Candlemas: What is the Speed of Light?


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Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 2 February 2020, 4th Sunday after Epihpany Year A—02 February 2020 The Reverend Canon Professor Scott Cowdell, Hon. Associate Priest

Malachi 3: 1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

OK, here's a test to see how well you remember your high school science: what's the value of the universal constant c, the speed of light in a vacuum? That's right, it's about 186,000 miles per second or 300,000 kilometres per second. No particle with mass can go faster than light, thankyou Professor Einstein, and light goes pretty fast. Now my subsequent question on this Candlemas isn't scientific, it's theological: how fast does the light go that comes to us from God, the light that reveals God to us? And the answer is … three miles an hour.

Here I'm thinking of a book by the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama called Three Mile an Hour God. Why does God set this limit of three miles an hour? Because that's the speed that human beings walk, three miles an hour, and so that's the speed of God's revelation. What I'm getting at, in tune with all our readings for today's Feast of the Presentation, is that God comes to us in ways that honour our human condition: our human limitations, our human situatedness, which is of the earth and timebound.

The logic of how God reveals Godself is set out plainly in our Hebrews reading today. God comes to us within the human condition, in the person of Jesus, who doubly confirms God's loving self-limitation by labouring under our human constraints and our human suffering.

The early Church in the age of the creeds had to get clear that Jesus wasn't a god walking the earth, which is what you find in the religious world of pagan antiquity. Instead they developed the remarkable Gospel conviction that God became truly human of a human mother, with a fully human nature. Leave the overly spiritual stuff to the angels, our epistle tells us today; that's nothing to do with the down-to-earth God we meet in Jesus Christ, the three mile an hour God who's come to help not angels but the children of Abraham. And God does this, God establishes credibility, by avoiding nothing of what it means to be human. Let me mention two things in particular.

One is the fact that humans grow old, and have to accommodate themselves to the long haul. We must deal with what historians call the longue durée, because important things don't necessarily work themselves out quickly. So in today's gospel we're presented with two figures of great age who've been waiting in faith for a very long time. God's light has travelled slowly indeed on its journey to Simeon and Anna, but what's sustained them is their trust in God's promises, until the joy long nurtured in their hearts can at last spill over.

I also want to mention how insistent Luke is about Joseph and Mary fulfilling the religious expectations of their tradition, coming to the Temple in Jerusalem and not omitting anything the law requires as they present their son. And it's in this context of familiar religious practice that the prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled, and the Lord suddenly comes to his Temple. The long haul, the habituated faithfulness, the waiting and hoping for an ancient promise to come true, is all part of how God comes to us. Not instantaneously but sacramentally, as a typically hidden presence not fully available to our consciousness and our understanding. This is a God who moves Sunday by Sunday through our churchgoing lives no faster than three miles an hour. And yet here in church, in the faithful, habitual practice of our faith decade in decade out, God comes to us across the long haul.

So it's a false dichotomy to think that we can bypass all this and be spiritual without being religious, as people like to say. We can leave that version of spirituality to the angels, who see God face to face. Because we humans aren't like that.

But it's not all disappointment and teeth-grinding in the meantime. Today's beautiful Psalm 84 celebrates the loveliness of God's dwelling place, which for us is the presence of Christ among his people in word and sacrament: a home, a fruitful place symbolized by God's altar, where we can nest in safety like sparrows, and where we can find sustenance in times of dryness.

But, for all that, this isn't what a lot of people expect from God. A lot of people want things plainer, clearer; they want things fixed now with no waiting. How long do we have to wait for our broken windscreen to be replaced, or for the insurer to get on and assess our written-off car? Likewise, how long do we wait for God's promises? God's preferred way of coming to us in Jesus isn't the way a lot of people want it or are prepared to accept it, and so the human-sized spiritual vision of the gospel represents a shock to their system. "But who may abide the day of his coming?" indeed, as Malachi asks today in words so memorably set to music in Handel's Messiah.

Simeon also points to this problem of mismatched expectations. He warns that Jesus' coming is destined for the falling as well as the rising of many in Israel; the fact that Jesus will be opposed is proof that his coming and the nature of his presence isn't what many people expect or want from God. Even Mary gets a warning from Simeon, that a sword will pierce her heart, too, which I take to mean that the normal hopes and dreams any loving mother would have for her son will not work out as Mary wishes.

So, friends, God's light comes to us at three miles an hour because that's the speed we go, as creatures of the earth and of the long haul. The breakthrough that Simeon and Anna witnessed in God's long story of faithfulness is still working itself out in history so that, like them, we also must practice patience. Our portion is to know in word and sacrament what will only be fully revealed when history's long haul is over. Then, having learned what to expect from God, we'll be able to enter with Simeon and Anna into their joy, rather than ending up among the uncomprehending and disappointed.

The Lord be with you …


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