I once knew an English bishop who would occasionally get a bit frustrated with some of his priests. You can tell, he used to say, when a priest stops learning and growing, by the publication dates of the books on his bookshelf. In some cases, you only have to look at their bookcase to see that the last theology they ever read was when they were in theological college many years before. Well, that was certainly not true of Father George, my mother’s family’s priest when I was growing up. Father George was in many ways ‘just’ another priest in London diocese, but, unlike some priests and lay Christians, he never stopped learning and growing. Sure, he got a little stuck on one or two issues, as we all do...
Now, why am I telling you all this? Well, partly it is to encourage us, to keep on learning, however old we are, so that, like the child Jesus in our Gospel today, we too ‘grow, become strong, filled with wisdom.’ It is never too early, or too late, to to learn more about our Faith, and, if we ever stop learning, then rest assure we will stop growing and fail to fill with wisdom. This year, especially in this Lent that is approaching, I hope that we may all make a fresh intent. We have so many opportunities today to do so. Our diocese and theological college, EfM and local pastoral courses provide some. Our parish, through our small groups and through the excellent courses run by Father Matthew, provide others. Penny and other skilled leaders also provide wonderful quiet days, retreats and occasions for spiritual and theological reflection. And we don’t even have to go out of our homes to access many of the amazing faith online resources available through the wider church. Today’s Gospel reading tells us about two astonishing older people of great wisdom, Anna and Simeon. Like Father George, they never gave up learning and growing in their faith, even into their oldest age. Imagine then what they would make of the faith learning opportunities we have today! So let us seize them!
There is, however, another reason why I mention Father George today. For he was a mentor to me in several ways, partly in this encouragement to keep on learning, but, above all, in what he taught me about letting go and passing wisdom on. For one day when I was in west London visiting my mother’s family, Father George asked me to go to see him. It was not long after I had been accepted for ordination training, or formation as they call it here, and Father George had a gift for me. He took me into his library, with bookshelf after bookshelf stacked with up-to-date theology and spirituality from the leading scholars of the world, not least in biblical studies. It was a wonderful collection. Take your pick, Father George said: any and all of these books are yours, if you would like and can use them. I would like you to have them. So I did: albeit, to begin with, most hesitantly. Perhaps I should just take a handful I thought, so that I don’t look too greedy and so I don’t leave too many holes in what is Father George’s pride and joy. But then I put more into the cardboard boxes Father George had arranged for me, and I did so with growing excitement and joy. For, though this must indeed have been a huge thing for Father George to do, I realised that it was fully consonant with his life of faith and a powerful witness to the love at the centre of his being. For it was Christ’s self-giving love which made him tick. His books and everything else he said and did were just pointers to that.
Whenever I hear our Gospel reading today, I think of Father George. For he embodies for me much of what Simeon was and did. Like Simeon, Father George gave his life to God, and continually sought to learn, and grow, in wisdom. And like Simeon, he was able to recognise when it was time to let go and pass on something of that wisdom. Like Simeon, he carried the faith, grew in the faith, and, crucially, passed on the faith to those who were coming after him. Can we do the same, for others, today? As younger people come to us, and as they bring their children, how do we share what we have with them? How do we let go of the riches which have nurtured us? How do we pass them on, knowing of course, like Father George, that those we pass them to will not use them quite as we have done? And, if we are the younger people, and the children, to whom the riches of faith are being passed on, how will we use them? How will we learn, and grow, and be filled with wisdom? Father George, like Simeon, was prompted to pass on his wisdom, because he was dying. When he invited me to take on his books, he had not long before been diagnosed with cancer, and, though he lived a little longer, like Simeon and Anna, he knew his days were numbered. What is someone to do, what are we to do, in such a circumstance? Do we cling to what we have whilst we still have it? Do we run from death, or illness, or other suffering, or do we embrace God’s call within them? Do we allow God to use our life changes for new life, for us and for others: sacraments of renewing grace and resurrection in the face of death?
‘Now let your servant depart in peace, for I have seen your salvation’; what marvellous words those are of Simeon! Can we take them on our own lips, and mean them? When we are faced by unavoidable change, by welcome or unwelcome transition, by pain, calamity, or death of whatever kind, can we allow God to use such time for new life and renewing hope, if not for us, then at least for others? I have to say that I love Candlemas, this festival of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, for this reason. For it is a ‘hinge’ time, as we turn from Christmas to Easter: as we are called to let go of the past and look to the future, treasuring the ambiguous gifts of the present. Candlemas places before us a choice: a choice to cling, or to move on, in the knowledge, as Anna says in our Gospel today, that a sword may pierce our soul in the process. Candlemas is thus a bitter-sweet time but a truly opportune one: to learn, to grow, and to be filled with wisdom.
So what will we do with our opportunities to learn, to grow, and to be filled with wisdom at this time? What will we take on? What will we pass on? How will we embrace Christ afresh, like Simeon and Anna? What will we give away so that others may grow and flourish? It is a not a matter of certainty, but faith. For Simeon and Anna, and Father George for that matter, only glimpsed something of what is present now, and what is to come. So it is for us. Yet it makes all the difference whether we glimpse it, and how we act.
In the name of the One who came to give his whole life away, in Jesus Christ, Amen.