(Bible texts for today: Malachi 3:1-5; Luke 2:22-40)
Today we celebrate the presentation of Christ in the temple. Jewish tradition had it that 40 days after its birth a child would be presented by its parents in the synagogue. In Christian tradition this feast day is also called Candlemas because priests would bless beeswax candles for use throughout the year, candles being a symbol of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. There’s yet another dimension to this particular day for it marks not only the presentation of Jesus but also the purification of his mother. In Mosaic law women were regarded as ritually unclean after childbirth, as they were during menstruation.
These days we may baulk at some of this but the themes of presentation and purification couldn’t be more appropriate today as we welcome Ambre Gournay for her baptism together with her parents Charles and Anne, and her godparents, family and friends. She will be presented by her parents for welcoming into the church family. In the ritual much will be made of human sin. In particular Timothy, who will preside at the baptism, will say these words:
“Now sanctify this water that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, this child may be cleansed from sin and born again.”
“Sin” is one of those difficult words. It sounds all rather old-fashioned and makes many people feel a bit awkward. In so far as it’s used today it tends to be trivialised, referring to things or activities that are naughty but nice – rather like eating too many chocolate biscuits. Against the tide of fashion the church holds this word to be vital to our understanding of what it is to be human. If you want a picture of the seriousness of sin, think of the Auschwitz commemoration that occurred last week.
We are fortunate as a nation to not have the stain of Auschwitz on our collective conscience but the sins of pride, selfishness, greed and hatred that made it possible exist in every human heart and we’d better not forget it. They are part and parcel of being human, which is why they are acknowledged even in the baptism of one as young as Ambre.
But if it’s wrong to deny the seriousness of sin it’s equally wrong to become obsessed with it as, I fear, so many Christians do. To be obsessed with it is to live in fear and anxiety, whereas Jesus promises us the peace that comes from forgiveness. The trouble is, it’s the hardest thing in the world to truly believe yourself forgiven. Even the saints found it hard. I’ve just finished reading The Confessions of St. Augustine and it’s hard to think of a man more concerned about his sinful nature and who clearly lived in fear of it.
So what can help us along our way? I think we find the beginning of an answer in today’s reading from Malachi. Referring to God’s coming messenger we find Malachi saying:
“….he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”
Here we begin to get a much more positive image of purification, one in which the emphasis isn’t so much on the impurity that needs to removed as on the pure gold waiting to be released. In other words, while acknowledging our impurities, we begin to focus on the pure gold that lies at heart of each of us, for it is our essence and it is this that God wants to see fully realised and freed from all that taints it.
I’ve just come across a powerful example of this kind of purification. 34 year old Alex Lewis recently told the BBC’s World Service that he’s just had the best year of his life. It involved his becoming seriously ill. It began with what he thought was “man ‘flu” but which turned out to be a streptococcal infection so severe that, one by by, he lost each of his four limbs. Even his lips had to be removed. So how could he possibly say that this has been the best year of his life? It seems that this terrible experience taught him what his priorities were. He learnt that the love of his partner and his son mattered to him more than anything else. As he put it:
“It made me think differently about being a dad, a partner and a human being.”
In other words, he discovered the gold within. Now, I must stress at this point that I cannot conceive of responding in the same way if such a fate were to befall me. I am in no way suggesting that every bad thing that happens to us is really a cause for rejoicing, and I say that realising that some of you are struggling with some very difficult situations in which it’s hard to see any meaning or positive outcome. But I do suggest that it’s often in some of the harder experiences of life that we discover our true selves – the gold within. Why? Because they can cause us to question our deepest assumptions which, while things are going well, tend to remain unchallenged.
I’ve told you before of my experience of being made redundant some years ago and how it taught me three things that I would never have guessed about myself otherwise: that earning a lot of money didn’t matter to me; that having a big job that impressed people at parties didn’t matter either; and – the biggest surprise – that I loved being self-employed and fending for myself. And these three things are, I am very happy to say, the foundations of the life I live now.
So where do all these false assumptions – these impurities – come from? Again, like the sins that bedevil us – to which they are very closely related – they are part and parcel of being human and they begin to influence us even as we drink our mother’s milk.
Think of the enormous pressure to conform to other people’s expectations that we all experience. Think of the pressure that is placed on young women – and, increasingly, young men – to have gym-honed bodies and to dress and behave in a certain way. Those of you who are, or have been, teenagers will know what a failure you feel when you can’t conform because you haven’t got that kind of body or maybe you haven’t got that kind of money. And yet, underneath all this weight of expectation – and the judgement that goes with it – there’s the real you waiting to get out, the you that is infinitely valuable and of which you would be proud, if only you knew it.
But there are much more hidden expectations placed upon us, most obviously by our parents, even the very best of them. We learn chiefly by imitation, because that’s how we human beings learn. Our parents are our most influential role models by far. If we are fortunate we have loving parents who are great role models but, even then, we are not our parents, we are ourselves, we are our own, unique individuals and even with the best of parents we will pick up habits, attitudes, assumptions and expectations that are not true for us.
It’s in this and a myriad other ways we end up being strangers to ourselves, forever wondering why things aren’t quite right, forever searching for the peace of an undivided heart. Make no mistake – the Christian journey on which Ambre is embarking today is a journey of self-discovery or it is nothing. Just consider the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, his great hymn to love. Writing of ultimately coming into God’s presence he says this:
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
So, just at the moment when we finally come to understand God’s mysterious workings so, simultaneously, we come to see our own selves fully, at long, long last. The peace and joy that flow from an undivided heart, the heart that knows itself and loves itself as it loves God is what Jesus wills for each of us, for it is the key to the abundant life that he promises us. And this is where we begin to realise the vital importance of finding the gold within each of us and rejoicing in it at least as much as we acknowledge and bemoan our sinful impurities.
To illustrate my point, just ask yourself this question. Who is more likely to show the love, generosity of spirit and commitment to justice that is the hallmark of the kingdom of God – the women who knows the joy and peace of an undivided heart, who has found and treasures the pure gold within her, or the man who is full of the dissatisfaction and anxiety that flows from a divided heart and who only knows and grieves over the impurities within him?
May we all find and treasure the gold that lies at the heart of each one of us and submit to the refiner’s fire.