Our daughter adopted a cat a few months ago. She (the cat, not the daughter) had been badly treated, was very much undernourished and fearful, and because she had kittens at a very young age is probably always going to remain undersized and underweight for a mature cat. But over these months with Becky she has come on in leaps and bounds (literally); she is well-fed and looks much healthier, and has been a great companion for Becky and her relations and friends.
However, Becky lives in a small terraced house and is out at work for most of the day. As Cleo (the cat) gains in confidence, she is getting more and more restless and clearly wants to be out in the open air exploring. There is only a small backyard and lots of other more predatory animals so that it’s risky to let her out on her own.
So after much heartsearching and tears, very reluctantly Becky has passed Cleo over to new owners who have the space and are able to supervise her better. So sad. But after months of being a tame and even timid pussy-cat Cleo needs to give free rein to her inner tiger. Just as we have to accept that a cat can never be just a meek and mild pet, just existing for our pleasure.
A few weeks ago, at Christmas, churches were full of people at carol services and crib services, drawn by the image of a defenceless baby in a manger. Absolutely at the core of the Christian gospel, but not to be taken at face value. Jesus grows up, and despite Victorian hymns and the pictures that many of us grew up with in Sunday school, he is often anything but meek and mild.
Yet for a lot of the time we like to pretend he is. We’re embarrassed by the Christ that the gospels show to us: the wild prophet who overturns cash desks or has arguments with religious and political leaders. If we really believed in him we wouldn’t tolerate a church that compromised with the establishment or that refused to act on its principles of justice and equality. We pray for Jesus to change the world but often that’s the last thing we want
to happen. An American liturgical scholar – someone who studies how Christians worship – called Aidan Kavanagh wrote this: ‘That it never crosses our minds that a liturgy or an icon should cause us to shiver only shows how we have allowed ourselves to tame the Lion of Judah and put him into a suburban zoo to entertain children.’
He talks about worshippers being ‘brought to the brink of chaos’. That doesn’t mean Messy Church or a service where the Powerpoint fails. It means that the Gospel makes us realise that we can’t stay for ever in our cosy little securities but face the awful reality of the gap between what is and what should be. The gospel is not cosy. That’s why we stand up to hear it proclaimed.
The Good News calls for us to change. Painfully. It calls us to move on from a cosy little world where Jesus purrs gently to reassure us, to the real world where hatred and violence and prejudice run wild and need to be hunted down by the Lion of Judah.
Today in the Church’s calendar we stand on the brink. We’ve celebrated Christmas for forty days; we’ve enjoyed its comfort and its warmth. Now we turn towards Lent, and Passiontide, and Holy Week: it’s the time to confront the chaos and take up our cross.
This beautiful story of the Presentation in the temple is here to help us. Simeon and Anna, the two beautiful old people, had spent their lives in prayer. Like all devout and faithful Jews they had been praying for the coming of the Messiah and now they see him.
Old people in church are often maligned as if their only thoughts are for the good old days and they resist change. But in my experience, the older and more mature people are, the more they realise that religion and faith is about growth, and change can’t be separated from growth. They can see the wood for the trees.
And for Simeon and Anna, it was their life of prayer that made them see so clearly who this child really was; this babe in arms brought for a blessing was the Messiah that generations of their ancestors had lived and prayed for. Simeon knew it would not be easy, for him or his mother. He foretells chaos. ‘A sign that will be opposed ’and ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ And Anna, far from being the sweet and harmless old lady who can safely be smiled at and ignored, goes off and spreads the word that the Liberator is here at last.
Those without vision, those without eyes to see and ears to hear (and I don’t mean literally – I can’t imagine either Simeon or Anna to have had perfect vision or sharp hearing), would still be looking for a liberator or a messiah who was a king. Or an armed warrior. Fighting tyranny with tyranny, hypocrisy with hypocrisy.
But Jesus wasn’t going to fight with the world’s weapons. He wasn’t going to play the power game. Here was a tiny and insignificant baby -one of countless poor Jewish children brought to the temple, by parents who no-one would give a second glance to. And yet these two holy people recognised him as the light of the world.
The power politics of our present leaders are light years away from the way of the Gospel. Jesus Christ confronts chaos with love, not by inflicting more chaos. Now that our divided country has helped to divide Europe we need more than ever to turn to Christ in penitence. Just as we need to recognise that the same sort of lies and hypocrisy lay behind the horrors of the Holocaust which was commemorated this last week.
At the end of this service we light candles, as a sign of the Light of the World who was presented in the Temple. That light appears a feeble weapon to confront the darkness of the world’s chaos. Even though it appears to get blown out in the harsh winds of reality, the light has not died. Any more than the sun’s light dies when the clouds blot it out. The light of Christ
continues to shine in our hearts and through us in the hearts and lives of those we meet.
Like Simeon and Anna, we know that despite all the appearances, God’s love will prevail and God’s light will enlighten the nations. We just need the faith and courage to refuse to be confined to our cosy comfort zone, and to accept our inner tiger instead.