), yet who intercedes for us at God’s right hand (Heb 7:25 8:1) – being for us, with God, whatever our circumstances.” He prays for us in our weakness and perfects our prayer.
Kenneth characteristically took the opportunity to have several side-swipes, for example at the church’s increasing tidy-mindedness, its ‘busyness and bossyness’ and obsession with specific outcomes. He also spoke movingly of the impact of drug-induced depression. The very therapeutic drugs that had helped him survive the leukaemia lowered his spirits. “Just another little twist” he said “that still makes me shudder, when one thinks of vulnerable people, who might – under a different legal system – be persuaded to sign along the dotted line, and quietly exit from this life.” Kenneth’s own exit was surrounded by the sacramental ministry of the Church and the love of his family. For his truly good death we give thanks.
Kenneth’s third address focused on God’s glory and how the disciples at the Transfiguration came to see Jesus in a new light, the light of the glory of God, a vision that could carry them through the pain and loss of his suffering and death, a foretaste of the resurrection. Kenneth referred to the feast we celebrate today, the feast of the Presentation to the Lord God of the forty day-old Christ. He said, “When the aged Simeon takes him in his arms in the temple, he refers to the Saviour as ‘the glory of your people Israel’ (Luke 2: 32) – this time the ‘glory’ is not for heaven, but is Christ himself.”
Old Simeon had waited long for that moment, for that revelation. As St Luke tells us, he “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” [Luke 2: 25, 26] What he sees in this baby who is the Son of God, the promised Messiah, is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.” With his eyes of flesh, Simeon sees the baby before him with his mother Mary and with Joseph. With the eyes of faith, he sees the Christ, the son of the living God, and is able to foresee our Lord Jesus Christ’s significance for the whole world, not for Israel alone but for everyone under the sun.
For many of us much of the time, for some of us all the time, the seeing we do stops more or less at the fleshly, physical level. We can see only what is before us, what we can see with our human eyes. Seeing through to the reality behind what we can see with our human eyes, to the depth of being, to ultimate purpose, to real meaning is beyond us. Insight is tough, foresight inconceivable, for many of us much of the time, for some of us all the time. But it is worth noting how readily the English language deals with these issues. The conceptual framework exists for handling these questions. Sight, insight, foresight: seeing, seeing the inner reality, foreseeing purpose, meaning, endings is all there available to us.
The old man Simeon saw. He had waited and watched. He had longed for the sight. He had trusted that the moment would come. He had been patient, enduring, faithful. Never seeing, he had known that one day he would see, had at least hoped that he would. He had lived in the darkness of uncertainty, unknowing, unseeing for many years. Now finally, he came to see with insight and foresight. Faith turned into knowledge; hope into certainty; darkness into light. St Paul famously spoke, in his treatise on the love of God, of seeing. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” [I Corinthians 13: 12] Most of us, for most of our lives must live like Simeon: without seeing, in the darkness, in unknowing.
A late 14th century English mystic wrote of The Cloud of Unknowing. He speaks of four degrees of living for a Christian: the common way, the special way, the singular way and the perfect way. The last of these ways, the perfect way, “may by grace be begun here but it shall ever last without end in the bliss of heaven.” The common way he describes as the way of Christian people living among worldly friends, entrenched in the ways of the world. He trusts that a wish for a higher way and a greater devotion to the Lord has attracted his reader into a more special way of living, in which God has “kindled desire full graciously, and fastened it by a leash of longing.” He wishes to lead his reader into the singular way. He teaches us the way of contemplation, rather than the way of meditation, that our approach to God must not be, cannot be, to think of God, to meditate on God, but to contemplate him. “For why; God may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.” So he discourages the searcher after the higher way from thinking even of the kindness and goodness of God. Such thoughts can never, he says, lead us to knowing God. There is a cloud of unknowing between us and God. So we must put a cloud of forgetting between ourselves and the things of this world and this-worldly thoughts about God. He directs his reader to “step above” such thoughts “stalwartly, but mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try to pierce that darkness above [us]. Smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.”
Today’s beautiful feast promises us that our Lord Jesus Christ is light to the gentiles. We shall one day see him as we are seen and know him as we are known. Then will God’s love for us and our love for God be fulfilled. Then shall we have the bliss of heaven that shall ever last without end. In the meantime, like Simeon we must watch and wait. Like the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, we must accept the darkness between us and God. But we can lean on God; we can long for God, for the knowledge of God and for the love of God. So, we shall ‘smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love.’