10.30 on February 16th. With Tree planting in our wildlife garden.
I surprised myself last Monday evening when I watched the beginning of the Holocaust Memorial Service.
It is an act of remembrance that I deeply respect, and think is needful. More so as the last survivors are getting to such a great age and holocaust denial and even worse, holocaust approval, are on the rise, but I still found myself getting viscerally uncomfortable.
I didn’t see the whole thing as I was with my parents at the time of transmission and we had to drive back home, so the omissions, as I saw them, might have been rectified later in the ceremony.
But here are the issues that disturbed me.
Firstly, there was absolutely no mention of the hatred at the root of the persecution. Reflecting our very pragmatic and managerial culture, legalities and processes were given more attention than what I would say is the underlying cause of mass murders of this type- hatred.
Secondly that no one mentioned the science of eugenics pioneered by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and popular with Winston Churchill, HG Wells and various others which was used as a philosophical and social argument for extermination, not only of the Jewish people, but of Gypsies, gay people and disabled people too.
And it keeps resurfacing, notably in relation to the environmental crisis.
And, finally, there was no mention of Christian Anti-Semitism, which has a deep history. With the infamous notion of blood libel, in which Jews were collectively charged with guilt for the death of Jesus, being an English invention.
When WH Auden, writing of the rise of Hitler, wrote.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That had driven a culture mad.
Even he was telling only a fragment of the story.
But today is Candlemas. And this evening we are marking that with our first choral, or indeed any kind of evensong, for decades.
And at the heart of both this holy day and this service we find the Nunc Dimittis.
Those words first sung, according to St Luke, by an elderly Jewish man, called Simeon, in the Temple in Jerusalem when he saw the infant Jesus, being brought there by Mary and Joseph to fulfil the childhood traditions of their religion.
Reflecting on the message of the Nunc Dimittis and its context might help us reduce our temptation to hatred, whether it is of the ugly obvious kind, or the insidious version which cloaks itself in science or theology.
The Story of Simeon only occurs in St Luke’s Gospel and it is worth reminding ourselves that St Luke and the book or Acts are parts one and two of the saga of the launch of what became Christianity, a separate religion from Judaism, but at the time a fresh movement within it.
As Acts shines a spotlight on St Paul, it is also useful to recall how St Luke’s vision of what God is doing in the world overlaps with the message that we can observe St Paul struggling to communicate in his letters.
The essence of which is that in Christ a light has entered the world, a saviour is come who will glorify both the Jewish people and reveal itself, himself, to the Greco/ Roman world and beyond.
Huge chunks of St Paul’s correspondence are concerned with trying to reconcile these two aspects of his thought and personal identity.
The idea that Christianity supplanted Judaism or Jewishness, particularly in stereotypical inventions such as legalistic phariseeism, is a mistaken anachronistic import into the New Testament.
One which has proved itself a highly dangerous one.
To return to the story of Simeon and the first Nunc Dimittis, St Luke goes out of his way to emphasise the continuities between Jesus and his religious and cultural background.
Having been circumcised, Jesus is brought to the Temple so that he could be dedicated to God, as the law demands. Luke also works in a sacrifice that is usual for the purification of a mother after the birth of a child. Some have seen St Luke as a bit muddled here in his account of Jewish birth traditions, but I favour the explanation that he is seeking to underline just how conventional Jesus’ beginnings were.
In St Paul’s letters we come across him, again and again, insisting that his Jewish identity is profound and that he is asking no one to renounce it.
One chapter before the reading we heard tonight from his letter to the Romans he drives this home, writing.
‘I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means. I myself am an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.
One of the threads that runs all the way through St Paul’s letter to the Romans is that although new members of the Jesus movement should not have to convert to Judaism, those with a Jewish inheritance don’t need to abandon it either.
In this evening’s reading from chapter 12 we see him trying to pull the diverse community together by arguing that everyone has a new deeper identity.
We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.
And it is fascinating where St Paul goes next in his thought drift.
He very quickly starts talking about letting love be genuine.
And the metaphor of the body is pulled down from the realm of ideas into an earthed and emotional, spiritual practice.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
It is difficult to miss the similarity here to the other words of Simeon in Luke’s Gospel . After the singing, he turned to Mary, and tells her that her son will expose people’s real thoughts and that a sword will pierce her soul.
Compassion seems foundational.
Whenever we read, or recite, or sing Simeon’s words in the Nunc Dimittis, we can praise God, as he did, for sending Christ as a light for the whole world, and can recall that the most important thing to leave behind is hatred, and all its feeble justifications.
Vicars sometimes ban the singing of Jerusalem at weddings because they are not sure it even qualifies as a hymn, but its general popularity is immense.
It is shouted out at rugby matches but also Conservative party conferences and Labour party conferences.
English patriots love it and so do English radicals.
It is well known that along with the famous tune by Parry it became the official anthem of the Women’s Institute in 1924.
What is less well known is that six years before that Parry agreed that Millicent Fawcett could use it as the official anthem of the women’s suffrage movement.
So it was a feminist anthem.
That this poem by an C18th radical, who admired the French Revolution and thought that Churches and Universities were dark satanic mills, throttling all impulses to free thought and emotional honesty, has become so treasured would have surprised its author.
It was requested today so I, being one of those vicars who love it, decided to use it.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Christ and there are two reasons that make Blake a perfect fit.
Firstly because he was a visionary. Not only because he had visions of angels in the farmland, as it was then, around Peckham Rye, but because he saw the world in a unique way.
As I noted, he was not very fond of the established church, but he was undoubtedly a person of deep experiential faith.
In the Gospel reading about Jesus’ baptism St Matthew describes Jesus own private and personal vision of God the Father’s blessing of his ministry.
Just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove… and a voice saying this is my Son, the beloved..
One of those with Blake when he died wrote, soon afterwards, what he has witnessed.
‘He said he was going to that Country he had all his life wished to see and expressed Himself happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ- Just before he died His countenance became fair.’
Whenever we celebrate baptism we are drawn to ask ourselves what our fundamental beliefs, and motivations are- where is our vision?
One particular misconception about Blake persists because more is known about his art than about his character and life, and actual opinions and behaviour.
The distinctiveness of his art makes him seem more other worldly and removed from normality than he actually was.
But if we recall that he was primarily an engraver, working in tiny, exacting physical detail. That he grew up in a house with a workhouse next door.
That one of his other famous poems, Tyger Tyger, is accompanied by a plump beast because it was inspired by a visit to a local menagerie.
And that his most successful art exhibitions didn’t happen in an art gallery but in the equivalent of a sock shop, you get a sense of a person working creatively with the matter at hand, and the ordinary world he was part of.
Another of his poems was turned into a hymn- I don’t know anyone who has sung it sung it, – it is from Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
Here are 2 verses.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love,
Is man his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love the human form divine,
And Peace the human dress
Here Blake picks up the central theme of Christmas; that in Christ, his beloved son, God stepped down into our ordinary world, to transform it, redeem it-out of profound love.
Into the Middle East of Jesus’ day- a mosaic of small states living, usually run by despots, living in the shadow of a super power.
Into the London of Blake’s where great wealth and poverty lived side by side and new industries threatened disruption.
And into our own, which has been changed by technology and politics into one of great opportunity and blessing, but also of unique inequalities and dangers.
Which we have to face- whatever age we are and whatever role in life we have.
Those dispositions of the heart that Blake alluded to and described as deeply human but also profoundly divine- mercy, pity, peace and love- were ones he had absorbed from the teaching of Christ- and it seems to me, that they are always needful, and must never be mislaid.
Indeed, I would argue that we should work hard at practising them, to stop our hearts growing cold.
Inevitably all baptisms involve water.
A symbol of refreshment, of live giving, of birth, of new starts.
But we sometimes forget that it also a sign of danger and necessity.
The floods in Indonesia and the drought in Australia, might bring that home, as well as reminding us of the deep connections between all of God’s children.
A baptism, particularly the baptism of a child, does not let us escape from the ramifications of being both beloved by God and being invited to love.
We are delighted that Greg Skidmore has taken over as our musical director. After a highly successful Carol service at Christmas, we are planning a regular evening choral service. We begin with a choral evensong at 6pm on February 2nd, to celebrate Candlemas.
The Second Coming” by W B Yeats.
and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Wise Men and the Star – U. A. Fanthorpe
place for stars is in the sky
lighting the whole world, but negotiating only
with the highly qualified – master mariners, astro-physicists,
professionals like ourselves.
This one came unscheduled, nudged us roughly
out of routine, led us a wild-goose chase,
and perching here, above unspeakable rafters,
common as a starling on a washing line,
whistles to every callow Dick and Harry,
idling amazed around : OK, pals, I’ve done my bit.
Over to you, now, Earth.
The Journey of the Magi. By T S Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.