Sunday 31 January 2016: Candlemas

Sunday 31 January 2016
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler

‘And a sword pierced her soul’. I’m sure the new Chancellor of De Montfort University would have a thing or two to say about that. Mother of a murdered teenager, Doreen Lawrence certainly knows the pain and powerlessness of a parent in their child’s suffering. It’s difficult to imagine the emotions she must have experienced, and I wouldn’t presume to put words into her mouth. But, while thankfully for most of us to a lesser extent, all the same many a parent will readily identify with the piercing sword, including myself and probably quite a few others here this morning. In different situations personal to each of us.

Have you ever been distraught because you just cannot comprehend or condone your child’s actions, and unmitigated disaster is looming? Most probably! And you know nothing you do or say will make a blind bit of difference! We may smile ruefully at that and there can be light at the end of the tunnel – difficult teenagers grow up into half decent adults – but for some the pain, impotence – regret even – ever remains. And not just as parents either: the joy of all deep human relationships brings with it vulnerability and the capacity to suffer and cause pain. It starts with birth and it never ends. And we worry for our loved ones. I suspect we can all empathise with Mary.

There she was, a teenager, feeling warmly maternal, pleased, proud…. A wise old prophet comes along. A chill creeps over her; but in her heart she senses he could be right. Who knows what this child, uniquely special to her, is destined to become. What will he face? And she will suffer with his suffering. In that moment of realisation she grows up. She is pierced to the core. Her cosy security disintegrates as she realizes just how hostile a place the world can be. Behind whatever is the exact historical truth of this story are strong themes to ponder. When did Mary first have a premonition of the agonizing death Jesus was to face? Who knows. But in that moment she had to reassess what parenthood means, and rethink her attitude towards her son, God and the world. No kidding herself or hiding behind trivia – but cold-blooded reality.

Now I think, whoever we are, that kind of reality hits us all at different times in our lives, causing us fundamentally to consider and reassess things – priorities, attitudes, values. And we don’t just attain maturity and then that’s that, but continue to grow into it, making huge strides at crossroads in our lives – certainly births and deaths, but also illness, relocation, retirement and others – when our eyes are opened by something or someone, or circumstances cause us to reflect deeply.

For us, as with Mary, today’s story overlays in our minds the gentle, cuddly Jesus baby with the harsh reality of his public adult life and ignominious death. The festival of Candlemas is rightly cast as the bitter-sweet pivot between Christmas and Easter, between the birth and the death. Childhood romanticising is replaced by adult realism; and there is an implied challenge here to do the same with our faith as we journey now towards Ash Wednesday and Lent.

In TS Eliot’s poem, the Magi ask ‘were we led all that way (to the stable) for Birth or a Death?’ The two, birth and death, were in their minds inextricably linked. And they contemplate not merely his birth and death, but theirs also. Eyes have been opened, and thus a new level of maturity so they are, as the poem says ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensations’. They are on the cusp of new realizations, challenged to journey afresh, ever farther. Who knows where that took them?

But likewise we. We may remain in childlike innocence and shut our eyes and ears to the issues around us, or we can wrestle with the painful unanswered questions and agonising contradictions. Realising as we do so, how unutterably complex and painfully irreconcilable much of it is. Christ’s birth, life and death challenge us to do no less. We, who are called into discipleship and marked with the sign of the cross, are thus marked for journeying – and swords may pierce our souls along the way.

And so there is a particular significance to today’s candles. Simeon greeted and named the infant Christ as the light of the world. When our candles are extinguished, and we go out once more into the harsh daylight of that world, surely our prayer is that we should know and shine with that light of wisdom and love ourselves. Broken as we may be.

Back to parenthood for a moment. Extrapolating from our personal circumstances can both help us understand God better and point us to God. Helping us understand God better: what I am describing regarding my parenting and my children (or grandchildren) matches God’s behaviour towards us. We should not be surprised – after all we understand humankind as made in the image of God. While God is not the clockmaker who winds us up and lets us go, neither does he interfere unduly. We even have the freewill to order our own lives – without reference at all to God if we wish. Just like the child who cuts loose. But God remains committed, loving us despite…..  retaining that inner care. I can identify with God on that.

And, of course, God has already done that in bucket loads with Jesus. Free to pursue his destiny however he saw fit, consistently we see him choosing how he acts and speaks – no puppet or automaton but deliberately pursuing the path he feels he must. His Father in heaven may have winced on occasions, but he let go. Right to the point of Jesus’ death. Why have you forsaken me? I suspect that criticism may be levelled at many a parent at times, and yet it is part of the gift of free will and mature relationships.

Like Jesus’ mother Mary, Doreen Lawrence is a very courageous and strong woman. She has drawn good from an unimaginably painful situation, using the circumstances of her son’s death to work to ensure that evils of injustice, notably institutional racism, are addressed. Even more so, untested and hitherto unknown, Mary found the strength to stand alongside her son in his agony, and clearly gave his followers inspiration, wisdom and probably stability in the aftermath of his death and subsequent events. In our relationships we may feel ourselves to be pierced to the heart and yet, in no way minimising the grief, if we can find ways of holding that pain rather than dissolving we may, in our insufficiency, yet become a gift to others, shining with our own unique version of that Christlight.

© The Revd Canon Alison Adams