Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on 31st January, Candlemas, at St Mary’s Garsington and St Giles’ Horspath
Readings: Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
It is 5 o’clock Friday night and, as usual, the traffic is horrendous. I am sitting, waiting to turn out of the Churchill but the stream of traffic is non-stop and no-one is letting me out. I wait and wait, watching with a glimmer of hope for the moment someone leaves enough space for me to sneak out or signals I can go before them. The wait is long and tedious.
All of us, at one time or another, have sat in a traffic jam waiting for something to happen. Be it in the Oxford rush hour or on the M6, a journey we hoped would be simple and take as little time as possible, turns into a lesson in patient, or not so very patient, waiting. This type of waiting has the potential to be exhausting, frustrating and lead to tempers being frayed. How we cope with such situations, however, often depends on how the rest of our day has been or where we are going to. If the day has been a stressful one, or we are late for something then a traffic jam can feel like the last straw and waiting in it a torture of tension. Whereas, if the day has been less fraught or we are on holiday and there is no rush or necessity to get anywhere, then waiting in traffic can lead to a feeling of solidarity with those around us from which generous acts of kindness and patience invariable emerge. There is no one way in which we wait.
Sitting by the bed of someone who is soon to leave this world is a very different watching and waiting to that of the looking for an expected phone call or letter through the door. In both cases a moment will come when the waiting ends but the tragic waiting by a bedside demands a strength and perseverance that the heady excitement of a letter or phone call does not usually require. Sadly, in Tolstoy’s dark novel War and Peace, the requirement to wait but one year for her prince, destroys the youthful and ardent Natasha. Despite having the very best of characters and intentions, the tender bud of love cannot wait so long or bear such parting but is blasted in the agony of waiting.
In contrast, our gospel reading today presents us with someone who was willing and able to wait for the consummation of a promise. Simeon is not in the first flush of youthful love, instead he is at the end of his life. It has been revealed to him that he will not see death before he has seen the Lord. In his old age he has been given a hope and there is a sense that this devout soul has come to the Temple often with the expectation that his promise will be fulfilled. Simeon’s waiting in hopeful anticipation is very similar to the kind of watching and waiting which is the hallmark of the Advent season that began our journey to the manger. Now, having travelled from the alarum call to wake up and keep watching, to the joy of the arrival of Christ as an infant child, and the epiphany moments which bring a fuller understanding of the significance of the Incarnate Word, we return once more to the watching and waiting of Advent, embodied in the devout and righteous man Simeon. He models this expectant and trusting hope in God’s promises to him and he is not disappointed. For his waiting and watching is in the power of the Spirit which gives him the eyes to see, in an instant, who the baby in Mary’s arms is. So the word spoken to him is fulfilled by the presence of Christ and his waiting is over.
Simeon’s waiting, like many of the situations in which we are required to wait, has at its heart the desire that this is but a passing phase, a transient moment, which will lead to an ending in waiting. The baby will come and the pregnant pause of life will end. The traffic will clear and your turn will come. The dying loved one will slip away and the dreaded moment will arrive. All these periods of waiting will end whether they bring consummation or desolation, the waiting will one day be over.
There is a poem by R.S. Thomas called Sea-watching which holds out, however, another sense of waiting, a waiting where there is no ending, absence does not lead to presence but to a new way of waiting, a new understanding of what it means to wait for the Lord:
Grey waters, vast
As an area of prayer
that one enters. Daily
over a period of years
I have let the eye rest on them.
Was I waiting for something?
but that continuous waving
that is without meaning
Ah, but a rare bird is
rare. It is when one is not looking,
at times one is not there
That it comes.
you must wear your eyes out,
as others their knees.
I became the hermit
of the rocks, habited with the wind
and mist. There were days,
so beautiful the emptiness
it might have filled,
was as its presence; not to be told
any more, so single my mind
after its long fast,
my watching from praying.
For R.S. Thomas prayer is a kind of waiting, but unlike Ann Lewin who in her poem Disclosure, waits in hope of the flash of the Kingfisher, Thomas wears out his eyes with watching until the absence and presence become one and the same state of waiting prayer. He invites us not to look for the moment of God’s revelation which will bring our transient period of waiting to an end but to move beyond this phase of waiting to an abiding in the ever present reality that is God’s presence in the world through his Incarnation. The expectant and hopeful waiting in perceived absence is in us and not in God.
Now as we turn away from the manger towards the cross we are invited to wear out our eyes in watching and waiting, to sit at the foot of the cross and see the presence dissolve into the darkness of absence. But our journey to the darkness of the waiting of Good Friday does not end there. We sit at the foot of the cross knowing that the dawn of the new day has come. With new eyes we can wait knowing that in our abiding in God is our salvation, regardless of whether we see the flash of the blue kingfisher or not. Amen.