Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Candlemas 2014
2 February 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
But, what does the Lord really require?
When the eighteenth-century explorer Captain Cook encountered Polynesian islanders he was bewildered by their habits: they were very relaxed about sex, but very strict about other social rules. Men and women did not eat together for example: that was what they called taboo - prohibited. These taboos (and there were others) seemed mysterious and arbitrary. Even the Polynesians themselves did not seem to know why the rules were important. They may once have made sense, but no longer did, and yet the islanders still felt compelled to observe them. It was indeed a very strange world, to the outsider….
This story we’ve just heard in the Gospel, of a young mother bringing a child to a holy man in a Temple to be blessed, also has a strange world beneath its surface. Ostensibly it might seem a familiar thing, something one might do in any culture - to wish a young child well at the beginning of its journey in life by some sort of ceremony of dedication. And so the story easily washes over us, slightly sentimentally perhaps, but unremarkably. We do not seem to be travellers in a strange land here. Yet in fact what brought Mary into the Temple to hand Jesus over into Simeon’s arms wasn’t just the dedication of a child. It was also obedience to a Levitical law which required the mother to be ‘purified’. Mary was obeying a religious rule about childbirth which stated that a mother was ceremonially unclean for seven days after the birth of a son, and then had to remain at home for a further thirty-three days, and then had to offer a sacrifice to complete her cleansing. That in turn was part of a wider concept of a ritual uncleanness applying to all sorts of things, like unclean foods, and for strict Jews, spittle, saliva, menstrual flow, all of which generated rules for cleansing which, if not kept, would become a barrier to God comparable to serious moral failure. So in fact this is indeed a world of taboos – apparently arbitrary rules, natural to those practising them, yet largely inexplicable both to us and them. Similar rules still govern the lives of many people in many religious contexts. When teaching in west Africa, during the fast Ramadan, Moslem pupils interrupted my lessons and rushed to the window to spit out of it because they were not allowed to swallow saliva during the period of fasting (though more often than they needed to, I suspect!).
Does it matter? Does it matter that some people keep religious rules which seem strange? Not necessarily. After all, perhaps there were originally good reasons for them (reasons of hygiene, or creating a common bond between those who keep them) - and if those reasons have now been forgotten and we are just left with mysteries, that surely does no harm. Mystery can be a very good thing. It can help engender reverence. In any case, shouldn’t we always respect other people’s conscience about their traditions? As St Paul said to the Romans and Corinthians, your faith may allow you to eat whatever you like, but do not offend someone else’s conscience. Respect for the customs of others is basic courtesy – and very important in a pluralist culture. No harm in in strange customs then…
Yet I think we all know there is another side too. What happens when keeping such rules becomes the sole point of a religion, a substitute for real love of God? What happens when enforcing these rules becomes socially oppressive, when a religion patrols our minds, or even our streets, to make people conform? What happens when these rules become part of a power game of the religious to assert their own superiority and exclude others? Then, of course, we are right to feel uneasy. The religion we are encountering then is not just strange: it’s gone badly wrong. Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov dramatizes the terrible effect of religion when it appeals too readily to the arbitrary authority of holy mysteries and religious rules. It can crucify people, in one way or another.
So there is a conundrum here. But this Gospel, I believe, points us to exactly the right balance within the conundrum. Its presumption is indeed first to respect what we find strange in another culture. We should not lightly dismiss it. Not only because of good manners. It’s also because we might otherwise find ourselves dismissing God himself, and the godly people who inhabit these strange other worlds. In this very story Anna and Simeon are palpably good and godly people with a gloriously generous vision; they are people looking for light for all peoples, not just their own - and they were people formed precisely within these strange laws and traditions…
However, then comes the important balance. For from that basic foundation of respect this Gospel also directs us to very different priorities as well. The baby at the heart of this strange ritual of purification actually went on to grow up in the prophetic tradition of Judaism which, while respecting religious law, also radically reframed it. In that prophetic perspective real purity was not ultimately about customs and rules in themselves, but something infinitely more important. Remember elsewhere in the Gospels, when Jesus is asked point blank why his followers did not keep all the ancient traditions he responds with an earthy flash of almost lavatorial humour: 'rules about what we eat? That’s something that just ends up down the drain!’ What really fulfils God’s law, he says, are not rules and customs in themselves, for these are only important in so far as they help form the deeper habits of our heart: the love of God and your neighbour. Or as an earlier prophet said: ‘what does the Lord require of you - but to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God…’
Our own religious rituals here today, of candles, of bread and wine, are part of an ancient inheritance which for many of us here won’t be strange at all, and will be rightly cherished, because they have indeed formed many people in real godliness. But if for others they feel like a very foreign country, even alien, that doesn’t matter, because they are not the heart of what we are about here. The only thing the law of God ultimately requires is to do justice, love mercy, and walk more humbly with God - and walk more humbly with our neighbours who may live in different worlds. That is something that both the old man Simeon, the young mother, and the child at the heart of it, all instinctively came to see. In the end I think it’s something that we too all instinctively know, however steeped in religious custom we may or may not be. So - let us truly live it…