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I say to the darkness, I beg to differ!

Posted By : Tom Clammer Monday 2nd February 2015

A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor

Monday, 2 February


Lord Jesus, Light of the world, born in David’s city of Bethlehem, born like him to be a King; be born in our hearts this last day of Christmas; be King of our lives today. Amen.

Forty days ago this cathedral thundered to the sound of Christmas carols and hymns, the place adorned with angels, tree, and filled with hundreds and hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the nativity of the Lord.

Long ago the world around us packed away the tinsel and the trees, and yesterday as I popped into a supermarket for some bits and bobs, I watched shop staff stacking more and more Easter Eggs onto an already groaning shelf of chocolate bunnies.

And today, on this the fortieth and final day of Christmas, we arrive at the hinge. The turning moment. The Feast of Candlemas, or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or the Purification of the Virgin Mary. It’s got lots of names. It is a Feast of various influences. It is to do with the fulfilment of prophecy, the conforming to Jewish custom, the establishing of Jesus as within, and beyond the culture and the expectations around him. It is to do with old men and women seeing something so profound and so extraordinary in this little baby, one of so many that they must see every year, that they are provoked into spontaneous prophetic utterance.

And it is to do with candles. Not really a theme which emerges from the biblical readings, but because on this Feast, traditionally, the candles required for the coming year were brought into church and blessed. Candles really mattered to the church, to the worshipping communities, because they provided the only light source, often. In the days before easily obtainable light at the turn of the switch, light was I guess more valuable, and the flickering light of a candle, delicate, vulnerable and extinguishable was a far more profound and powerful metaphor for the human condition and its reflection on the divine than a 60 watt lightbulb is. Even an energy saving one!

And I said this is the hinge moment. This is the moment where Christmas and Easter meet. Almost the moment where they kiss, if you like. People talk about Candlemas as the day when we turn away from the crib and towards the Cross, and yes I suppose there is something in that, and our liturgy draws out some of those themes later, when we end up down at the font  But I don’t reckon we ever really turn away from the Crib, or indeed from the Cross. Candlemas is the day when we recognise, each year, again, that the crib and the cross are part of exactly the same thing. They are about Jesus. They are about the nature of the sort of Man who would enter into the world to redeem it. To redeem us.

A tiny flame is lit on Christmas Night, flickering in the darkness, drawing shepherds and wise men to its captivating brightness. That same flame flickers in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of darkness and betrayal, and is finally extinguished on a desolate hill outside the city on the day when, as the hymn-writer put it, “the sky turned black.” The same triangle of candles which burns tonight behind the altar will burn again in Holy Week, at the service of Tenebrae, the service of shadows and be gradually blown out, one by one.

And then, though seemingly dead, flickering back into light in the stone cold darkness of a tomb, the candle gleams again, as angels, guards, friends and followers, one by one, are drawn back by its glow, and the light ignites a movement which will turn the whole world upside down.

Candle flames are so very powerful and yet so very fragile, because they are alive.

And we might reflect on that power and vulnerability this evening, as seen, I suspect, especially by Mary, who is told at this moment of dedication of her Son, a proud moment for any parent, that “a sword shall pierce her own soul too.” Mary it is who above all others bears this candle flame into the world, and Mary above all others finds her soul intertwined with this Light of the World, which leads her to the foot of the Cross.

Charles Causley reflected on the pain and the potential of the vulnerable, living flame, when he wrote of Mary:    
Holding in her clear hands
The world's true light
She lifts its perfect flame
Against the night...
Vivid upon her tongue
Unspoken prayers
That she may not outlive
The life she bears.

When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis last summer many of you wrote to me, and I remain so very grateful to you for your support and love. One of you wrote a card which contained within it a quotation from a first century philosopher – anonymous, and quite possibly not a Christian. It reads thus:

When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness, “I beg to differ!”

When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness, “I beg to differ!”

The darkness doesn’t get to win. Oh, for sure it is powerful. And when the darkness of dread, or fear, or disease, or pain comes upon us we feel like we must surely drown. But the darkness doesn’t get to win.

When the candle flickers into life on Christmas Night, it is Christ himself who says to the powers of darkness, “I beg to differ.” Here I am, vulnerable and tiny in this infant form, having to be held in my mother’s arms, but bringing with me such light and heat and demon-scattering authority that the tomb itself will be burst open and the darkness will flee in terror.

As you extinguish your little candle this evening, do not fear, for the light which it represents is extinguished only for a moment and you, with Christ, can say to the darkness, “I beg to differ”.