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Sermon at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday before Lent 2019

'There are two eyes of the soul, reason and love.'

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 3rd February 2019 at 3:00 PM

The Feast of Candlemas, which the Church celebrated yesterday, depicts one of the most symbolically “full” moments of Jesus’ life. Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple, offer the sacrifices prescribed in the Mosaic Law, before old Simeon guided by the Holy Spirit acclaims Jesus as the Light to lighten the gentiles, and the hope in which he may now die. He tells Mary that her child would be the focus of hope and division, and that she would share the sorrow of his passion in a unique and intimate way. In the liturgical tradition, we see this great feast of light and darkness as a hinge between Christmastide and Lent – the moment when our focus turns from the crib to the cross. But particularly to our 21st-century eyes, this is a strange scene. It is Temple worship, rooted in the economy of blood sacrifice and the offering of the first-born. The atmosphere is one of the fulfilment of prophecy, and the partial unveiling of futures yet to be fully disclosed. Today, I want to think about it as a twilight scene, which we glimpse as if through a kaleidoscope which as it turns moves an image from sepia into colour. It is a twilight scene because we’re at a particular moment of salvation history. Simeon’s eyes have seen God’s promised salvation, and yet he declares Christ himself to be a sign which is destined for the falling and rising of many, and a sign which will be opposed. He has seen salvation, yes, but even after all his years of waiting, he does not and cannot own this inexhaustible sign of God’s limitless and unbounded action in the world.

During the next few weeks at Evensong on Sunday, I will be considering how this extraordinary Candlemas scene prompts questions about our ability to see God, and in what contexts such “seeing” happens.  

Long before modern thinkers criticised belief in God based on our physical inability to see him, our ancestors were posing an altogether more sophisticated question. It runs through the whole Bible. Can you see God and live? Simeon and Anna would have been steeped in this tradition – Moses turns away at the Burning Bush, his face shines on Sinai when he communes with God, Isaiah laments “woe is me!” after his vision in the Temple, and Elijah hides in the cleft of the rock as the Divine Presence passes. In the Temple, where the Candlemas scene is set, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies but once a year, where he became caught up in the divine glory.[1] Holiness is an utterly transformative and re-ordering dynamic, but it is also volatile and uncontrollable. Yet Simeon declares that his eyes have seen this salvation sent from God, and thus he can depart this mortal life. Very early, in the Church after Jesus’ Resurrection and Pentecost as recorded in the scriptures, references begin to emerge of Christians beholding God with an “unveiled face”[2] which allows them to be transformed into the glory they behold. Christians become conscious of their identity as a priestly people, sharing in the High Priesthood of Christ himself, beholding and participating in the glory of God. But in the Gospels, things can be quite different. Often, when people do identify Jesus for who he is, his response is complex, or they are told to keep silent; after the Resurrection, many fail to recognise him. In those strange post-resurrection scenes, as Paul Ricoeur put it, Jesus “is himself, as another.” Seeing Jesus Christ reveals the fullness of the mystery of God, whilst simultaneously opening fresh questions, awakening new kinds of hopes and desires.

Prior to the conundrum of whether we can see God, we might ask how we see anything. I don’t mean to get into the complexities of biology, brain connections and chemical reactions, essential though such questions are in understanding the human person. Rather, I mean to ask whether our process of seeing any people, objects or scenes, is ever unrelated to a learnt world of signs and symbols. Is genuine objectivity ever possible? We certainly cannot perceive the totality of any scene, let alone how particular or infinite contexts contribute towards the shaping of a scene, or our perceptions of it. It is not just that it’s often twilight, that we “see through a glass, darkly” as St Paul famously puts it, it is that our sight and therefore our judgements on most matters are usually provisional, and best considered with humility and care. We cannot take in a whole scene because we are limited by contingency and history. In St Stephen’s speech before his martyrdom, a portion of which we heard read earlier in this service, Stephen quotes the voice of the Lord through the Prophet Isaiah, “What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” This is part of the conundrum. Our sight is limited because of our own transience and the fact that we can’t see all of any situation. If this is so for ordinary, contingent reality, how much more so is it for the things of God? How much more so is it for the ultimate truth behind the Universe? We can perhaps describe the scene of the Presentation as taking place in twilight because that is the only way we can bear to view the fullness of what’s actually being revealed.  

Many of us who search for God, or perhaps more precisely seek in faith to respond to the great call God has laid on our lives, often feel that twilight is as good as it gets. The problem of pain, the reality of evil, and the ordinariness of life, are all reasons why assent to any religious faith can feel quite a blurry or imprecise matter! But at the heart of this densely painted Candlemas picture there are a few words which help us perceive how Simeon really does “get it” all, even in the twilight. First, he takes Jesus in his arms, and blesses God.

Many of you will know J. S. Bach’s most famous of his two Candlemas cantatas, Ich habe genug. At the beginning of the opening aria, the anonymous poet gives the solo bass the voice of Simeon, who sings, “It is enough. I have held the Saviour, the hope of all peoples, in the warm embrace of my arms.” Before he has seen him, he has held him, and loved him. Simeon’s elderly and weary eyes are not immediately sufficient to take in the fullness of Christ’s presence, and all that this implies. First, he feels the contours of God With Us, and holds them close. Only then, can he make his profession of faith.

The God revealed in Jesus Christ – faithful in his covenant with Israel, faithful in his promises to the Gentiles – summons us first to love before we understand. To embark on a journey of faith, is an expression of hope in that which we cannot see. Faith is the inner gift which befriends our outward senses, especially when we can only metaphorically feel the contours of what we dimly perceive. St Thomas Aquinas, in a beautiful phrase, teaches us that this faith is “a habit of the mind by which eternal life begins in us.”[3]

Candlemas is the fortieth day of Christmas, the traditional winter-feast which closes Christmastide. In his Christmas poem “Twelfth Night” Laurie Lee describes the pilgrim’s search for the Christ Child. He writes, “for men with shepherd’s eyes, there are signs in the dark, the turning stars, the Lamb’s returning time.”[4] Shepherds’ eyes are alert to each and every movement in the half-light, knowing that the light of dawn will come. Simeon and Anna had eyes like this, as in the twilight of their years a lifetime of prayer and contemplation was crowned with the gift of the knowledge that this Lamb would be for sacrifice and for glory.

But before he sees, Simeon reaches out to hold and to love. A short work called The Assessment of Inward Stirrings, by an anonymous late 14th century author, tells the reader, “There are two eyes of the soul, reason and love. By reason we may search out how mighty, how wise and how good God is in his creatures, but not in himself. But whenever reason falls short, then it is love’s pleasure to look alive and to learn to occupy itself. For by love we can find him, experience him, and reach him as he is in himself.”[5] In the twilight, when aided by the eyes of faith, we can discern the identity and mission of the child we celebrated at Christmas. But Candlemas reminds us that this child in whom we see God’s full and total action will not be domesticated or tamed. Let us pray for the gift of shepherds’ eyes that we might know Christ in love and faith.

[1] Margaret Barker, Temple Themes in Christian Worship, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2007, p. 161

[2] For example in 2 Corinthians 3: 18

[3] St Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, II: I: B

[4] See https://worldofmusichome.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/twelfth-night/

[5] The Assessment of Inward Stirrings (in The Pursuit of Wisdom and other works by the Author of the Cloud of Unknowing, trans & ed. J. Walsh, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988, p. 140)

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