Sermon by Canon Sarah Mullally, Treasurer
Hebrews 2:14-end and Luke 2:22-40
Marc Chagall was born in Russia in 1887 of Jewish parents. He lived through difficult times, having fled Russia to Paris he then had to flee again during the 2nd World War. As an early modernist artist he drew on his Jewish life and Hasidic insights of his youth. Surprisingly he uses figures from Christianity not least that of Christ and often a crucified Christ in his paintings. This is shocking when we remember that for many Jewish people the cross symbolized Christian oppression – he does this to enable his paintings to act as icons of the struggle and suffering in the world. His most famous picture is probably ‘The White Crucifixion’. Dominating the picture in the centre is the figure of Christ Crucified – a very Jewish Christ. Another of his pictures is ‘The Nativity,’ painted in 1950 this contains the mother and Christ child to the right, but there on the left of the picture in the foreground is Christ crucified. The picture represents the tensions that many of us hold – the struggle between life and death and hope and fear, of humanity and in humanity, of justice and in justice.
We began this week by marking Holocaust Memorial Day – Sarah Rickett (our Director of Learning and Outreach) lit 6 candles, while boys from Bishop Wordsworth’s School prayed. Each candle represented one million of the 6 million Jews who died between 1933 and 1945. Today we celebrate Christ’s presentation at the temple and so the life of the Cathedral this week reflected the tension between life and death and the struggle between suffering and hope.
For us who know, the birth narratives and that of Christ’s death can easily pass over the reality of such accounts. The presentation of Christ in the temple would have been a happy time for the family – a child safely born and a time for celebration, but into this occasion comes the reality of death and suffering.
Into this occasion come two bent-over figures, Anna and Simeon. Rembrandt’s painting ‘Presentation in the Temple’ shows a weathered and aged, stooped grey-haired man looking at a small baby. The ancient world could not have been a comfortable place for the aged to persevere. No pain relief, little capacity to mitigate the embarrassing or just plain uncomfortable effects of the body's natural process of breaking down.
Into this occasion comes a warning that a sword would pearce Mary’s soul.
On the last Sunday of Advent you may recall the Dean speaking about Colm Toibin’s book ‘The Testament of Mary’ in which he portrayed Mary looking back on the events of Jesus’ last days from her later years. Like all mothers, the fact that she’d carried him in her womb and nursed him as a child defines how she saw this man.
As she remembers watching his crucifixion she says;
“He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenceless now than he had been then. And in those days after he was born, when I held him and watched him, my thoughts included the thought that I would have someone now to watch over me when I was dying, to look after my body when I had died. In those days if I had even dreamed that I would see him bloody… I would have cried out as I cried out that day and the cry would have come from a part of me that is the core of me.”
Whilst I know some struggled with Toibin’s approach to Mary, what the author does is build on the question of how women watch their children suffer.
Here in the temple, as Jesus is presented into this picture of a family celebration and the reality of death and suffering draw close – this is the reality for many of us. The threat of suffering and death over-shadows the road of life. But into this struggle breaks the light of hope and Simeon saw in that small child that God became ,a real human being taking on our humanity – why?
The author of Hebrews (in 2:14-end) tells us: So that in sharing our humanity he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Simeon’s song proclaims that into this reality of death and darkness the light of God has come. Simeon’s song proclaims that into the tapestry of life into which is woven the reality of the struggles of life and death and suffering, the hope, the light of Christ has dawned.
Simeon and Anna invite us to be people of hope. Hope is not about optimism, it is about a conviction concerning the future which leaps into our present in such a way that we feel secure in the here.
We hope for a future where God’s kingdom is in full, we hope for eternal life in which there is no more death and dying. Hope is stored up for us in heaven and whilst it breaks into our present it is something that we wait patiently to see in full.
What we have, in a sense, is hardly more than Simeon and Anna had. We have the scriptures that give us hope. We have stories and covenants and signs. We have moments, or the memory of moments, when the tender compassion of our God has come close enough to see and feel. We have the hope – hope that one day death will be finally overcome and that there will be a new creation. Hope, as the author of the Hebrews reminds us later on, is an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It is that which holds us when we are living in the shadow of suffering and death.
Some of you may have noted that on my purple cope I have an anchor; I have often commented that it is not as interesting as those symbols of my colleagues – they have chalices, crosses and stars. But it is the anchor that is seen in the window of conscious and it reminds us that it is hope which is the anchor of our soul, which holds us when we find our lives woven with the struggle between life and death, darkness and light. It is hope which holds us in the face of 6 million deaths during the Holocaust; it is a hope which holds us in the face of the death and suffering in our own lives.
So as we turn from the birth of Christ, the Christmas season towards the Cross and Lent, let us see the image of the Christ child and the Cross and know that both are woven together to give us hope of what is to come, which has broken into our present.
Taking the child into his arms, Simeon turns his voice toward God and offers praise for the “light for revelation” that has come into the world. Amen