Monty Python once asked: What have the Romans ever done for us? This question ends with a rather long list: the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health. But what have the Romans ever done for us? To which the final answer is given: Brought peace? Then why on earth were the Peoples Front of Judea, or the Judean Peoples Front or the Peoples Palestinian Front… attempting to dismantle the empire. Because of course they were dominated by Rome and being dominated by anyone other than your own organisation is not to be tolerated! One only has to look as far as the British Government for examples of that behaviour.
Here we stand at one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian year. Our celebrations today commemorate the Presentation of Christ at the Temple. Happily and rather usefully it also has the old overtones of earth festivals welcoming in the light which should not be forgotten. Here we look forward to spring with the first shoots of new growth showing. Candlemas is one of those shoots of new growth full of the promise of what is to come to full bud and flower, a mature and prosperous completion.
This celebration is so important for what it represents, which, following in the path of 2000 years of Christian history may not be obvious to understand. The Christian year carefully builds up to this date from Advent in preparation for the birth, to Christmas in celebration, to the Epiphany where Christ is revealed as the anointed one. The tension mounts until this day. This festival is the culmination of the preparation, celebration and revelation. Here at candlemas the simple ceremony of presenting a child at the temple which in Jewish custom involved the sacrifice of pigeons or doves is mingled with the welcoming of the new light. The Jewish custom of offering the first born male child to the Lord was complete. However the presentation party are interrupted by two others. In the court of the Temple of Jerusalem Simeon and Anna both mark Jesus out and identify him as one to bring about a revolution in Israel.
At the centre of power in the Jewish nation, the temple was the focus for all the sacrificial acts as required by the law. It was the seat of great power over the people. It is proclaimed in this place that Jesus will be at the centre of a great revolution – one which will stretch beyond the confines of the Jewish nation. The rising and falling of many in Israel. Why here? Why now? In Jerusalem the Temple was the seat of power and authority, the nation was held under its jurisdiction. Temple customs and sacrificial laws were run from this place. In effect it was the political heart of the nation. Even though Israel was held under Roman rule. A benevolent dictator you might think. (What have the romans ever done for us?) The people of Israel were dominated by the law of the temple and the nation of Israel was in turn under the rule of Rome. The people were under a double domination. At the heart of this: Jesus, a child, is pronounced as the one who will bring redemption. Redemption from what? You might well ask. Israel has its own nation and is following the Mosaic laws and customs. Rome has brought the long list above and likes to live and let live. What then is there to be redeemed from? But of course – Domination and violence. The Roman peace has been bought with blood and violence and is kept with the same. The Jewish laws are based on continual blood sacrifice that God might be pleased and favour them. Sad then that neither Israel nor Rome recognise this seduction to violence and the system of domination. Fortunate though, that Jesus did! At the centre of it all Jesus is announced and the one to redeem them all. A child, an innocent, born into a world of violence and domination who would overthrow the whole system from the bottom up. This story is still going on and we will complete the picture tonight at what I affectionately like to call the Last Post – Evensong.
The last post of the Church; an Evensong in every Cathedral in the country. The faithful remnant, curious onlookers, those who had not been to church much or even at all were there, to say I was there at the end. The Clergy flock to the services, the quires are packed, there is a tense nervous excitement about this; it has finally come to an end!
The smug grins of the secularists are wiped into astonishment and bewilderment as the country mourns the passing of the Church. Every clock is set by the services which pass at the same moment across the land. The expectant jubilation that the secular has won the day has been thwarted by this Eulogy for the Church. The knowledge that it ‘had its day’ defies even the staunchest atheist, the notion that it ‘has had its day’ is the uniting factor which drives everyone forward. The expectation, the newness that comes from a vacuum of nominal christian religious expression.
The Hymn, ‘The day thou gavest Lord is ended’ begins this solemn departure; psalms and canticles sung with reverence to the historic formularies.
The singing of the final Nunc Dimittis echoes with timelessness, with the sense that this time it means what it says, thy servant is now to depart in peace. Time to go, to hang up the cassock, surplice, hood and scarf. To go to what? The questions of the emptiness left in the gulf left behind are pregnant with possibility, a return to the former ways now a closed door. What will emerge as new shoots from this? It is this which the secularists fear, the unknown. It is the only thing they ever feared, the thing which many even in the church could never deal with. The only thing that would secure the future – Death itself. The one thing that the religious had up their long flowing sleeves was the courage to die. To allow death to take its course and to die well. To break once and for all the domination and the violence of the system which holds all captive under its seduction. Even the church, seduced by the power the Roman empire had given it acknowledged and even sanctioned the violence and the domination.
The resurrection to a new dawn awaits, the light for the gentiles shines in the warm earth full of expectation and delight to be nurtured and developed.
It is not too late for us to recognise the Christ and rise from the ashes.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the Glory of thy people Israel.
With thanks to the good people of Monty Python and to Rene Girard, Walter Wink and Keith Hebdon