A sermon by Canon Dr Robert Titley, Treasurer
For the Feast of the Presentation of Christ (Candlemas)
When I was a student, we used to go to a Greek establishment called The Corner House. It was nothing like a house and it wasn’t on a corner, but the moussaka was cheap and bulky.
The Corner House dining experience was like eating in the aisle of a supermarket, an atmosphere created by rows of strip lights - except for one evening when there was a power cut (this was the 1970s) and we found the tables lit by candles in bottles. A great change came over The Corner House that night, the pasty-faced diners in their anoraks transformed by the flickering and flattering of candlelight. ‘This is great,’ I thought, ‘surely they will keep the candles now.’ But no: the next time we went, the power was back on and so were the strip lights.
If we were in this Cathedral in 1516 we would find our predecessors making a great deal of this feast of candles. They would understand that restaurant’s practicality, though, and might smile at the way we use candles just for effect. For them, the light of candle and oil was virtually all the light they had, so when on this day they used candles to celebrate Jesus as the light of the nations, they were not using romantic special effects but everyday equipment, tools of life.
Jesus is the light of the world not because he brings a soft-focus, cosy glow to things but because in him the purpose and presence of God takes on luminous human form; because he shows us how God can be glorified in our flesh when our humanity is kindled and enlightened by God; and because he casts light on the places where our humanity falls short.
When our Christian ancestors thought about Jesus in this way, they could not fix on a moment when the light got switched on, so to speak, and Jesus became the light of the world, so they said that, as soon as there was a Jesus of Nazareth his life was already full of the light and life of God. That made the celebration of Jesus' birth a natural thing to do, but there was only point in rejoicing over the baby Jesus because of the adult Jesus: what he taught, what he did, his liberation of those in poverty and pain, his condemnations of the rich and religious, his dying and his living; without Easter, Christmas had no point.
So if we are to celebrate Jesus the light of humanity, we must worship not only the smooth, uncomplicated flesh of the baby but also the sunburned skin of the mature Christ, the freelance rabbi, the friend of riff-raff, the one who will attack the very Temple which today makes him welcome as a baby, when he turns over the tables of the money-changers (see Luke 19.45-48). And the light of the world will most luminously be seen in the inglorious flesh of the criminal who is hanged on a dark Friday afternoon.
No surprise then that if modern, so-called post-Christian culture wants anything to do with Jesus, it finds the baby much easier to handle than the unsettling adult. Christmas pulls in many more than Easter (let alone Good Friday), and I confess that I find the twinkling lights of Christmas easier one the eye than the disturbing light of Easter morning: if Jesus, whose light was snuffed out by the world’s anger and fear, is risen from the dead, then a lot must change in me, and what I believe is possible in this life.
Still, in the end I'm in this not because it's nice but because it's true. I hope you are too; and in this processional service we are invited to prove it as, each carrying our candle, we move from light to light, taking a last look back at the starlight over the stable, then turning to look though the shadows of Good Friday and the dark waters of death to the light of resurrection. The Easter candle feels a less comfortable light than the candles of Christmas - but both are really the same: the only light that Jesus ever brings is the light that shows up the secrets of the heart.
Why follow him, then? Why carry his light in the world? In the end it is about truth, seeing things the way they really are, and knowing that that is more precious than the comforts of illusion. Simeon, the old man in the Temple, sees Jesus – and relaxes: at last he has seen salvation; he sees now that the end of things will bring a wholeness of things; that in Jesus the contradictions of life will be revealed and then – finally, gloriously – resolved. And, whether life be long or short, that is light enough to walk by.