The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Malachi 3.1-5; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
On the back wall of the Welsh Chapel in the Borough, not far from the Cathedral, there’s a fantastic plaque which says ‘Commit no Nuisance’. It’s like those rather forbidding notices that we sometimes see that say loudly and boldly, ‘No loitering’. But, you know, not all loitering is bad or creates nuisance
I was once listening to a university chaplain talking about their work. The words that they used to describe what looked to me like sitting down, drinking coffee and talking to people was ‘loitering with intent’. I loved it – a lot of ministry is like that, loitering, being there, just in case something happens.
Which all puts me in mind of lovely Anna who makes a brief and voiceless appearance in our Gospel reading for this feast day. We’re told quite a lot about her – 84 years old, a widow, only married for seven years, an ascetic, and a professional loiterer around holy places. It sounds as though she hangs around the temple and its courts all the time, perhaps making a nuisance of herself, perhaps not, but a loiterer with intent, looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
All that hanging around, all that fasting and worshipping, all that watching, must have taught her a great deal about what went on in the Temple – she must have been an expert in the complex liturgical life lived out there. She’d have made a fantastic verger or sacristan, a holy duster, someone who could’ve used her time a bit more profitably rather than just hanging around! But instead she just waits, fasts and waits.
And then there’s old Simeon, not the loiterer but the watcher, looking, says St Luke in the Gospel, for the consolation of Israel, a prophet, spirit-driven, a patient waiter, a diligent watcher.
A loiterer, a watcher, a prophet, a waiter – consolation and redemption. This powerful couple, brought together by the child, the old who meet the young, the past who meet the future, the hopeful who meet the promise, they’re caught up in the ritual of worship as doting parents bring in their child to do as the law of the Lord requires.
‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’
says the Prophet Malachi in our First Reading. The child carried in is the fulfilment of the prophecy, the satisfaction for all who are waiting, the reward for diligent watching, the justification for loitering, who’ll nuisance the world with good news that will redeem and comfort Israel and Jerusalem and be
‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’.
The poet T S Eliot wrote a poem called ‘A Song for Simeon’ – a hard, at times bleak poem voiced by the one who sings for us the Nunc Dimittis. But it contains these lines
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
It reminds me a little of what the great polymath of the 12th century, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, says when she describes herself as being ‘a feather on the breath of God.’
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Like a feather on the breath of God.
The role of the Canon Precentor in a Cathedral is a key one and I’m delighted that we welcome Andrew into this ministry here with us today. We’re rightly proud of the liturgical tradition in this place, seeded in a Saxon convent, developed in the Augustinian monastic tradition, challenged in the dour eighteenth century rationalism and reborn in the Oxford movement and the open, progressive, catholic tradition that we now seek to embrace and live out. It’s a rich heritage but I think, whether we’re worshipping online or in-person it’s true to who we are – inclusive, faithful, radical – warm and open, accessible, never stuffy, true and honest.
The building does most of the work, to be honest, and we are generally just loiterers in sacred space, watching and waiting for the divine encounter. But then that is what worship is, really, placing our self in the place where God moves and allowing the feather to be blown on the divine wind. In many ways it’s as simple and as wonderful as that.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, from which we heard in our Second Reading, is very clear that the one who is brought into the Temple, presented to the Lord, is the one who shares all things with us
He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
In a way that is so hard to describe, the one whom we worship worships with us, the sacrifice that we offer is the priest who makes the offering, the one sent to redeem us, shares in the act of redemption, the one who feeds us is the bread himself.
This is the mystery into which we enter and the mystery that every liturgist seeks to serve, to find the right words and the right music and the right silence and the right actions to begin to describe the indescribable so that the loiterers can experience what they’ve been waiting and hoping for, so that our feathers can be ruffled by the God who walks with us and among us, like the God who walks in the garden in the evening breeze.
The liturgist is the servant of divine poetry and we listen to it being spoken on the breath of God.
Eliot’s Simeon goes on to say
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
May this presented child, the one for whom we have loitered, watched, waited, grant our consolation, be our redemption, be our bread, be our wine, be our hope, be our joy, be our life, be our death, be our light in our darkness, be our God, be our Jesus.