Sermon for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple 2023
It's time for you to go to the meeting. The meeting for the promotion of world peace. Off you go, hopefully, to the meeting for the promotion of world peace. You arrive. They are all sitting there. Everybody at the meeting, you realise, is absolutely brimming with secret hatred and rage. Even, you discover as the meeting progresses, yourself. This meeting for world peace is very unpeaceful.
What we see, to a large extent, depends on how we are, or perhaps who we are at every given moment. We can go to the meeting for the promotion of world peace with war in our heart and the whole meeting will be conflict-ridden. We can go to the meeting for the promotion of the gospel with a heart full of doubt and darkness and the meeting will be filled with doubt and darkness.
In today's gospel there is a recurrent theme of seeing. Seeing, in the gospel, is not a matter of simply looking at what is in front of you. It describes a state of vision. Seeing a hidden glory, seeing buried treasure. Simeon in the temple is described as 'righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.' Simeon is 'devout', he is somebody who is engages in spiritual practice. His way of seeing is shaped by his prayer and so 'the Holy Spirit' rests on him. He 'looks forward to the consolation of Israel.' Notice the reiteration of seeing when Luke describes Simeon, 'he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.' A person of profound vision.
How we see. We can see 'through a glass darkly.' You can go out into the world looking for trouble. You will find it. That temple where Jesus was brought; it will have been seething with life, with dark and light, with confusion and many dramas and rituals and banalities. But Simeon, because he has cultivated a relationship with the Spirit, can see through the confusion to the divine reality of God's presence in the temple in the figure of Jesus. 'Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."
Simeon sees God in what could be described as most un-Godlike, in the form of a vulnerable child. Seeing God in what is not-God. Let's go back to the meeting for the promotion of world peace. The meeting is full of confusion and humanity. That's the stuff of meetings and of sacred temples and churches. But if we nurture a capacity to see-sense the divine, we will begin to see the divine, to see salvation if you like. There is a book called The Philokalia, a collection of texts written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries by spiritual teachers from the Orthodox Christian tradition. It sounds old and fusty. I promise you it isn't. It is full of words of fire. In one of the texts, it speaks of keeping 'the contemplative faculty of the soul…clear… so that we devote ourselves to the contemplation of the divine, beholding the world of light… For this is the light of true knowledge.' The 'light of true knowledge' reminds us of Simeon seeing 'a light for revelation'.
Remember in Matthew's gospel Jesus says to the disciples that 'you are the light of the world.' In other words, we carry a natural capacity to look with the eyes of Christ: an ability to see an other-worldly beauty within the complexity and chaos of the world. So, a note here on the light of the eye. You can get with some who are apparently filled with the Spirit a gleaming and fanatical look that makes you wish to get on whatever bus it is which takes you in an opposite direction. And indeed the very word light has become distorted, implying as it does a fear of shadow, a fear of the beauty of the night. But Simeon's sight is not the glazed look of the salesperson ready to flog their truth to you. His vision is a vision which can read the shadows of the human heart, a vision that is able to enter into the mystery and pain of the world. Simeon says to Mary that Jesus will be a means for 'the inner thoughts of many' to 'be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.' The loving cultivation of our own Spirit-filled seeing leads to a renewed capacity for compassion, for a deepened understanding of the 'sword piercing' realities of our world and seeing how much they hurt.
This ability to see is natural to us. It is, if you like, the divine image in us. The poet Wordsworth writes of this divine capacity for vision in his poem, Intimations of Immortality. 'There was a time when meadow, grove and stream, … To me did seem… The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore; - Turn wheresoever I may, By night or day, The things which I have seen I now can see no more'. 'The things which I have seen I now can see no more', words that speak powerfully into the cold, visionless materialism of today. Where has the glory gone?
In today's gospel we are presented with what visionary sight looks like. But also how we ourselves can develop our own capacity to see spiritually rather than materially. We also have the prophet, Anna. Notice what it says about Anna. 'She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.' And Anna's spiritual devotion links with those words from The Philokalia, that we 'devote ourselves to the contemplation of the divine.'
We don't have to be like our wonderful resident Anchorite, or like Anna, and stay in the Church, or the temple. But we can nurture our own sense of the indwelling Spirit. We can't catch hold of it, it is neither this nor that, but it is a spark, a light, in the soul and if we nurture it this power in the soul grows and we learn to look by its light. Seeing strange new forms of the divine in daily life, in the midst of the furious meeting, in the midst of the chaos in the temple, in the apparently random and often baffling reversals and upheavals in the world around us.
'For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation.'
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,