07 Feb Sermon: Epiphany 4 (Year C)
Exegesis changes. Just as our human relationships can only grow through interaction and attention to the different views and responses of those around us, so our engagement with Scripture grows only through re-reading and re-examining in different lights and different contexts, asking new questions of the text and letting Scripture pose new challenges to us, from and in the place we are today – which will be different from the place we were yesterday – unless we have abandoned the spiritual quest and hidden ourselves away from the prospect of learning.
In the early Patristic period there was already a distinction between two modes of exegesis: the literal, or historical, promoted by the Church of Antioch; and the allegorical, promoted by the Church of Alexandria. The Alexandrian Christians, it is often said, learned the allegorical method from Greek philosophers who read Homer allegorically, looking for ancient wisdom to apply to their contemporary lives. Though, interestingly, the earliest rabbinic Judaism in Palestine already used the allegorical method of reading the Hebrew bible, to find lessons from God’s former revelations for their lives as a newly dispossessed people.
Be that as it may, today’s Gospel passage – Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the temple – is also that set for the Feast of the Presentation on Wednesday. That being “the day”, the liturgical commemoration of a specific event in Jesus’ life, I thought I would reflect with you on a more allegorical, or typological, reading of the Gospel today, in the hope that a different voice may be heard which will contribute something to our reading of Scripture, and – in this place – to our living of the Rule of St Benedict.
The designation of the firstborn as ‘holy to the Lord’ was a response in gratitude to the Passover, when in Egypt the angel of death passed over the Hebrew people when the last of the plagues killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. We may see our embrace of monastic life as a response in gratitude to the God who has redeemed us in Jesus Christ. While holiness is, for most of us, an aspiration rather than an achievement, we are holy in the sense of being set apart for God when we enter the monastery.
The first person to greet Jesus as the Messiah, on this occasion, was Simeon – perhaps an older man as he was promised a sight of the Anointed One before he died. Benedict has a touching faith in the gracious efficacy of monastic discipline, presuming that those who are older in the life will have advanced further in wisdom and holiness. He also asserts that those who have diligently followed the monastic practices he commends will come to observe them naturally, as if from habit, and delight in virtue. Simeon, it seems, was one such: “righteous and devout…and the Holy Spirit rested on him” [Luke 2: 25]
We can interpret righteousness as right living: not simply reading about, or mouthing, monastic precepts but putting them into practice. Devotion is that love of, and attentiveness towards, God which opens us to the Holy Spirit and welcomes the promptings – the teachings, both uplifting and challenging – that come from God.
Being open to the Holy Spirit, Simeon is guided by her, and comes to the temple – to, we may say for ourselves, opportunities for compassion, encouragement and prophecy that will guide and minister to those who visit the monastery. And Simeon’s first response to the Spirit’s leading is to praise God.
The second person to greet Jesus as the Messiah is Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. This already is interesting as the tribal patrimony of Asher was far from Jerusalem, up in the north-west, stretching from modern-day Haifa up to the commercial port city of Tyre. We may say that this reminds us of the spiritual gifts of people from distant parts –culturally as much as geographically. And the gifts of the elderly – she was 84.
Next the passage tells us: “She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” [Luke 2: 37]. This also parallels the Rule: Benedict tells us that the workshop of the spiritual craft is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community [RB 4]. We may read ‘fasting’ as the ascetic practices of monastic life – obedience, silence, celibacy, simplicity and unselfishness – while prayer refers directly to our principal work, namely the Divine Office. And Benedict too, quoting the psalms, enjoins us to pray night and day.
Hanna, like Simeon, responds initially by praising God – the first duty of Benedictines, rain or shine – then speaks of Jesus as the hope of Israel, reminding us not only to be prepared to give an account of our Christian Faith but also to look for and point to signs of hope even in bleak times of political, economic or ecological uncertainty and threat. “When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord” Luke winds up this account. Surely we will read this as a reminder to remain faithful to our vocation.
There are, then, many parallels between this passage and the precepts of the Rule – which should not surprise us as Benedict’s aim is not to create some esoteric spiritual oddity but to help his followers live out the Gospel in their daily lives until God takes them to be with him for ever. Likewise this passage concludes with a single sentence covering Jesus’ own growth to human and spiritual maturity – becoming strong, and wise, by the favour of God.
What strength and what wisdom mark our growth in the favour of God ? John’s gospel holds out to us the constant aspiration of living in God that God may also live in us. This mutual abiding is the beginning of that eternal life which is offered to us through Jesus Christ, and it is characterised – John says – by faith and by obedience to God’s commandments. The chief commandment, as Jesus is recorded reminding his disciples, is that from Leviticus repeated in Deuteronomy: to love God and to love our neighbour. And nowhere, perhaps, is that love more fulsomely described than in today’s epistle.
In I Corinthians, chapter thirteen, Paul sets out for his readers one of the best-known descriptions of Christian love: it encourages, it instructs, but first it warns. We may be wonderfully gifted – but that means nothing without love. Continuing our monastic parallel, we can see that however talented, conscientious and ascetic we are, that is paltry without love. We should not be surprised that the original sin was pride: achievements are nothing in the absence of love for God and neighbour; in fact they are themselves dangerous if not geared to compassion and generosity and love.
Then, in Paul’s description of love we find encapsulated the goal of every Christian life, whether monastic or not: in patience, kindness, humility, courtesy, selflessness, even temper, forgiveness, uprightness, honesty. Such a life is indeed the expression of faith and hope, demonstrated through perseverance and endurance – for we all face struggles, whether internal or external. But such a life does indeed bring us strength, wisdom and the favour of God, and with God at our side, what have we to fear? Or what have our neighbours to fear?
Let us pray today that we may all grow in righteousness and love, that we may bring the light of the Gospel into this troubled world. Amen.