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Sermon at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday before Lent 2019

Seeing in the light

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 10th February 2019 at 3:00 PM

The Feast of Candlemas, which the Church observed nine days ago, celebrates 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. The atmosphere is one of the fulfilment of prophecy, and the partial unveiling of futures yet to be fully disclosed, whilst the infant Jesus is proclaimed as the light to reveal God’s truth to the gentiles, and the glory of Israel. At Evensong on Sundays this month, I will be considering how this extraordinary Candlemas scene prompts questions about our ability to see God. 

Today, I want to think about Candlemas as a scene of light, a theophany in which the character and invitation of God are revealed, and unpacked a bit too. Once Simeon’s eyes have seen God’s promised salvation, in the person of a vulnerable child, he turns to Mary and prophesies Jesus’ ministry, his rejection, and his passion. He sees it all in a few moments. Simeon has had his vision of salvation in the Temple but not in the Holy of Holies, where the Divine Presence was located. After all, there is no explicit mention of Simeon being a priest, and certainly not the High Priest who entered that focal point of Temple worship alone but once a year. And a young child certainly doesn’t look like either the High Priest or other ancient descriptions of the Glory of the Lord entering the Temple. Isaiah’s prophecy was that the light would only return once the community and the temple were fit to receive it. So, in the Candlemas scene, both the Temple and the Community are expanded – this light sent by God is revealed as a vulnerable infant, whose light will bring non-Jews right into the picture, and give glory to Israel. Simeon and Anna may be familiar figures to us through this story, but neither of them are key players in the Temple cult. And yet, it is they who see clearly with eyes of faith and longing, and proclaim the mission of the one who is light for all nations; a light not overcome by darkness, which will reveal “the inner thoughts of many”, as Simeon promises Mary.

In tonight’s second lesson, St Paul exhorts his listeners, “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God …for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” When Christians speak of knowing or experiencing God, still more on the very rare occasions when someone might venture to say that they have seen God, it is always as a result of revelation. That is to say that Christian truth is revealed, given, and that this truth apprehends us before we ever grasp hold of it. So, moments of clarity, when we recognise God’s presence or gift, when we see “in the light”, are occasions of special, joyous grace, which occur when the heart is turned to God in prayer, and sufficiently free to face the light and fire of God’s truth. Many – even most – of us will rarely, if ever, experience this, and it is wise to be suspicious of anyone who boasts too freely of such encounters. The Irish Dominican friar and scholar of the mystical tradition Paul Murray puts it like this,

“The first people to draw our attention to the risks involved in the thrall of contemplation are… the great mystics themselves. They, like no one else, can tell the difference between authentic prayer and contemplation and its counterfeits. And they are the first to recognise that, although there are many genuine disciples of the Way, there are also others whose interest is merely intellectual… (and therefore superficial), people who want the taste of transcendence but not the bite, mere tourists in the land of God.[1]

Murray’s point is well made. The usual rules of observation, analysis, and understanding simply do not apply when seeking God. If we want to see in the light, if we long for union with God, we must let go, surrender, and dare to draw close through participation rather than observation. Not so much seeing “without”, but rather seeing “within”, as I discussed last week, through those eyes of faith which befriend our outward senses. Paul Murray continues to comment on some insights of the great Spanish mystic St John of the Cross. Reflecting on a poem, where St John rhapsodically describes “lamps of fire bright-burning/with wondrous brilliance, turning/deep caverns of my soul to pools of light!”, Murray reminds us that before such a contemplative encounter can begin, lower rungs must first be climbed, purifying the soul and its vision.[2] The love which the mystic perceives “stirs up in our hearts all kinds of buried hurts and resentments.” Using a pictorial image of fire and damp wood, before we can become ablaze ourselves, we start to “sweat and smoke and splutter.” It’s worth noting in passing that St John is writing centuries before both Freud and Jung! As St John puts it, “All the souls infirmities are brought to light; they are set before its eyes to be felt and healed. Now with the light and heat of the divine fire, [the soul] sees and feels those weaknesses and miseries which previously resided within it, hidden and unfelt.”[3] In other words, to quote the Candlemas scripture rather than John of the Cross, “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” If, truly, we want to see God, we must also be prepared to encounter our real selves, for this is a journey away from fantasy into the very heart of reality. The light which emerges both into and from the Temple on Candlemas Day is the light of transfiguration.

St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), was a Byzantine monk, and one of the greatest of all mystical writers. Born in the tenth century, he was an Abbot and a mystic, inspirational for subsequent generations of those called hesychasts. Frequently, these great masters taught that through prayer of the heart – and particularly the Jesus prayer – it was possible to encounter the very energies of God, as Symeon wrote, “fire uncreated and invisible, without beginning and immaterial.”[4] This was the very uncreated light of Mount Tabor, that vision which had dazzled the apostles at Jesus’ transfiguration, as a revelation of the Resurrection then yet to come. One of the features of Symeon’s work which makes him an interesting conversation partner, is that his insights are largely drawn from personal, mystical experience. Speaking of himself in the third person, Symeon recounts, “He was wholly united to the immaterial light and thought that he himself became light; having forgotten all the world, he became filled with tears and with ineffable joy and gladness.”[5] In Symeon’s work, the notion of such light is to use a rich and privileged metaphor for the unmediated presence of God himself. Symeon speaks of a way of seeing God which is rooted in a theology of participation rather than observation. This tradition encourages us to seek God in contemplative prayer and stillness. Perhaps that is how Old Simeon concluded his long years.

At the end of the Candlemas narrative, however, the Prophet Anna responds in a rather different mode. She leaves the Temple and proclaims the Good News, knowing that the full revelation of Christ, the “light to lighten the Gentiles” is still to come in Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. His ministry will be seen in the hustle and bustle of the world around, and his identity unveiled on Calvary. Simeon is contemplative, Anna is active. She knows that we will see God at work in daily life, as well as in the Temple and in the contemplative heart. Some years ago, I was encouraged from time to time to pray The Lord’s Prayer with my eyes wide open. Try it. Risk it. It feels counter-intuitive at first. But the scandalous truth is that the world is the site of God’s action, and that prayer is also linked to action. Seeing God in the light is not just the preserve of the contemplative and mystic. It is also the joy of the religious activist, the campaigner for justice and peace, the reconciler. As tonight’s reading from Hosea makes abundantly clear, God is a lover, rather than a ringmaster; gently encouraging and coaxing us into a relationship which will shape every area of our lives.

 

But if we want to see God, and ourselves, in the light, we must commit, and this is a warning in particular for those of us who think of ourselves as “religious”. It is not sufficient to be “people who want the taste of transcendence but not the bite, mere tourists in the land of God.” Through grace we can encounter the uncreated light of Christ in the silence deep within our own hearts, and with our eyes wide open, loving and healing the creation he has so abundantly given us. But it cannot be on our own terms. The light dazzles, reveals, and recreates. We can’t just plug in on our own terms and then walk away. To gain clarity of vision, we must let go and discover the freedom of those whose lives are hidden with Christ in God.

St Symeon writes,

God becomes for those who are worthy
Like a divine and luminous pool,
Embracing them all ...

The divine Spirit ... ,
Being Himself light without sunset,
Transforms all those in whom He lives
Into light.[6]

But first, we must let go.

 

[1] Paul Murray OP, In the Grip of Light, p. 24

[2] Ibid. pp. 18-19

[3] As quoted in Murray p. 18

[4] Hymn, I, l.39-40. XXX, l.18-24, (Sources Chrétiennes, vol. 156, 1969)

[5] Catechetical Discourses of St Symeon the New Theologian, XXII, l.88-100 (Sources Chrétiennes, vol. 104, 1964)

[6] Hymn XLIV, l.349-375 (Sources Chrétiennes, vol. 196, 1973)

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