Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sermon Presentation of the Lord 2015

Malachi 3:1-5
Hebrews 2:14-end

Luke 2:22-40

Recently there was an exhibition at the National Gallery of late works by Rembrandt. The last picture in the exhibition was the last work that the artist painted: Simeon in the temple, holding the infant Jesus in his arms. Simeon is depicted with that compassionate and complex understanding of age that Rembrandt did so well, one old man painting another. And he is shown quite clearly with his mouth open, speaking. It’s very unusual to see a portrait of someone speaking, but we know what Simeon was saying on this occasion, in the version that’s perhaps most familiar to us:

Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace
according to Thy word
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.

I think that Rembrandt knew this was his last painting, and chose this scene and those words on purpose. It is a statement of his faith, at the end of his life. The painting was left unfinished at his death, and it was completed and even changed by other hands later. But it is such a tender, trusting and hopeful picture. Like Simeon, at the end of his life Rembrandt too speaks to us, and tells us that he has seen salvation, and all shall be well. 

Simeon, like Rembrandt, did not see what would come after him, the work that other people would do, the way the picture would develop and change. It was enough for Simeon to have seen the Lord’s Messiah. He has lived in hope, waiting for this moment, a hope that personifies the hope of Israel. The hope of restoration after all that has happened to Israel in the past. And now he has seen the Messiah, and knows that God has remembered his people. He can die content.

Israel’s hope is what is in the background of this reading. It is a long hope, centuries old. We need to remind ourselves of a bit of that if we are to understand this reading. Israel’s history has been one of loss and affliction on the one hand, and an on/off relationship with Yahweh, Israel’s God, on the other. 

First, after the reign of King Solomon, Israel had a row and split. Ten tribes formed the northern kingdom, leaving only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south. 

Then, in the eighth century BC, the northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria. The territory was annexed and the ten tribes absorbed into Assyria so that they lost their identity. They were never heard of again.
That left only the southern kingdom of Judah and Benjamin. This was conquered by Babylon in the sixth century and the population carried off into exile. The temple in Jerusalem, the heart of Judah’s worship, was destroyed.

Seventy years later, the population was allowed to return and rebuild. But things weren’t the same. Those who remembered the old temple wept when they saw the new one. There was much missing. The Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the Law were gone. Above all, the glory of the Lord, the shekinah, a shining cloud that showed that God was dwelling with his people, was absent. Ichabod, they said, the glory has departed.

But the prophets said that one day God would restore his people, God would return visibly to his temple so that once again his people would know that God was with them. 

And today Simeon, in the temple, tells us that is fulfilled. He hails the infant Jesus as the glory of God’s people Israel. Jesus is God’s glory in person, returning to the temple, the visible sign that God dwelling with his people. He is also the Law in person, replacing the stone tablets of old, and he is carried there by his mother, Mary, who became the new Ark of the Covenant by bearing God in her womb.

And old Anna points us to another hope. She is the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. The tribe of Asher was one of the ten tribes absorbed into Assyria seven centuries before and never heard of again. But now she is back. Anna represents both the return of the lost tribes, and also, as she is a woman, symbolically stands for Israel the bride that the Lord has come to marry, an image often used in the Old Testament. 

We are told that Anna had “lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four”. Rather like Israel’s short existence “married to the Lord” followed by long exile and loss of identity. And those numbers aren’t accidental, either: seven into eighty-four is twelve, the number of the tribes, a number that signifies completion. All will be gathered in.

But Simeon sees only the beginning. He sees that God is keeping his word, and that is enough. He knows that he will not live to see the working out of God’s promises. Though he does see that this will only happen by means of conflict, the fall and rise of many in Israel. He does see that the child will be opposed and the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. He does see the sorrow that like a sharp sword will pierce Mary’s heart. 

That foresight that was given to him then must have been very mysterious. How can the glory of Israel and the light of the nations be made known through a way of contradiction and suffering? But he did not doubt. Once he had seen Jesus he knew that God could be trusted however strange and unexpected future events might be.

Today’s great feast is about faith and fulfilment. The faith of Simeon and Anna that God would remember his people. The fulfilment of that hope in the coming of Jesus. It is the start of the story of the Church, which is the gathering in of all people into God’s kingdom, the return of the lost tribes of every nation. The Church is the people formed by Jesus who is both the glory of Israel and “the light for revelation to the Gentiles”. It is the fulfilment of what was spoken by the prophets that Israel’s God would be the saviour of all the world.

So we too are part of this story. We too are the bearers of faith and promise. God has visited his people in Jesus, his promises will be fulfilled. Like Simeon and Anna, we do not see the end, except by faith. We do not yet see God’s kingdom of justice and peace filling the earth. We do see that there are times of sorrow and opposition on our journey of faith. But it is enough for us to have seen Jesus, to know him present with us. Our eyes have seen God’s salvation.

The Lord’s Messiah has come. He is God dwelling with his people, in the Eucharist, in his Church, in those we seek to serve. God is faithful. The future is his, not ours, and when we have done our part others will take up the story of faithful witness and service. Like Simeon, like Rembrandt, we can faithfully hand over our work to a future we do not know, because the saviour has come and, in the end, as Julian of Norwich said, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

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