By Andrew Nunn
It always amazes me just how effective we are at sanitizing the stories in the Bible. Perhaps we can lay the blame on the images that we’ve been brought up with – the old masters that line the walls of places like the National Gallery – that have successfully supplied the pictures that we carry round with us in our heads. The stable at Bethlehem is a case in point – the reality would have been so different to the rather beautiful images that we were presented with on Christmas cards just forty days ago. It wasn’t really a good place in which to give birth to a baby but at the end of the day, and presumably it was the end of the day for Mary and Joseph, it was all that was available.
Similarly, the temple in Jerusalem, the context for today’s celebration, was hardly a pleasant place to be. Every sense would’ve been under attack as you entered it and to us it would look more like a badly run abattoir than a place of worship, than a place in which we would hope to have an encounter with the divine.
Those of us more used to the tremendous beauty and order of a church like this one would, I suspect, find it hard to deal with the screams of dying animals, with the smell of dung and burning fat, with the sight of so much blood, with the greasy touch which the whole place must have acquired over the centuries – a completely different patina than that afforded by beeswax and incense at Margaret Street. It wouldn’t be a place where you’d choose to hang out if you had any sense.
So it’s rather surprising that we find two old people loitering there. Simeon and Anna, the two characters who make such an impact in the story of the presentation of Christ in the temple, seem to have no problems in being in this place. Anna we’re told never leaves the temple – this is where she lives; Simeon it would seem was a regular visitor.
And into this place come Mary and Joseph with their new baby to do for him what the law required, to bring the offering of life to redeem the life of their first born son – a life for a life. Again, it was a grotesque thing in itself that they were being asked to do, a dreadful view of what God demands of us – a stark choice, either the life of your baby or the life of another living creature so that you can buy your baby back!
What kind of God is this, what kind of religion is this that we see depicted in this feast and why do all the participants in the story play along with it? Why don’t they just object to the state that the temple’s in, why don’t they object to this barbaric way of looking at God and our relationship with him?
Some thirty three years later the child would enter that place again, now a man, an angry man and he’d turn over the tables of those selling the pigeons, the substitute offerings, scattering the tables and the money of those who were fleecing the worshippers. That man would stand in those courts and explain how the whole edifice would be destroyed and then rebuilt, in three days. And those who heard him were threatened by it, so hated him that they vowed to kill him.
Before I ever came down to London I was a parish priest in Leeds. My parish had three churches and one of them was St Saviour’s, Leeds, Dr Pusey’s Tractarian gift to the Church of England – though it was a gift that the Church of England and particularly the Bishop of Ripon at the time didn’t seem to want! One of my predecessors had been there for fifty years, almost all of his ministry. Needless to say I wasn’t and had no intention of being. I’m of the generation that believes in moving on. But I often used to think about him and his ‘stickability’.
If we were Benedictines we’d have taken a vow of stability which would fix us to a place. When St Benedict wrote his rule, he was attempting to put an end to the practice of some monks of his day who’d move between monastic houses becoming rather annoying and disruptive to everybody else. When those monks got bored, when they fell out with their brothers they simply upped sticks and moved on. Benedict wanted his monks to stay there, to work at it, to commit themselves to place and to each other.
There was something similar in the mentality of previous generations. People weren’t as mobile in any sphere of life – staying in the same house, keeping the same job, sticking with the same partner – and the church would’ve reflected that kind of stability. But perhaps it was more thought through than that as well – something about the spirituality that is at the heart of the Benedictine principle of stability.
And maybe that’s what we see in these two old people who’re waiting – patiently waiting for what God has promised – hanging around in the most appalling circumstances, looking for the light that would break through the gloom that surrounded them – maybe in them we see stability most perfectly embodied.
When the whole business of adoption by same sex partners came into the news and when our two archbishops entered the argument a few days ago, I found myself asking the question that I’ve asked myself on and off throughout my ministry – why are you in the Church of England? Why are you hanging around in this church that seems intent on tearing itself apart, that speaks about mission and then can’t seem to engage in it, that presents an image of God that I find it hard to engage with, that I don’t warm to, why am I in this body that I increasingly fail to recognize as the church into which I was born.
Stephen Bates, the Guardian columnist, wrote this in his blog this week: ‘If the churches wonder why their message is less and less appealing to the outside world – to those they hope to attract – they might ponder the bullying and sanctimonious face they so often present to the world. It’s not attractive; it won’t win them converts – and, ultimately, it won’t win the argument.’
Being in the Church can at times feel like it must have felt to those players in the gospel for this feast – in a temple that was appalling with an image of God that was deficient and far from the truth.
To be a Simeon or an Anna is no easy calling – yet I believe that’s what we’re called to be – living with patient stability, looking for the consolation that we know is coming, and knowing that it can come as suddenly as Malachi prophesizes or as slowly as God wills. It’s no easy calling because it demands patience and the long view and in the fast moving world in which we live it’s hard to have those things in quite the way that’s demanded of us.
It’s no easy calling but neither is it a calling to passivity. There seems to me nothing passive about Simeon and Anna – they were actively waiting – they must have been looking at every face that entered that place, were listening for the prompting of God to know precisely who to approach. We’re in the Church and waiting but at the same time we work for what we know we’re called to be.
I began by saying that we so easily sanitize what we find in the Bible – but we’re equally guilty of sanitizing the church by adopting more and more a congregational rather than a catholic ecclesiology. ‘It’s fine where I go, so I’m happy with that’, we can find ourselves saying. But perhaps as we celebrate the value of stability on this feast day we also come up against God’s requirement of us to engage with reality.
We assume that Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph had no problem with the temple or the image of God that was presented to them by what they were being asked to do – but maybe that’s just another act of sanitization on our part. Maybe the real wonder of the feast is that they were there in the squalor of it all because they knew it was the reality and that was the only reality that there was – that that was where they had to be.
At his baptism Jesus said to John ‘Let it be so now’ not in submission but in realistic engagement with all that is. The church is not perfect and so often our doctrine is imperfect and our leaders are imperfect and we are imperfect – but we are it, the church, and we’re called to stick with it. We can fool ourselves and escape into a church as we’d like it to be, or like Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna we can hold the light up to reality and find Jesus – God in the midst of us, God at the heart of the church, God who enters into the mess of the Church makes himself present on the altar and places himself in our soiled, yearning hands.
The Very Rev. Andrew Nunn is dean of Southwark Cathedral in London. This sermon was preached on Candlemas 2017 at All Saints,’ Margaret Street in London.