Sermon for Evensong on Candlemas

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.

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