[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, February 2, 2020]
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s gospel reading—as well as the reading from Malachi—have a wintry feel to them. They seem designed for a dark night, a cold night. You might expect the presentation of our Lord at the Temple—the ritual purification of the child Jesus and his acceptance as a member of the people of Israel—to be a joyous event. And, in a way, it is. But there are undercurrents throughout the story that hint at a tragic dimension to the occasion.
In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, finale to his epic poem cycle “The Idylls of the King,” the last poem is titled, simply, “The Passing of Arthur.” In that poem, Sir Bedivere brings the dying king to the river, and places him in a barge in which four Queens sit, ready to take Arthur to Avilon for healing. And, seeing his king resting in the boat, Bedivere comes to a realization: It’s over. The story in which Bedivere was a character has ended. He exclaims “For now I see the true old times are dead/… Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.” And now, Sir Bedivere, the last survivor, must “go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."
Arthur’s answer brings Bedivere no comfort. He simply replies, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”
And that is what is happening in the Temple. Jesus’s presentation is the culmination of Simeon’s life—and the end of it. The righteous and devout old man had learned from the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. But now that the day has come, the old servant of the Lord knows that his time has ended—he has been dismissed in peace, and his part in the story of God and the people of God is almost at an end.
But first he has some news to deliver. That Jesus is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” So far, so good, but then he adds to Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The uncomprehending parents are amazed. Even more when the prophet Anna approaches and begins to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
The news is profoundly mixed, that it is hard to imagine how Joseph and Mary could respond to it. Joseph can’t help but be aware that his own presence in the crowning moments of the story is not alluded to—this good, gentle man who was willing to spare Mary shame and disgrace even before the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream—well, indications are that he won’t see the redemption of Israel through the child who is, by his mercy—and yes, his obedience to God’s call, his son at least in the eyes of the Lord.
Joseph knows only that the story will go on, and that, like Simeon himself, that he has played his part thus far.
But Mary—Mary is promised nothing but that a “sword will pierce her soul too.”
We know, because we know how the story turns out, that the sword will not be literal; it will be the mother’s agony of seeing her beloved son rise to great heights, only to be disgraced and executed by the tortuous methods of the Roman Empire, a death reserved only for rebels and traitors.
What are the parents to make of this prophecy, glorious and dire, terrifying and yet hopeful, culminating in the redemption of Israel?
So we look to the reading from Malachi for comfort, or at least illumination.
We do not get comfort. But possibly some light.
The unknown prophet named by tradition as Malachi starts off on a joyful note--the Lord whom we seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom we delight—he is coming. But then the prophet asks us, darkly, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
He tells us that the Lord will refine us like silver—which involves a lot of fire—and the experience will be like cleansing garments with fuller’s soap. Now, fuller's soap is not Ivory Snow, or some nice gentle cleanser that softens your hands while you do the dishes. It’s made of alkali, urine and chalk. It’s like taking a bath in bleach, only it smells worse. A lot worse.
What on earth is going on with these readings? How can the day of the Lord be joyous, if we must ask if we can stand in it? How can the redemption of Israel be welcomed if it comes with so much loss?
What does it mean to welcome the new if we are of the old order?
Susan Howatch in her final Starbridge novel, Absolute Truths depicts an aging bishop, Charles Ashworth, recently widowed, who sees himself, as, in his own words, “living out those terrifying lines from Tennyson, “the old order changeth, yielding place to new.”
His own son, also a priest in the Church of England, dances with the lovely young daughter of a colleague, while the father grieves his losses, the passing away of the comfortable, secure world in which he flourished.
And he nearly loses himself his disdain for the cheap, vulgar, flashy era in which he is condemned to live, a traditionalist bishop in a radical time, a staunch believer in an age in which the absolute truths by which he has always set such store are rejected by the culture around him, and the church itself seems increasingly less relevant and less able to communicate to a people that horde, and sleep and feed, and know not me, as Tennyson writes in “Ulysses.”
And then, young Rachel breaks away from Ashworth’s son, and holds out her hands to the bishop, inviting him to dance. He accepts Rachel’s invitation, and, as they waltz, he recognizes the generosity, the kindness of the younger set—Charley happily admiring his father’s dancing skill, and Rachel reaching out to the formidable old bishop whose bereavement is common knowledge. As Ashworth, our narrator tells us, “I danced, and I danced, and I danced”—all the while grieving for that precious old order, but also realizing that if the new order can reach out in sympathetic love to the old, than the old order, in yielding place to new, must do so in love—with grace if it can mange it.
Historians have written of decades that throw a shadow into the decades that follow them—the “long 1960s”, which continued into the 1970s.
And now we are living in what they are beginning to call the “Long 1980s.” Not the real 1980s, you understand, but a sclerotic as-remembered version of them, with macho preening, culture wars, and a divide between left and right, city and rural, that seems to go on and on, with ferocious heat, but oh, so very little light.
We keep fighting, over and over, the battles of yesteryear, trying to ignore the fraying of our national fabric, and the threats of the 2020s that are, increasingly looming over us—the catastrophic harms threatened by climate change will not be put off by rallies and slogans, as we waste what time there is left to mitigate the harm.
But nothing lasts forever. Somewhere under the ice, whether for weal or woe, is stirring a new Era to replace the long 1980s.
And, eventually, the ice will crack, and the new era will come.
The old order changeth, yielding to new.
That change won’t be easy. Like Sir Bedivere, we look for safe ground on which to stand, and find none. Change can be painful—it can be like the refining of silver, like being washed in fullers soap.
The comfortable world of consensus that I can remember as a young man was only comfortable because it excluded voices who questioned injustices and inequities that papered over divides. The structures and social codes that many of us assume as a given are being tested and failing. Much that we are used to will be lost, or altered out of recognition. Much needs to be, as we are seeing the trust in the legitimacy of our national political branches erode ever further.
What will never change, what will never alter, is this: Jesus’s message that only by reaching out in love, however hard that is to live up to, is how we break the logjam. Reaching out in love doesn’t mean we don’t feel anger, or that we just surrender to those whose vision of the world appalls us. It means that we remember their humanity. That they are as much the beloved children of God as we are. That, like us, they are 100 % sinner and 100% saint. Because love is not an emotion; it’s a promise.
How do we stand up to the day of the Lord?
Don’t ever give up on love.
Because, as I’ve told you before, hate is always foolish, but love, love is always wise.
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.