Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Candlemas: Tuesday 2 February 2010
2 February 2010 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Hebrews 2: 14-end; Luke 2: 22-40
Fifty years ago today was found the dead body of a thirty year old woman. She was lying in her bed at home. She had been brutally murdered. Her name was Esther John and she is commemorated for our veneration on the west front of Westminster Abbey as one of ten 20th century martyrs. It was a privilege to celebrate a Eucharist in her honour yesterday. Her story can be read on the Abbey website.
Esther John was born Qamar Zia, on 14 October 1929, one of seven children of a Muslim family. As a child she attended a government school and, after the age of seventeen, a Christian school. There she was profoundly moved by the transparent faith of one of her teachers, and she began to read the Bible earnestly. It was when reading the 53rd chapter of Isaiah that she was suddenly overtaken by a sense of conversion to what was for her a new religion.
When India was partitioned, she moved with her family to Pakistan. Here she made contact with a missionary and her Christian faith grew privately, even secretly. Then, seven years later, she ran away from home, worked in an orphanage and took the name Esther John. She trained as a teacher and then evangelised in the villages, travelling from one to the other by bicycle, teaching women to read and working with them in the cotton fields. Her death was sudden and mysterious. Her body was given Christian burial. Today, Esther John is remembered with devotion by the Christian community with whom she lived and worked.
This terrible story, sadly not strange to many Christians, especially Christian converts, persecuted for their faith, seems to contrast darkly with today’s innocent and beautiful celebration of the presentation of Christ in the temple. Mary and Joseph bring the forty day old boy to do what the law requires, to redeem his life through the offer to God of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. The old priest Simeon and the old prophet Anna recognise him for what he is, the Messiah, the Christ, the hope for the whole world, and they rejoice that finally they have seen the glory of God’s people Israel and a light to all nations. Mary and Joseph, St Luke tells us, are amazed by what they hear.
Today is the final day of our celebration of Christmas and it is right that we should observe Candlemas with joy and thanksgiving. Jesus has been born for us. The Son of God shares our human life. Humanity and divinity are found to be compatible in the life of Jesus, so we know that our human nature is not incapable of being united with the divine, with God himself. The light has come into the world. It has been God’s act. We have seen the light and seek to walk in the light. Let light shine out in the darkness. This is a great cause for celebration.
However, soon, all too soon, having turned our backs on the celebration of Christmas, we find ourselves plunged into Lent and the preparation for Easter. Though often thought to be utterly contrasted, so that some theologies can be interpreted as dependent on the understanding of Christmas and others on the understanding of Easter, Christmas and Easter do not in fact represent opposite polarities; we must think of them each as reflected in and utterly dependent on the other. Christmas is pointless without Easter; Easter meaningless without Christmas.
Moreover the Easter polarity, of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, is plain to see, even if ironically, within the celebration of Candlemas. How ridiculous it is that the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons is understood to redeem the life of the world’s Redeemer. It is only the sacrifice of Christ himself, his own free self-offering to the Father for the redemption of the world, that allows the light, threatened by the darkness, to shine out to all the world.
In the prologue to St John’s gospel, we hear that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. But all the time the darkness threatens. The light ‘came to his own, and his own people did not accept him.’ The light of Christ suffers all kinds of assaults. We see this most bitterly in the death of so many who have suffered for their faith in Christ. The ten 20th century martyrs are a tiny representative sample of those who could have been commemorated. The struggle for the Christian Gospel and for the Church continues in many parts of the world: the struggle against materialism and indifferentism; against triumphalist secularism and militant atheism; against those who believe they are being true to their own faith by seeking to destroy Christianity. The battle for us seems unlikely to have the same outcome as that for Esther John. Our struggle is more likely to be against materialism and indifferentism, against secularism and atheism, than against violence and threatened martyrdom. But if we fail to discern the battle, it has already been lost in us.
May this celebration of the triumph of light over darkness and the coming time of disciplined preparation for the Holy Pasch enable us to join with renewed energy in the work of Christ: the battle for truth and goodness and beauty, the battle for the victory of God’s Kingdom over the kingdoms of this world, the battle in each of us for light over the impending darkness. The author of the letter to the Hebrews said and we heard in our second lesson, ‘Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.’ The triumph of Jesus is assured. So is ours, if we join the battle with our Lord. May the light shine in us.