Candlemas: Feast of honesty

img_6803Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, has all the ingredients for a cute festival (Luke 2:22-40). There is a newborn baby, just 40 days old; adoring elderly people gushing about the child; proud parents celebrating a new life, their first-born son; candlelight shining from the reference to him being a light to enlighten all nations – wow that is some accolade; and then the sacrifice of pigeons. Perhaps the last, sacrifice of pigeons, may not be so cute, not unless you have a particular hatred of the flying vermin and want to slaughter a few, and round here that might be understandable.

Jesus’ parents were fulfilling the requirements of the Old Testament law for a firstborn male child (Leviticus 12:1-8). The requirement was that the mother was considered unclean for 40 days after the birth of a boy and for a girl that is doubled to 80 days. After this time they are to bring to the Temple a lamb, less than a year old, as a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtle-dove as a sin offering. If they can’t afford a lamb, then two pigeons or two turtledoves can be offered instead. So the subtlety here is that Jesus had the poor person’s offering made for him indicating that his parents were of limited means.

If we dig a bit deeper, then this festival is not so cute. There are some stings and challenges in it.

First of all is the whole notion of cleanliness and implied misogyny. Why is the woman regarded as being unclean because she has given birth? And why is the period of uncleanness doubled for a girl child than for a boy child? What is this saying about women’s bodies and what we regard as being taboo? On Friday I caught the journalist and Times columnist Caitlin Moran being interviewed on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. She writes about natural bodily functions and posed the question why do we regard menstrual blood as a taboo but our TV screens are filled with the blood of violence all the time? One is about the gift of life and without it there is no life. The other is about death and violence, destruction and hatred. We have strange ideas about taboo, taste and decency. We strain at gnats and swallow camels, to borrow another image. So to our ears talk of purification after childbirth is very strange and it is something the modern church and congregations have jettisoned as no longer being relevant or wanted.

On Wednesday I was at a Cohesion and Diversity Forum meeting organized by Peterborough City Council. The subject was Sex and Relationship Education, Sexually Transmitted Diseases and the services available. My day started with youths on the scaffolding, rats in the city centre, then SRE and finally a PCC in the evening. I had earned a gin that day. But there are some subjects which if we make them taboo put people at risk, and there is need for a safe space to talk about who we are, what are natural bodily functions and shared by everyone, what is healthy, and what is unhealthy. The House of Bishops has just issued a statement on sexuality and again we will struggle with the conversation, to be real about it, and not pretend, though they have called for the tone of those debates and exchanges to improve. British reserve makes some conversations hard to have.

Then there is the poverty. Jesus’ parents clearly struggle but are still fulfilling their duty under the Law. Giving is often greater as a proportion among those of more reduced means, among the poorer, and certainly in terms of the sacrifice involved in the gift. When you have to make an effort for something, think very carefully about using scarce resources on it, then it costs us more, and shows how much it really does matter. The provision of a poorer person’s offering means that it being within grasp was recognized in the Hebrew Law. Still, poverty is real and it is there in this story.

Giving to the church is to be from our first fruits, not our loose change at the end, after everything else. It should be a sign of how much this matters to us. And churches often struggle for cash because the giving is not really realistic and some are immune to the message. And responses to this vary. Some get angry at this message because they know deep down they have been busted. Some feel guilty because they would actually like to give more but can’t. From the outside it’s hard to judge what is a cheap excuse and what is a reason. Some could afford not just a lamb but a flock; some will struggle to catch a couple of pigeons, though there are a few of them around here they can have. In terms of the Temple, there was a business in selling acceptable grade birds for offerings, with buy-now-pay-later loans. Jesus later gets very angry with this rigged trade and throws the tables round causing quite a stir, in another purification ritual, his cleansing of the Temple. Given his impoverished upbringing, it may be that he understood how this rigged trade made life worse for the poor and had seen it first hand.

On excuses, when thinking about giving what do you exclude first of all from your income in order to decide what is a realistic level? How far down your priorities does giving to the church come? I surprised one man a few years ago when I told him that school fees were not a priority. That was a life-style choice and giving should be above them. Private education is spent from riches and is not a basic, especially when many are calling on foodbanks for help. The same goes for expensive holidays. Some of us don’t go on them.

So we assume that Jesus’ parents were poor. It would be an interesting twist if those who say that Joseph as a carpenter was really the owner of a joinery business turn out to be correct. Their giving would then have been a bit tokenistic to say the least – but I don’t think this passage supports that. What does your giving say about your means and priorities?

Simeon calls Jesus a light for all nations in what is now known as the beautifully crafted Nunc Dimittis of Evensong. But he goes on. This child will be destined for the falling and rising of many, a sign that will be opposed as he exposes their real inner thoughts. He will challenge and they won’t like it. The result will be that for Mary it will be as if a sword has pierced her soul as she watches her son die. I’ve often wondered at Baptisms what this child will become, as with the question at John the Baptist’s birth, but I’ve never pondered out loud whether this child will meet a violent death, as Simeon did. It would certainly dampen the mood!

There is lots of blood in this gospel passage. We have thought about Mary’s, the bodily functions of reproduction and childbirth; the pigeons offered as a sacrifice, as sacrificial giving; and now Jesus on the cross, dying for our redemption and salvation, and Mary’s soul pierced.

The final section brings us Anna, an 84 year old widow, who hangs out in the Temple, night and day. She had been married for 7 years and then widowed, spending the rest of her life alone. Why did she never leave the Temple? Is this the place that she finds spiritual consolation for the grief untimely borne, that she cannot cope with anywhere else? Is she one of those women I have met over the years whose love of their life died, be it tragically or through warfare, and who found no one else could match up? What sadness does Anna carry inside her each day? This is the place her sadness can be held and offered, and where it is safe to be still with it. Thanks to be to God that there are places where that can happen.

Candlemas is a feast of honesty. We have the poverty and wealth, the generosity given or not given. We have the challenge of what we regard as taboo and whether that is actually focused where it should be. And we have the pains and sorrows held in a space they can’t otherwise be held or even opened up in. We have the light of hope and commitment for what really matters to us. Jesus Christ is the light for all people, where life as it really is is brought into his loving and redeeming embrace.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 29th January 2017

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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