The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Concurrences or coincidences can sometimes lead to helpful reflections. Today we celebrate the beautiful feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, sometimes called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or more familiarly Candlemas. We mark the moment when the forty-day-old Jesus was offered in the Temple to God and redeemed through the sacrifice of two young doves. In the Church's Year this is the point of transition when the great wheel of annual celebration turns from the Christmas cycle towards the Easter cycle. Lent comes quickly after Candlemas with its thoughts of preparation for the great sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross.
Concurrences! Last week brought us two occasions, quite distinct and certainly different from today's feast, but which, held together with the Gospel account we have just heard, provide a revealing perspective. Last Monday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second World War, often referred to during his lifetime as the greatest living Englishman, still remembered as the great war-time leader. Without his courage and determination, his bulldog spirit, it is hard to believe that, when Great Britain stood alone, this island kingdom could have withstood the terrifying military power of the Nazi war machine. And then, last Tuesday marked the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. This event marked the first moment that the allies of Great Britain were confronted with indubitable evidence of the horrific impact of the Nazi regime's determination to eradicate from the face of the earth the Jewish people.
Each of these two commemorations had an impact on the ministry of the Abbey. On Friday last, flowers were laid at Winston Churchill's memorial stone at the west end of the Nave by three of the youngest members of his family. Then, just yesterday evening, a congregation of two thousand people, most of them Jews but with representatives of other victims, homosexuals and Roma, came together in solemn commemoration of the Holocaust. We heard the story of survivors, remembered the dead and prayed for peace and religious freedom, above all for mutual respect between different ethnic and religious groups of people.
A recent event has raised anxiety that the Jews continue to suffer disproportionately from antagonism based on ethnicity and belief. The murderous attack in Paris on 7th January on the publishers of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by two heavily armed Muslim brothers was connected to the occupation that same day of a Jewish kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes in the east of Paris in which four Jews were murdered and many more would have died had it not been for the sharp actions of the French police. Many Jewish people in France are reported to have talked of their fear of attack and determination to move as soon as possible to Israel. The fear is felt even here in England, where there is far more tolerance of religious diversity than there is in France.
What does all this mean for this evening's celebration? At the heart of our festival is the short poem or song uttered by the old man Simeon at the time of the presentation of Jesus in the temple. We know this song as the Nunc dimittis, from its first words in Latin, and it forms a consistent part of our daily prayers. It has been recited or sung every day in this Abbey church since the 16th century Reformation. Before that, for 600 years, it formed part of the daily prayer of the Benedictine monks here at the short service that completed the daily round of prayer before bed-time.
Simeon in his song asks the Lord to release him from this life, since he has seen the fulfilment of all his hopes here on earth in the revelation of God's salvation for all people. He goes on to identify what this salvation means for two sets of people, those who know the Lord his God already and those who do not. For those who do not already know God, salvation comes as light, illumination, enlightenment, fresh insight and understanding of God and his ways with his people. For the people of Israel who know God already, salvation comes as glory, which we may understand as a full revelation of the beauty and goodness and love of God and confirmation of their place within God's kingdom. They have longed for the Messiah. His coming gives them the assurance of a part and a place in God's glory.
The glory of God's people Israel. The concurrences I have identified lead me to celebrate this evening three aspects of the faith of Israel, of the Jewish faith, which reflect the continuing glory of Judaism, of Jewry, and remain powerfully influential in our own faith.
The first aspect is monotheism, the belief that there is one God. This belief beautifully unites the people of the world: there are many differences and diversities but there is one God and we are all in some way God's children. It is possible to trace in the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament, the development of this idea, from a belief that the Lord God was just their god, one among many, to a belief that the Lord God was the most powerful of all gods, by gradual stages to a belief that the God they worshipped was in fact the God of all people, the one and only God and that all could come to worship, all could be united in worship of this one true God.
The second aspect of the faith of Israel I want to celebrate is less obvious but very clear and very influential: that God's chosen people, God's exemplary people, the ones who have come to know God, must be prepared to suffer on behalf of others, to be passionately committed to justice and integrity and mercy and to bear the consequences. We see this most powerfully in the suffering servant songs of the prophet Isaiah.
The third aspect of the faith of Israel is that God is not confined, that God's power can be exercised not just through God's people but even through those who do not know God. We see this time and again but most strikingly in the recognition that God had worked through Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia, to release his people from their fifty year exile and subjection to the Babylonian empire.
These three revelations to God's people through the great story of Israel, aspects of the glory of his people, help form the rock on which our Christian faith is founded. There is one God, so, although different faiths understand God partially, they can only worship the one God; there is no other god to worship. Suffering is essential to the spiritual life, to the life of God's people. Those who would live in Christ must suffer in and with him, take up their cross and follow him. And thirdly, the Spirit of God is poured out on all flesh and moves where she will, bringing good out of evil, hope out of despair and life out of death.
All this finds expression in the celebration of this holy feast. May our eyes see God's salvation, prepared for all nations, light to enlighten the Gentiles, and glory to God's people, both of the old and the new covenant.