Saturday, February 1, 2014

In the Mean Time

The Presentation of Christ
2 February 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            Two thousand years ago a young married couple travelled to Jerusalem to fulfill the ritual obligations of their faith.  Their young son had been circumcised and named on the eight day after his birth and now, forty days or so after his birth, his mother was to offer a sacrifice in thanksgiving for her safe delivery and recovery from the rigours of childbirth.  As they were poor, they brought the bare minimum offering required by the law as contained in Leviticus:  two turtledoves or two pigeons.  As they entered the precincts of the Temple, they would have joined a swirling crowd of people, some offering sacrifice, some attending the lecture given by one or other of the religious teachers scattered around the perimeter of the Temple, some offering prayer, some begging, some watching the world go by.  This young family was, to be it bluntly, nondescript and not very noteworthy.
            But we are told in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke that two people, respected elders, did notice this family.  In that moment Simeon and Anna experienced something we all long for:  the realization that a hoped-for event has finally occurred.  All the years of waiting had been fulfilled and their eyes saw the salvation that God had promised the people of Israel, a light to the nations and a manifestation of God’s faithfulness to the covenants made with Noah, Abraham and Moses.  Even though Anna and Simeon must have been filled with great joy, neither one is blinded by the joy of the moment to the reality that this child will begin a movement which has been greeted with resistance by the powerful and has been the source of division within families, peoples, nations and cultures for centuries.
            As we gather on this Sunday to remember the presentation of Christ in the Temple, we like Anna and Simeon are a people who are called to witness to God’s mission in what I like to call ‘the mean time’.  The common understanding of the word ‘meantime’ is ‘between times’ and this is one way to understand our role in God’s mission.  God began this mission in creation and, in the covenants made with Moses and in Jesus of Nazareth, Jews and Christians continue to witness to the living God who is working out the divine purposes until all things come to their telos, their purpose as conceived in the imagination of God.  We do not know when that final moment will arrive, the moment that theologians call the eschaton, but our vocation is not to count the days.  Our vocation is to witness to this compassionate and passionate God in our lives by what we say and do.
            There is, however, another way of looking at the word ‘meantime’.  This way of looking, one which I freely admit is my own peculiar way of hearing the word, is to remember that the word ‘mean’ can also connote ‘angry’ or ‘nasty’ or ‘cheap’ or ‘small-minded’.  We are living in what can be seen as a ‘mean time’, a time in which religious people are confronted with active opposition to religious practice such as we see in the proposed secular charter in Qu├ębec or in the rise of a militant atheism in contemporary Western society.  We are also confronted with the rise of religious fundamentalism in all of the major religious traditions whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and even Buddhism.  These fundamentalisms cannot live with the notion of ‘both/and’ and must reduce the entire world into an ‘either/or’.  This ‘either/or’ perspective sees the ‘other’ as someone to be converted or destroyed, whether physically, spiritually or culturally.
            The story of Anna and Simeon offers us an insight into how we who follow the path of Jesus of Nazareth.  We are part of a particular tradition within the Christian faith that values what some call ‘a generous orthodoxy’ that resists the ‘either/or’ in favour of seeking what unites believers, whether Christian or non-Christian, so that together we can participate in God’s great mission of bringing all creation to its perfection.  What Anna and Simeon teach us is the value of patience and attentiveness.
            Ponder for a moment today’s story.  Both Anna and Simeon are elders and both are described as regular worshippers in the Temple.  Each day they have attended to their prayers.  Each day they have gone into the Temple.  Each day they have gone home without seeing the fulfillment of their hopes.  But neither has given up and on this day their hopes are realized.  In the arms of a young couple the promised Light enters the Temple.  I have little doubt that in this moment neither Anna nor Simeon felt the weight of their years.  Their patient participation in the rhythms of a faithful life have brought them to this one moment and it is good.
            But what distinguishes patience from tedium is attentiveness.  Doing the same thing, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, can become deadly dull.  What rescues patience from tedium is learning how to watch, to consider the value of each moment as a potential window into the mystery of what God is doing in our times and in our places.  Attentiveness is riding the same bus route for years, but paying attention to the stops, to the people who board, to the changes in the city over time with an eye to the possibility that today might be the day.  Attentiveness is participating in the rhythms of our spiritual life of prayer, worship, study and service with an eye to the possibility that today might be the day.  This might be the day that the Light of the nations, the Glory of God, the long-awaited Promise might burst upon us.  And if today is not the day, then perhaps tomorrow.  Our spiritual practices become the means to hone our hearts, minds, souls and strength so that we can be patient rather than bored.

            In this ‘in-between’ and ‘mean-spirited’ time let us remember the patience of Anna and Simeon.  In this ‘in-between’ and ‘mean-spirited’ time let us remember the attentiveness of Anna and Simeon.  Who knows?  Perhaps today will be the day.  Amen.

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