In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So we are into the final week of the season of Epiphany. Those of you who find the Angels scary will be pleased to know that this time next week they will be gone, along with the enormous Christmas tree, and spare a thought for Gary our Clerk of Works and his colleagues who will have to de-branch and recycle that monster of a fir tree!
The Feast of Candlemas, where we tell the story of Jesus being presented in the temple on the 40th day of life, according to the custom of the Jewish ritual at that time, is the final day of the season. We keep that on Friday, and why not come to join us. It’s a lovely service in which we turn away from the Christmas crib and turn towards the season of Lent which is already drawing near. I hope that you will avail yourself of opportunities to pray during Lent, including the little booklet which is available free to collect and use through the days of that season. It takes us sequentially through the gospel of Mark, which was read dramatically in this place on Friday evening in an extraordinary manner, and from which of course comes our gospel reading today. Many parish churches will be doing Candlemas today, so they won’t hear this set of readings which is a shame because I think they have something quite important to say to us about what this revelation, this showing, this revealing to the world of Jesus is actually all about.
Cast your mind back with me over the past month. Jesus is revealed first of all to his parents, to the shepherds, perhaps the innkeeper and of course the ox and ass whom we are told in one Christmas carol “their owner know, becradled in the manger.”
And from that point on, the stories we tell each other in this season remind us of how much wider that circle of revealing, showing, is. Epiphany draws in people from “the East”, in other words, non-Jewish people. The call of the disciples from their nets by the sea shows us a developing ministry of Jesus. The miracle at Cana of Galilee about which we heard last week reveals something of God’s generosity and bounty, and the public nature of this ministry.
And at first glance today’s readings don’t seem to fit the mould. They are a bit weird. We have this extraordinary passage from the book of Revelation (never the most straightforward of texts) this vision of a woman clothed with the sun in conflict with a Dragon. And then alongside that, our reading from the gospel according to Mark, the account of the first exorcism that Jesus performs in his public ministry, at least according to that gospel writer. It’s all a bit supernatural. It’s all a bit less like the stories with beginnings, middles, and ends that we have become used to during this season.
But I think this set of readings are actually the key which unlocks the whole of the season. Because what we hear, we think about this Sunday is about the revealing, the showing, the Epiphany of grace, of goodness, of hope, to the powers of darkness. In the first reading the Dragon, symbolising the predatory, devouring, corrupting power of evil is unable to steal away the moon-clothed woman’s child. And in the gospel reading Jesus’ very presence in the synagogue provokes a reaction in the man with the unclean spirit: get out of here! Go away? Why are you here?
When good bangs up against evil, when holiness hits the darkness of despair, when light encounters the shadow that tries to trick us into thinking that we are alone, and that no one loves us, and that all that we hope for will come to nothing, stuff happens. These readings on the final Sunday of this Epiphany season, as we poise to reorient our focus from the Christmas crib to the rough wooden cross, are here to remind us that the battle of which we are a part is universal. It is bigger than simply your mind or mine. Your heart. Though our hearts and minds are precious to God, and cherished, and participants in spreading the light. But we need to recognise that when we talk about the darkness, when we talk about evil, when we talk about that drag upon our spirits, you know what I mean, that tendency to give into the seductive voice that says that we are really not worth very much, that we are inadequate, that nothing we can do is really very likely to change anything, that is what we mean by evil. Or at least that is part of what we mean by evil. The voice which speaks to you and to me, but also to governments, parliaments, armies, tribes, social classes, the list goes on, drops in front of our eyes tempting fruit, that oh so seductive option of closing our minds in on themselves, of ignoring the injustice around us, of retracting like a tortoise into its shell, of abandoning the hope; the light.
That’s what these passages are reminding us of this morning. There really is light and there really is darkness. There really is good and evil. It operates on the biggest, most strategic, most spiritual level, just as it operates in your heart and mind. But the light is always the greater, is always victorious, because the light shines from the person of Jesus Christ. The baby is not devoured by the Dragon, it is snatched away to heaven. The evil spirit, recognising the approach of Christ, cries out in ultimately futile convulsions, because the voice of Christ is, in the words of the congregation at the synagogue “a new teaching, with authority.” Here are the words, this is the man, whom the darkness could never overcome.
Let me give you a tiny example from a conversation I had yesterday. Yesterday morning I was talking to one of our trainee Street Pastors. They had been, while most of us were happily in the land of nod, walking the streets of Salisbury between ten in the evening and three in the morning. And this trainee described to me some of the scenarios which the Street Pastors encountered: I won’t give you specific examples because it’s not my place to breach those pastoral encounters, but there were many stories of people bereft by the breakup of a relationship, in the clutches of the curse of addiction to alcohol or other drugs, of people frightened by the future, and then simply of lonely people who saw in the Street Pastors the opportunity to be safe, the opportunity to be respected, heard, sometimes provided with basic help, like flip-flops or water or the seemingly famous lollipops. But the person I was talking to said, simply, “they were loved.”
We should never forget that there is a conflict between the darkness and the light, between good and evil. It is there, it is serious, and it is the work of church, together with our other partners, our excellent emergency services, social services and the like, to combat the darkness. In a recent report about the future of cathedrals there is a quotation from a much older report, one from the 1960s, which refers to cathedrals as “a clinic for public exorcism.” That might strike you as bizarre and freaky, but actually that’s exactly what this place does every day. And not just for those who come into the building seeking help, though they do, but in the ministry of all of you as you go out, some of you as Street Pastors, some of you into your place of employment, amongst your families, wherever it might be, carrying the belief, the faith, that people are loved. And exorcism, in its broadest, most theologically accurate definition, is the casting out of darkness by light. And whether that is in our daily prayers, with Amnesty International, for justice, whether it is offering someone a pair of flip-flops and reminding them that they are loved, or in a hundred thousand other ways, we, as the ancient philosopher put it, “light a candle at midnight, and say to the darkness: I beg to differ.”
The woman clothed with the sun has of course been associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, patron of this place, which was excuse enough for me to choose the offertory hymn that I have done today, but, as you sing, notice that it is actually a hymn about love:
Ye who own the faith of Jesus,
sing the wonders that were done
when the love of God the Father
over sin the victory won