Preached by the Rev. Ian Elliott Davies
It was almost seven years ago when the Church roof was being rebuilt and repaired at my last Parish, my priestly colleague Fr. Alan Moses, the Parish Administrator and myself, were invited by the Architect to go up on the scaffolding to see how work on the new roof was progressing. Alas the Administrator has no head for heights and only managed to venture about twelve feet up the ladders before he had to come back down to earth for a bracing cup of hot sweet tea to calm his nerves. The priests were made of stronger stuff and were brave enough to go one hundred and fifty feet, all the way up, and even to climb over the roof and clamber onto the other side and look down on the Central London Magistrates Court and the British Headquarters of Ann Ruddock’s Body Shop. Endued with a sense of my own agility at roof climbing, I broke all the rules and regulations about insurance and safety and decided to see how far up the Church Spire I could climb. After clearing our way through all the pigeon droppings we managed to find our way to the first set of windows and could peer out onto the London skyline and even got a rather spectacular view of St Paul’s Cathedral. The view gave us something of a unique, if incomplete, vision of the Parish of All Saints’ Margaret Street. A vision and experience I shall not easily nor readily forget. But reality is rarely faced at such a great height. Reality is faced with one’s feet firmly planted on the ground, at the level of the personal, at the level of the shoppers, where the double-decker buses and busyness of this world are to be found, at the level of the parochial and the mundane.
Facing, and most especially facing reality, is a key theme for today’s Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also remembered as the Purification of Our Lady and the celebration of Candlemas.
In the Bible the word “panim” is translated from the Hebrew as face (356) but also translated as “presence” (75), “sight” (40), “countenance” (30), and “person” (20). To meet someone “face to face” is to be in their presence, in their reality, to have access to their character or personality and also to be present to them, to be in a position of risk and influence and knowledge. It is, in the account of Jacob wrestling with the angel for example, literally to be “nostril to nostril” as the Hebrew says. But for frail humanity to see God face to face in the Hebrew Bible meant death and destruction, for the all-powerful and divine could not be comprehended nor brought into our limited vision. But to be seen by God means salvation and healing, hence the extraordinary outpouring of St. Simeon as he holds the Child in his arms; gazing into this Child’s face is none other than a recognition of God’s face, of the reality that God is present -but who is facing whom here? Just to give us more pause for thought St. Luke tells us that the prophetess Anna is the daughter of Phanuel, seemingly innocuous as that may appear, the daughter “of the face of God.”
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
[Simeon's work is complete, he has seen God and has been seen by God]
The worship of Jesus is a facing towards God, our facing towards him and God’s facing towards us.
Christ is both the worshipper and the one who is worshipped. Our identity and relationship are caught up, gathered together in Christ’s worship of God, in his relationship with us and our relationships with each other. Iris Murdoch, writing about writing, but she could have been talking about worship and facing up to reality as well, said:
“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality. What stuns us into a realization of our supersensible destiny is not, as Kant imagined, the formlessness of nature, but rather its unutterable particularity; and most particular and individual of all natural things is the mind of humanity.”
That is the astonishing thing about Anglo-Catholic liturgy in all its complex choreography, graceful cadences and nuanced movements – that held in our hands, received into our hearts and beings and minds is the unutterable particularity of the very Being of God. That is why the sacrament is so central, why the Tabernacle is venerated, why the clouds of incense rise to refract the light, the bells ring to sharpen our attention at the elevated elements of bread and wine: the scandalous unutterable particularity, by this world’s standards, is that God surrenders himself into our grasp in bread and wine. Now here’s an irony equal to that of St. Simeon: each of you are, in turn, held in God’s vision, venerated by God, held in the hollow of God’s hand, loved and cherished, nurtured, restored, forgiven and healed. If that were only one-dimensional it might quickly descend into narcissism – but because when we talk about the Being of God we are talking about the Trinity, the Community of the Godhead, the dynamic, the moving and creative relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit AND US it will always open up for us new possibilities, new insights, fresh ways of understanding the mystery of the world. The struggle for an inclusive Church and society, the affirmation of men and women and children, regardless of colour or class or sexual orientation all derive from the realization that people are made in God’s image and deserve respect and honour and dignity.
The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of all his children: these are the particularities of our mundane world that are redeemed and have the potential for healing and to be made holy in Christ.
Posted by: The Parish