Sermon for Candlemas

When I was a theology student in St Andrews, many years ago now, I found myself in the company of people with all kinds of religious views. There were extreme protestants and extreme catholics and everything inbetween and beyond. There were feminists and atheists and agnostics amidst and apart from the Christians and a fair number of the bewildered who were still trying to work it all out.

I suppose that I was in the latter category when I started but by the time I’d got my degree I knew who I was and had a fair idea of where I hoped to be heading.

One advantage of that ecclesiastical melting-pot was that you got to rub up against all kinds of different kinds of church and all kinds of different style of religious expression. You got to know your friends and by extension you got to know the religious path that your friends were on. In that rare world, it was almost certain that they believed and practised differently to the way you did.

And when seeing other people’s religion you got to see the things you liked and the things you didn’t. You got to see the bits you would take back to your own expression of faith and pinch and you got to see things which horrified you and confirmed all you ever thought about how wrong headed other people could be.

Inevitably, it being a place where Presbyterian candidates for ministry were being trained I got to know lots of Church of Scotland candidates. They saw me discover the Episcopal Church and with the zeal of a new convert, try to take them along to every feast and festival going.

They would never come to church with me and not think the Episcopal church to be something that was permanently enshrouded in holy smoke that you could only see through by the light of a thousand and one candles shining around the altar.

And it confirmed in most of them the suspicion they had that Episcopacy was something full of superstition and only one stop away from witchcraft.

However, some of them liked what they saw. And remembered it when they were ordained and moved into ministry.

Particularly so one friend of mine. She had been moved by some of the worship I’d dragged her along to and pined a little for it when she started work in a parish.

Now, those of you who have arrived in Scotland since the arrival of IKEA might be unaware of the suspicion which candles in churches one aroused.

Even Episcopalians and other Anglicans were once suspicious. There were riots in some churches about putting candles on altars. They were mostly riots backed by hideous sectarianism but they were riots all the same.

Twenty years ago it was a very rare Church of Scotland which would have candles in church.

Anyway, this friend of mine went to a fairly stark church and happened to say that when she celebrated communion it would be nice to have some candles on the communion table.

I dare say that there were some intakes of breath. I dare say that teeth were sucked. I dare say that not everyone was happy.

But the locals decided to give her what she wanted.

And so, processing in for her first communion service, she was somewhat startled to see two candles brightly burning on the communion table.

Two dinner table candles.

In fact, two very bright pink dinner table candles.

And a grinning congregation who knew that they had made the new minister happy.

I like that story for it reminds me how far removed from the dinner table my own experience of the altar is. And yet, dinner table it is if you think about it. And why should’t candles that we usually use for a candlelit meal not be just right for what we do when we place bread and wine here?

Religion is a funny thing. (I often have cause to notice).

For it is a way of thinking about the world but more than that. It is a way of putting the world to rights, but more than that. It is a way of ordering life about one that makes sense (hopefully) but more than that too.

The very act of lighting a candle is typical of what religious expression is so often about.

For setting light to beeswax or tallow and letting it burn slowly means nothing.

And yet, it so often means so much.

We actually need candlelight less than humanity has ever done.

Yet we need to mark moments in our lives, moments of significance, more than we have ever done too.

In a busy rushing digital, electrically powered world, something about the simple act of lighting a candle matters. It connects us with everyone who has ever kindled light in any darkness. It connects us with those who have given physical expression to hope going back way beyond memory.

And so, we find ourselves lighting candles when children are baptised. We kindle light around coffins when the final journey comes.

And in between we light candles at birthdays and other significant times.

Symbols of light in the darkness, of hope amidst fear, of prayers when words won’t work.

The story we get of the presentation in the temple at this Festival is a lovely one but one where there is so much going on.

One can imagine rather easily I think, the bringing of the child into the temple – a young couple wanting to do what was right for the child. Luke conjures up pictures that we feel we can see.

I wish that those who wrote baptism liturgies today would stop trying to make them pre-ordination rights that turn babies into proto-ministers. We need to get back to more human desires to mark moments with symbols of significance.

Here in a church like this, most of the symbols that the Christian religion has ever explored are available to you but no-one will force them upon you.

Yet they really are worth exploring anew.

When I was in the USA on sabbatical I was struck by how, influenced perhaps by Buddhist practise, Christians were asking – how do you practise?

How do you make faith, put down markers of significance, mark moments that matter?

Do you light a candle. Some of you probably do. But what else?

How else do you practise your religion? How else do you build patterns with physical things in your life that connect with ways of being human that come to us from the depths of human experience?

Do you light a candle for a friend in trouble? Do you make the sign of the cross before falling asleep? Do you give yourself the gift of … silence? Do you read the scriptures? Do you remember anniversaries? Do you pray with words or without them? Do you aim to worship with others weekly? Do you recognise Christ in friend or stranger or see something holy in both of them?

These are all questions about how we practise a life of faith. For we can learn to consecrate time and circumstance. We can find the holy in the ordinary and make sacred space from beeswax and a match.

Once upon a time, a young couple brought a child to do for him what was required by the religious practise of their day. They had two pigeons to sacrifice. And the child changed the world.

What do you bring to the altar? What do you take from it?

How do you practise? And how will you change the world?