Rowan Williams in a sermon he preached a couple of years ago in Rome, reminded us that the temple was very much a factory manufacturing religion. An enormous space of noise and activity. A place which was deafening and intense, a place more like a steel works than a nice tidy, ordered Victorian church like St John’s.
The factory: the temple in Jerusalem was a place made intense by busy activity all day and every day – especially at the great festivals where literally thousands of priests were at work slaughtering animals for sacrifice.
In the Temple they were making religion, they were making a product with which God would be (they thought) suitably impressed. They were however, in reality the epitome of misinterpreting and misrepresenting the true heart of God.
Bring into this industrial scene the infant child Jesus and there’s a new dynamic in the rituals surrounding his presence and presentation in the temple, but not only to the temple, but his presentation to the world. Adorn that scene with the words of Simeon who reminds us of the generosity of God; not only in disrupting the religious class for our sake, but also to remind us that Christ is a light for both Jew and Gentile in the world. Born to shine a light onto the injustices of the world and to illumine the pathway for those who religion had rejected and to bring them back to God. Circumnavigating the temple if needed.
But in our Gospel there is an uncomfortable picture which we might have otherwise inadvertently sanitized and romanticized through our rose tinted goggles.
Within that vile smelly place of industrial sacrifice, within the noise and intense activity of thousands of priests slaughtering animals for sacrifice, amongst all of this is not only a little child who we think will take this abomination in his stride, but present also is an elderly lady, a prophetess, the eighty-four year old Anna, daughter of Phanuel, of the Tribe of Asher.
It is more than likely Anna has been in the Temple environment for about 60 years enduring a hostile male world, not leaving the temple, but faithfully fasting, and praying night and day, watching and waiting for that moment when she can articulate the presence of the Child who is God, and speak of the one who would bring redemption to Israel and to all of creation.
Sixty hard years. Sixty faithful years of discerning God in terrible conditions (I would have thought), living without peace nor comfort, no easy life for anyone and while the priests are offering the sacrifice of pigeons and turtledoves, Anna offers what God requires the sacrifice of her life, of her heart… She, not the priests, she understands what God wants of us.
We (mostly) do not endure what Anna endures, I don’t think. Yet we meet daily in our prayers with Christ and we worship the one who Anna sees once in flesh. And her proclamation is ours. The child who is for the falling and the rising of many, the first born offered to God, is God and we worship him and likewise seek him in our church that we might be ordered by his commandments and in our world, that Justice and God’s kingdom might be further progressed.
Do not think because we call ourselves the Christian church, that we have a right relationship always with Christ. We have to want it. We have to seek it. We have to make sacrifice that Christ rules and not Fr John, or any of the others of you!
Yet what Anna accomplishes is not only about dexterity, but where we interrupt the gentleness of our comfortable life to proclaim Christ. Anna has to interrupt religion itself to be heard over the industrial purposes of old… there is no universal gasp of delight in the Temple. I suspect the words of Simeon and Anna are barely audible. But they are spoken and they are recorded and we celebrate them this day.
But what is remarkable about Anna is that within this noise, within the clamor of the temple and that vile smell of sacrifice, she has still found space, space enough to remember God and recognize God when he is there in her presence. So let us not make the argument that we don’t have time, that we don’t have space! If Anna can do it, then so can we.
What is remarkable about Anna is that the long years have not caused her to become defensive, aggressive or anxious or to turn away from God, as a result of the hard life she has undoubtedly endured. She had not decided to punish God because of her bereavement or because of the circumstances she has endured in the Temple. Quite the contrary, she has blossomed and matured in her faith and spirituality enough to be present to what is important.
We are all consoling ourselves a little bit at the moment because it’s tough, and it feels a bit tough. We are being asked (most of us) to contemplate lives where we are limited in our social interaction, where we are forfeiting our natural inclination to be sociable people. Our world has become smaller, our influence almost unmeasurable all within the unbearable noise of Covid.
And then there’s Anna… in the limitations of life in the Temple, this widowed woman offers her sacrifice to remains present to seeking and discerning not only the presence but also the purpose of God. A great example for us all.
We have extended an invitation to everyone to record small greetings to be shared amongst the congregation. I invite you to do this if you feel inclined. Danny Simpson in his greeting video to you all which will be uploaded onto the website soon, quoted a great phrase from St Dolly Parton of Dollywood: “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain”.
For 60 years Anna put up with the rain, eventually to see revealed to her in the presentation of the Christ Child the presence of God. Let us in these miserable days which do feel a little hard remember Anna, and look to the one who is the light of the world. Let us sacrifice our time wisely to discern his purpose, and reflect in our thoughts and deeds our love of him who is revealed in our own lives as God. Amen