Sermon given at Evensong on Candlemas 2014
2 February 2014 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, Director, The Contextual Theology Centre
Lovers of murder mysteries have never had it so good. David Suchet has dramatised every single Poirot case; Death in Paradise is on to its third series, and G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories have been screened by the BBC. If that’s not enough excitement, and if money is no object, you can even book your place at a murder mystery dinner aboard a specially chartered steam train.
I’m a huge fan of murder mysteries – the more traditional the better. In particular, I love the classic final scene in which the great detective – Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, D.I. Richard Poole or whoever – assembles all the suspects in a room, and unveils the truth. What had seemed like a jumble of random events is revealed in all its murderous coherence. The puzzle is solved; the villain is arrested; and after chaos, fear and evil, the natural order is finally restored.
I’ve only got one complaint about such stories. And that's their name. While they are very entertaining puzzles, they aren’t really mysteries. Real mysteries are completely different. Real mysteries don’t get solved or tidied up. The deeper you enter into a genuine mystery, the more wonderful, the more surprising it becomes.
The word “mystery” has the same root as the word “mystic.” When we say that life is mysterious, or speak of the mystery of love, we don’t mean that they are in need of neat solutions. Life is mysterious; love is mysterious, because they have a depth that we cannot express in words. That's why we turn to the arts to express and explore them; to poets and painters, sculptors and composers – in other words, to people who are not in the business of explanation, but of pointing to that which is beyond description, beyond human understanding.
In the same way, we miss the depth of the Christian faith if we see its doctrines as a set of intellectual puzzles – if we try to bend our mind around the riddle of how God can be three and yet one, how Christ can be fully God and yet fully human. For God is surely the ultimate mystery, a mystery of infinite depth and wonder. God is someone to be encountered, to be explored and enjoyed eternally, not something to be explained and dissected.
God doesn't reveal himself so that we can say “how interesting,” and then get on with our lives just as before. God reveals himself so that we can be drawn into his life; can be transformed by the depth and wonder of his love.
The anthem we just listened to is a case in point. It expresses the mystery at the heart of this feast-day, Candlemas. Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus into the Temple in Jerusalem. Simeon took him in his arms, hailing him as the "light of the nations" (that's the origin of the lighting of candles on this day - to celebrate Christ as our light - and hence the name "Candlemas."
The anthem reminds us that the Candlemas story is rich with paradox. You have the translation in your orders of service:
The old man carried the boy: but the boy ruled the old man.
Whom the virgin bore, and afterwards remained a virgin:
the very same to whom she gave birth, she worshipped.
It may sound like a riddle, a puzzle - how can Simeon hold his ruler? How can Mary give birth to her God? But the point of this mystery is not to excite our minds. It is to change our lives.
The same paradox is expressed in our two Bible readings. While human beings have built glorious temples for God to dwell in, Candlemas celebrates the fact that God’s real temple is the body of Jesus Christ – a helpless infant, who grows up to be crucified.
This mystery - of Mary giving birth to a child who is God - this mystery lies at the very heart of Christianity. In Jesus, God has placed himself in human hands, has become vulnerable to our actions. The Christ-child is the son and yet the Lord of Mary: the very same to whom she gave birth, she worshipped. He is entirely dependent on her nurture and love, and utterly defenceless against the violence of the powers of his age. And yet he is the King of the Universe.
God does not reveal himself just to provide us with information. By coming among us in Jesus Christ, God is offering us an invitation. In Jesus, God has placed himself in our hands, so that we might place ourselves in his hands.
God becomes human, becomes vulnerable, to warm our hearts to love. That is something he cannot win by thunderbolts and flashes of lightning, by the fear of hell and the threat of judgment.
Mary shows us how we might respond to this great call of love. For it is Mary's "yes" to God's revelation - Mary's willingness to carry his Son in her womb - which makes the rest of the story possible. God seeks to come among us, to place his very life in Mary's arms. Mary says “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She places her life in God's hands, at his disposal.
And Mary keeps on saying "yes" - "yes" as she kneels before her Son in worship, "yes" as she offers him her nurture and her care, "yes" as she stands at the foot of the cross when his disciples have all fled.
Mary knows more than anyone what it means for God to place himself in our hands - for God's own Son us knit together in her womb, and nurtured in her arms. And Mary shows us what it means to place ourselves completely in God's hands.
Obedience gets a bad press these days, for we live in a society that idolises self-sufficiency and independence. Mary shows us that giving up our independence makes us more - not less - alive. In the Gospels, we learn that is observant and prayerful, brave and confident, faithful even to the foot of the cross. She shows us that saying “yes” to God requires far more than passive acceptance - it takes courage and strength.
Earlier in this service, we heard Parry’s glorious setting of the Magnificat – the song which Mary sang after she conceived the Lord. It is a song of power, not of passivity. It celebrates the fact that in her son, God has shewed strength with his arm: he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he has sent empty away.
Mary’s song takes us to the heart of the Gospel: its reversal of worldly values, this placing of the poor and the hungry, at the heart of the story. She proclaims that her son will transforms for every aspect of our lives. And, because of this, her courage and her confidence will soon be tested to the limit. She and Joseph have to flee to Egypt with their son, refugees from Herod's violence. In the years which follow, she will know the greatest fear of every parent, as she stands by her son in the hour of his death.
So Mary knows the cost of saying "yes" to God. Her faithfulness poses a question to each of us: today Do we recognise in Jesus the very life and light of God? And if so, are we willing to respond - whatever the cost - by placing our lives in his hands?
As you entered this Abbey you will have passed under the statues of ten twentieth-century martyrs. People like Janani Luwum, who stood against the terrors of Idi Amin in Uganda, and Maximillian Kolbe who gave his life for another in a concentration camp - people who placed their lives in the hands of Jesus Christ, regardless of the cost; who had courage and confidence in the mystery of his love.
Most of our lives will not contain such dramatic choices. But each of our lives will declare – in what we do, much more than what we say – whether we will share in Mary’s “yes” to God; whether we will allow the mystery of love to transform the depths of our hearts. May it be so for each of us today. For it in that “yes” we too will find the light of life.