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

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, The Presentation of Christ 2016

Fra Angelico, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Malachi 3:1-5
Hebrews 2:14-end
Luke 2:22-40

Lighting candles on Candlemas day is a tradition, as we sang in our processional hymn this morning. The lit candle is a sign of the light of Christ; carrying it reminds us that we need to bear the light of Christ in our words and in our actions as we make our way through life in the everyday world outside of church.

So, it’s a tradition, which means three things:

1. It is something that has been done by others before us, in whose footsteps we tread. This church has been open for 105 Candlemasses, and we can think of all those who have processed with candles in this building, on this day, before us. And in other churches for centuries before that.
2. It is what we are doing now. This community, here and now, is actively engaging with what we have received from the past and living it in the present.
3. We do that because we look to the future. In the week to come, in the year to come in our life as a church, we will remember that we carry the light of Christ, and it will help us to remember that because we have been reminded by tradition.

So tradition has three dimensions. It is what has been handed on to us; what we engage with in the present, and what we hand on to the future. In fact the word “tradition” means “handing on”, not living in the past. It is a present tense word that looks to the future. Tradition is not a museum. It is more like a relay race, receiving the baton from the runners before us and handing it on to others to carry forward.

Sometimes when people talk about tradition they mean that they want to fix things at a point in the past that they feel comfortable with, and stop there. But in fact that is the exact opposite of tradition, because to do that is to hand on nothing at all. It is to opt for something familiar, but dead, and to avoid the living, challenging, changing thing that tradition truly is.

Mary and Joseph, in today’s Gospel reading, are examples of living tradition. They were doing what was commanded in the book of Exodus, redeeming their firstborn Son. And the reason Exodus gives for this is, “When in the future your child asks you, “What does this mean?” you shall answer, “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

Simeon and Anna are also example of tradition. Both of them were steeped in Israel’s past, the law and the prophets, the hope of salvation in which Israel lived. They knew their story. Which is to say they knew who they were.

Their story forms who they are in the present, and what their hope is. Their story points to a future pregnant with possibility, a future awaiting the redemption that has been promised in the past.

So here are Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna in the present moment between the story of the past and the hope of the future. And into that present moment comes a new reality, which changes everything. Suddenly the Lord comes to his temple, and as Malachi says he is like the refiner’s fire, purifying Israel, making them a people fit to be his own.

His coming is a sign for the fall and rise of many, but a sign that will be opposed. Simeon pronounces his blessing of light and peace at the end of his life, but also points to a future he will not see, of the sorrow that will come, piercing the heart of Mary, the future death of the child he now holds in his arms, the death that will pay the price of redemption and open the gate of resurrection.

This is what true, living, tradition does. It is formed by the story of the past, which tells us who we are, changes the present and opens the future to something new. Tradition is both an arrival and a departure at the same time, the dynamic present where God is encountered to transform and to save.

There was a study on church growth published last year, called “From Anecdote to Evidence”. One of its more interesting findings was that there is no correlation between what tradition a church is and the likelihood of church growth. What matters is the confidence that a church has in its own tradition.

The Church of England as a whole is a tradition, a people with a particular story engaging with the present and looking to the future. But there are also strands of tradition within the Church of England such as Evangelical, Charismatic, Anglo-Catholic, Conservative, Liberal. All these have a particular angle and emphasis in their story, that is to say in their understanding of who they are, and in how they engage with the present and look to the future. But all of these strands of tradition can and do grow when people are confident in them.

I think this is because tradition is a dynamic encounter with the living God. It is about knowing our story, that is, knowing who we are. If we forget who we are we won’t know how to engage with the present or what to look to in the future. But if we remember who we are, if we know our story, then we can interpret the signs of the times, then we can see clearly the future open and pregnant with the hope that God gives. And that hope is infectious, it attracts and grows.

We do this every week at the Eucharist, which is, among other things, the act of remembering who we are in this present moment of salvation as we stand on the threshold of God’s future. Do this to remember me, says Jesus, which is also to do this to remember who we are, what he makes us, his body in the world, the people redeemed by his precious blood which week by week is offered in the chalice.

But our tradition is something we live in so many ways besides the Eucharist as well. Carrying candles on Candlemas day is just part of that. And our tradition is the subject of our Lent programme this year. We will be looking at how we can be confident in our tradition here at St Peter le Poer.

There are many facets of our tradition, and we will be looking at and discussing them Sunday by Sunday. The sermon will focus on a particular aspect of our tradition, and then after Mass we will have coffee and chat to go into it further. The themes will be: being Anglican; being Anglo-Catholic; being inclusive; being merciful; and being open to the future. To keep it interesting (I hope) the format of coffee and chat will vary, and we will keep the Mass shorter than usual to allow time for this to happen before going home for lunch.

This also means, by the way, that we will need to start Mass exactly on time, and it would be very helpful if everyone could please be here before 11am every week – a practical suggestion for our Lenten observances. The full details of the programme are on the website and will be available as a handout next week.

But, for now, we continue what we do every week, and celebrate the living tradition of the Eucharist, in which we are caught up in Jesus’ act of remembering. Because by that act we become who we are, the Body of Christ, we encounter God in this present moment of salvation, and we look to the future with hope, bearing forward the light of Christ that we have received.

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