Sunday, 3 February 2013

Candlemas - light in darkness is more than processions with candles

Here are some words which are perhaps difficult to take in at first hearing, but they bear thinking about:

As we share our lives with the powerless, we are obliged to leave behind our theories about the world, our dreams and our beautiful thoughts about God to become grounded in a reality that can be quite harsh. That is where we meet God, God who is Emmanuel, God-with-us. There God is present, hidden in wounded humanity, hidden in the pain of our own hearts.

The writer of these words is Jean Vanier who founded the community known as L’Arche. He came from a background of privilege. He was born in Geneva while his father was on diplomatic service. His father became Governor General of Canada. He himself served in the Royal Navy for several years from the end of the Second World War, but he left to study philosophy in Paris where he gained his doctorate. Returning to Canada he taught and became a Professor. He had privilege, education, intellect and ability - everything you could want, you might say.

But something was lacking. He became aware of the needs of people with disabilities - especially learning disabilities - people in their thousands who had become institutionalised, the passive recipients of whatever care might be given to them. And he recognised a perception that people with such disabilities had nothing to give - they could only be cared for. It was a perception that Vanier believed needed to be challenged. In 1964 he invited two men with disabilities to join him in sharing his home. In 1969 the first of the communities of L’Arche was established in Canada. The first community in the UK was set up in 1973. And now it exists in over 40 countries. There are 137 communities with over 5,000 members.

L’Arche is more than a success story in terms of its growth and membership. It’s what lies at its heart that is so important: the equal membership of people with and without disabilities; the recognition of what each member might bring; cooperation with individuals and agencies which bring professional expertise; a grounding in Christian faith, but a faith which is respectful of other traditions. And I’m struck by those words with which I began which sum up the whole outlook of its founder: about the sharing of our lives with the powerless; about the need to leave behind our theories of the world; about recognising that faith in God is more than a matter of beautiful thoughts but is grounded in what might often be harsh realities.

The words I’ve quoted come from a book which Jean Vanier has just published. When I checked out his biography I discovered that he was born in September 1928. He’s 84 - just a month older than my mother, 11 months younger than my father. Jean Vanier has dedicated the last 50 years of his life to living and working with people who have disabilities - people who might easily be written off. I think I need to know more of what has sustained him - perhaps to read this latest book and not just the snippet I’ve found and quoted.

I’m encouraged that he’s still going strong at 84. And notice that one of the characters in today’s Gospel reading is 84 - Anna, a “prophet,” who recognises in the child Jesus something special which impels her to praise God and tell everyone about this baby which Mary and Joseph have brought to the Temple. Simeon - another godly man whom we encounter in the same story - is also traditionally thought of as old:

“It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”

That’s what St. Luke tells us - it seems that death could not be far away for Simeon, and having looked upon Jesus he says that he is ready to die. A life’s work has been fulfilled because God has revealed his salvation in the Christ-child, so - “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” as the prayer book translates Simeon’s words.

I’ve wrestled with this reading for today. Here are old Simeon and Anna - and they are fulfilled. They are elderly, but still about their work, still full of hope, still attuned to God and ready to hear what he is saying.

My mother - at the age of 84 - has just managed to get back to services in her church during the last couple of weeks after some months away. She is a person of faith, sustained throughout her life by that faith, putting it into practice, perhaps rather too dogged in her determination to do the things she thinks are right. She’s back in church because she is free to get there now that she’s no longer able to care for my father at home. We’re praying for my father in our church at present amongst those who are in need of healing - but I know that physically it’s not going to happen. And there is life’s cruelty - my mother able to carry on, like old Simeon in the Gospel story, like Anna and Jean Vanier who are also 84. But it takes two people to get my father out of a chair. A stroke, blindness and deafness have taken their toll over the years, an arm is now quite useless, incontinence and depression are a fact of his life. Everything points to a still further deterioration that could drag on for who knows how long. And I have to ask myself, where is the good news in that? - where is he to find hope? - what sort of meaning does this have?

I’m grateful for those who ask me how my parents are managing. I’m sorry that sometimes I can’t say much more than it’s all quite horrible. It’s a rather inarticulate response. T. S. Eliot puts it rather better in his meditation, “A Song for Simeon:”

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Perhaps Simeon knows all too well his frailty and the nearness of death. For Jean Vanier it is an important thing not to live with false illusions, to recognise harsh reality - but there to find God.

“This is where we meet God…” Vanier realised. In lives shared with people who are quite powerless, who might easily be written off, who are dismissed as having nothing to offer. He’s “hidden in wounded humanity… in the pain of our own hearts.”

And he’s called “Emmanuel,” which means God-with-us. That’s why we celebrate today’s Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Because these two old people, Simeon and Anna, so near the end of life encounter this family of Mary, Joseph and a 40-day old child who can do nothing for himself. And in this child they see God’s purpose revealed. Jesus himself comes as one who is quite powerless, entirely dependent on the care of others - “the Word without a word,” but one who speaks to us because he is God sharing the fullness of humanity, declaring it in life and joy, affirming it even in brokenness and death.
This is today's Homily, preached at St. Cuthbert's, Benfieldside and St. John's, Castleside. The Gospel Reading was Luke 2.22-40. The Homily can be found as a download if you click here.

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