Unbelievable Truths?

Address given on 31 January 2021

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Readings Malachi 3: 1 – 5 Luke 2: 22 – 40

One of my favourite Radio programmes is Radio 4’s “The Unbelievable Truth”, hosted by David Mitchell.

The show’s contestants essentially spout nonsense, but try to smuggle in 5 highly improbable, but true statements. And it’s the job of the others to try and identify those facts before anyone else.

One of the facts that I learned, this week, was that the second person to throw himself over the Niagara Falls in a barrel was an Englishman, Bobby Leach, – who accomplished this feat in 1911.

And the unbelievable truth was that Bobby Leach survived this hugely risky fall – only to die 15 years later, after slipping on a piece of orange peel! Bizarre but true!

The second odd thing that I’ve gleaned is that there is a condition called Galanthomania, which means being besotted with, or even addicted to, snowdrops – those innocent little clumps of white flowers
that decorate our churchyards and hedgerows
at this time of year.
Apparently some people just can’t get enough of them.
And the unbelievable truth is that, in 2015, one bulb –
one tiny snowdrop bulb – sold for £1,360
(+ £4 postage and packing)!

That was a rare variety of snowdrop called “Golden Fleece” – perhaps because it was worth its weight in gold; and perhaps because we might think whoever paid that amount has been well and truly “fleeced”!

In any case, it’s the more common, pure white ones
that I want to think about this morning. These “proper” snowdrops used to be known as Candlemas Bells – appearing as they do just around the Feast of Candlemas.

And they were often used to decorate churches –
as a symbol of both hope and warning:
the green shoots celebrating the new life of spring,
but the snow white petals cautioning that winter has not lost its icy grip just yet.

And that’s where these Candlemas Bells tie in with the Gospel reading we’ve just heard.

Simeon’s prophecy is of the great and wonderful things that this tiny child will go on to achieve; but also of the hardship and suffering that will be caused along the way.

And what begins as a perfect picture of Jewish ritual – two parents fulfilling the Law of Moses –
soon starts to become more than that,
as Simeon describes Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” – the non-Jewish nations of the world –
as well as “the glory of his own people”.

A promise of greatness, and yet,
ahead lies the pain of separation – first of Jewish Christians exiled from the Synagogues, and also of Jews and Christians over the centuries since.

A promise of greatness, and yet
Jesus himself would face the fierce disapproval of both religious authorities and secular powers –
causing his family “grief” in more senses than one.

No wonder then, that Mary and Joseph were amazed by Simeon’s words – astonished at the prospect of what lay ahead of them.

Six verses later, in Luke’s Gospel,
we find the teachers gathered in the Temple for Passover listening intently as the 12 year old Jesus questions them.
And they are amazed at his words – and his evident wisdom – both an inspiration and a challenge to their own authority.

Both experiences are awesome (in the literal sense!) – something to be marvelled at, but also profoundly unsettling – leaving the onlookers to wonder at such unbelievable truths, and the collision of hope and fear that they seem to provoke.

And perhaps that’s a tension we can identify with – as we enter this vague “in between” time in the church’s year, and as we look out at the world around us.

The green shoots of hope are beginning to poke through into our consciousness: how could we not be amazed at just how quickly Covid 19 vaccines have been developed, and vaccine centres organised – with thousands of vaccinations having already been given here in Wilton?

And yet, we can’t quite escape the “icy grip” of fear, or at least anxiety, when we’re presented with headlines about more than 100,000 Covid-related deaths in the UK. There’s no disguising the human misery in those figures.

Our Cathedral, made the international headlines last week – with a very nice piece in the New York Times – celebrating not only one of the most tranquil settings in which to “have your jab” – but also the fact that the Cathedral Organists were busy providing musical accompaniment in the background.

Nothing to fear there, you might think –
but there were complaints, that this was not a proper use for a church – one Instagrammer called it a “desecration”!
Really?! Was that just fear of something new and out of the ordinary?

Given that Jesus was not exactly shy of healing in the Temple, even on the Sabbath – and his fairly blunt response to the religious busybodies who criticized him – I think the Cathedral Chapter were absolutely right to open their doors in this way.

Another musical news story appeared on Thursday – in which two negatives merged to form a positive!
We’ve been aware for some time of Long-Covid – of people who’ve survived Covid 19 but who are left with damaged lungs and other ongoing health problems.

At the same time there has been a real crisis in the performing arts, with venues closed and most live performance prohibited.

And out of these two causes of anxiety, a new hope has emerged.

Members of English National Opera have begun offering online group singing lessons – to Long-Covid sufferers – working through simple melodies and lullabies, to relieve anxiety; teaching techniques of breath control, in order to make best use of their damaged lungs, whilst also providing valuable work for the singers themselves.

Despite the real challenges of a virus we still don’t fully understand, and the negativity of some of our “neighbours” – there are still pleasant surprises,
and surprises which should amaze us.
The green shoots are bursting through.
And perhaps that’s the final lesson of the humble, common snowdrop.

No matter what the previous year has thrown at them – wet; dry; scorching hot; bitterly cold – come February, those persistent little flowers will be back.

New shoots appear, and slowly, quietly
transform the landscape – almost without our noticing –
until one day we look up and see that transformation.

Then, in turn, we might be changed
by the freshness and beauty of that new growth –
as our anxiety is turned again to wonder.

In a similar way, it seems to me,
our recovery from this time of uncertainty is not just down to us, any more than the natural cycle of the snowdrop. No matter what we do or feel – life goes on, one way or another.

But perhaps we can train ourselves
to recognise and celebrate those first signs of progress, to face the weeks ahead not just with grim determination, but with that same active persistence.
Simeon and Anna were faithful and persistent in their belief that they would see the Christ, and were rewarded.

Can we, like them, be persistent in prayer – even when we don’t much feel like it – so that hope is kept alive in us?
Can we be persistent in looking for the signs of redemption, even when the headlines are grim?

Malachi remained confident that God’s messenger would come to purify and restore his people.

Can we make this period of uncertainty the time of our purification – shedding those negative things which weigh us down, or at least putting them into perspective – so that we will be ready to share in the new life that will flourish, in ways we don’t yet see?

However we get on with any of that,
and wherever it might lead any of us,
perhaps we can all be encouraged by the
resilience of our little snowdrops –
seemingly fragile, and easily crushed,
yet somehow able to spring back again and again.

May we pray and trust that God’s life-giving Spirit
will give us that same strength and resilience.