Faces

Sermon preached by Mthr Helen Harknett,
Assistant Curate at St John the Divine, Kennington,

on Sunday 2nd February 2020 (The Presentation of Christ in the Temple)
Malachi 3.1–5; Psalm 24; Hebrews 2.14–end; Luke 2.22–40

‘To have turned away from everything to one face is to find oneself face to face with everything.’

This is what the writer Elizabeth Bowen writes about being in love. But as we remember how Mary and Joseph brought the baby God to his temple this morning, I wonder if this phrase can also help us to consider the seriousness of the incarnation and indeed the seriousness of our gospel message this morning.

Gone are the unexampled days of Christmas loveliness, the days which strike beautiful chords of instinctive sentiment into our hearts. Gone are the hypothetical days of glory, the prophesied days of dazzling light, all carefully crafted by liturgists to compel, inspire, prepare and propel us through Epiphany.

Today the real business starts. Today we see a poor couple muddling their way through these early days of parenthood. Today we see them scaling the heights of Jerusalem so that they can present this flesh and blood holy of holies near to the holy of holies. Today we see a bundle of blanket in their arms with nothing visible but a face. A baby’s face. A human face. The divine face.

‘To have turned away from everything to one face is to find oneself face to face with everything.’

In the Christmas story God sought us out. Today his face is turned towards us and in the clarity of Simeon’s words we have, it seems, some questions to ask. As the purposes of the presence of God’s face are made clear, do we dare to look back and pay special attention to the face of Jesus of Nazareth? Are we glad or sorry that we have seen this face at all?  It is a glorious face. But it is also a costly one.

We will all have experience of the costliness of paying particular attention to particular faces: faces that impacted our lives, faces we fell in love with, faces that seemed to say ‘peace’, faces that made us smile back, faces that hurt us, faces that disgusted  or frightened us, faces that have left us, faces that have caused us to lose any semblance of sanity or self. From the faces our mothers and fathers, to our childhood friends and kindly neighbours, to our children, to our first true love. The faces we pay particular attention to shape our lives – they almost never bring joy without sorrow, never peace without a piercing sword.

And this face – this blanket-bundled face is in many ways no different. But the way in which this holy face is different is that, when it gazes upon us, it knows exactly who we are, knows exactly what we need, knows the secret thoughts and yearnings of our heart, and will not turn away from us; not leave us. Not ever.

Have you ever played that game where two people stare at each other, trying not to blink first? I guess it’s a bit like that. Irritatingly though, try as we might, God always wins.

But for us to truly understand the truth of that, we must agree to engage in the game. To fix our eyes on this face that is being presented to us in this temple this morning and to be serious about not turning away. To fix our face on this face. To project all our fears and insecurities and doubts and damage and disappointments and shame and hope onto this face, instead of projecting those things onto the faces of others who journey with us.

This face is the only face that can change everything; the only face that will heal us and cleanse us. The only face that will save us. This face will guide us to abundant life, such that we cannot even imagine. But it is also a face that threatens to shake the foundations of our world and our being. After all, the person to whom this face belongs went to the very edge of what it meant to be human. He went to the edge of society, the edge of respectability, the very edges of human experience, and beyond it.

Simeon, the man with the future in his eyes, saw this. But then, to his credit, so did Herod. I mean, in fairness to the deeply perceptive Herod, knowing the seriousness of that face and what it meant, at least he had the decency to turn away from the face before he even glimpsed it, demanding that that face be immediately eradicated from the face of the world.

The rest of them waited until he grew up, gave him the chance to irritate their hearts and frustrate their grand plans and then, finding his way intolerable, turned away from him, and killed him.

Them. Of course. Not us.

When we turn our faces to the Christmas baby of hope, we must also resolve to turn our faces to the crushed face hanging from the cross, showing us very clearly what happens when the world as it is has its way.

There is a different way. A way that promises light.  A way that promises not to turn away – no matter what.

And so it is time to get serious. It is time to question some prejudices; time to challenge conventions. It is time to remember and perpetuate Jesus’ standards of right and wrong which continue to blast apart all understanding of respectability. It is time to antagonise the interests which both state, church and society seem so determined to defend even though the crushed faces of our excluded, avoided or silenced brothers and sisters tell us that they are not ok. It is time to stop conveniently turning away when the darkness in the world and within our own souls threatens to overwhelm us.

From the cradle to the grave and beyond, Jesus asks us not to turn away when our eyes begin to sting. Not to turn away when the tears begin to fall as we flinch from his complex adult life, agony and sacrifice, which, frankly, gives us all the information we need to know about how the world is and what the world does to us and to others if we let it. Because that face, I say again, is the face that will save us. Today, as we gaze with Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph, we are, my brothers and sisters, face to face with everything. And we have a choice to make, as to how long we keep our gaze.

The poet Rilke says this:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me. Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let your gaze lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

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