A sermon preached by Mgr Andrew Burnham, Candlemas, 2012:
The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.
So writes St Sophronius of Jerusalem. I had just read about him in the splendid history of Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Briefly, Sophronius lived from 560 to 638 but had the sad task of negotiating the surrender of Jerusalem to the Muslim caliph Umar I in 637. By now Sophronius was a very old man and it must have been heart-breaking at the end of his life to see all that he valued delivered over to the followers of a brand new religion.
I am tempted to dwell further on the whole sad and sorry tale of Jerusalem, as told in this history. It is a story of unbelievable butchery and cruelty: few of those ruling over the Holy City behave well, or even within what then, or now, could be regarded as minimum standards of human decency. The picture is as grim for most of the two millennia since the time of Christ as it was in the pre-Christian era.
What one notices, then, is the density of the darkness. The world is a much more peaceful place nowadays – we sometimes forget how much progress has been made towards peace in the last generation, so strident is the news coverage of Afghanistan, Syria, and wherever there is war. But, however much progress we make, there is nonetheless a persistent feeling that there are societies, and sections of societies, which prefer to be at war. The Whig view of history is largely discredited: plumbing improves but people don’t improve as much as we might hope! So there is real darkness, and in that darkness we look for light, the cheering glow of a candle in a winter’s night, Elton John’s Candle in the Wind.
Candlemas, as has often been remarked, is like an old-fashioned sign-post at a crossroads. One sign points back to Christmas – the coming of the Light into the world at the Incarnation. The other sign points forward to the Cross and Easter. But, as we have observed, Easter was the not the end of cruelty and darkness even in – especially in – Jerusalem, the holy city. In 1834 there was a stampede and a massacre in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1846, when the Catholic and Orthodox Easters co-incided, there were monastic stabbings, with daggers, and even crucifixes adapted for the purpose. Eventually it was a shoot-out in Christendom’s holiest site and there were forty dead. Many a student of twentieth century history has surely concluded, whether from reading Birdsong or meditating on Auschwitz, that people are still walking in darkness.
The Chief Rabbi, in a lecture last October, examines the problem of secularism, what used to be called the death of God, which is the darkness the Church currently faces. He quotes the atheist philosopher, Bernard Williams, saying that Western Civilisation today ‘is in the same basic state as the pre-Socratic Greeks’. He also quotes Ferdinand Mount who moves things on a century or two and says that ‘we are back in the situation of third-century BCE Greece’. Sacks endorses that view: ‘much of what we are hearing from philosophers and scientists today is very similar to the position of the Stoics, the Sceptics, the Cynics and the Epicureans’.
With the flickering flames of Candlemas, we might take the view that, looking back, we see that the Light truly came into our midst but that, looking forward, there is still the struggle of the Passion, there is still the realisation of the Paschal Victory. It may even be that, like Sophronius in seventh century Jerusalem, we shall be confronted by the conquering power of Islam. Sophronius, we remember, accompanied Omar the Just to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, ‘hoping his visitor’, in Montefiore’s words, would admire or even embrace the perfect sanctity of Christianity’. Omar was impressed but would not pray there. He went on to look at the Holy of Holies of the ruined Jewish temple. And it was there that he set up a place of prayer. Thus the ruler who started to collate the Koran, compiled the Muslim calendar, and first codified Islamic law, followed the example of Muhammad, and looked back beyond Christianity to Judaism. Christianity, it seems, was a false development. We can imagine a broken-hearted Patriarch Sophronius.
However much we fear an Islamic eclipse of European civilisation and culture, I myself very much doubt whether that is our future. Yes, we look back to the warm glow of Christmas. Yes, we look forward with some anxiety to some dark struggles ahead, but the real enemy, as I said a moment ago, is secularism. We live amidst a declining civilisation and culture, a culture which is developing dementia, where the agendas of science and technology are leading us so to focus on what must be done that we forget who we are and where we come from. There is a real risk that new curricular approaches in schools and universities will be at the expense of history and the humanities.
So, then, we have the challenge of the new evangelisation. We Catholics have to strategically place the comforting candlelight wherever we can, to fan every flame. Blowing on candles is not a good idea, if one is in search of more light, but blowing on embers – fanning the flames of dying embers – is a more promising image. Every baptised and lapsed Catholic is a glowing ember. Every child who has had contact with Church or church school is a glowing ember. Everyone who has some sort of tribal sense of being a Catholic, a sense which leads her or him to try to make the world a better place, is a glowing ember. I am conscious of changing the image from ‘dying ember’ to ‘glowing ember’: for that is one challenge of Candlemas. The temple, where Mary and Joseph presented the Christ Child, was on its way out. For Our Lady there was sadness ahead: ‘a sword shall pierce your soul’, said Simeon. But this Child was – and is – and ever shall be ‘a light to lighten the gentiles’ and the glory of God’s people Israel. Moreover he was ‘the true light that enlightens every man’. That light, as the Prologue of St John’s Gospel proclaims to us, ‘shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’.
The Christian Faith may seem problematic for the agnostics of old Europe, and even for a new American intelligentsia – the self-named ‘brights’ – but it is spreading like wildfire in Asia and flourishes in Africa. The truth is – as each one of us who gather round this altar knows – that the Catholic religion is understood not through philosophical debate or under the microscope but from internal experience of the Risen Christ, the shedding of his Light in our lives.
Internal experience….. What we have seen, I think, in the affairs of nations – and it is there in the disgraceful scenes witnessed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – is tribal religion (cuius regio, eius religio, as they said at the sixteenth century Peace of Augsburg). But nowadays we don’t choose our religion – Catholic, Lutheran – to match the religion of those who rule over us. Nowadays, at last, we understand that true religion is not only a formal allegiance but a response of the heart. As Cardinal Hume used to say of Europe: it had been sacramentalised without being evangelised. As the Pope has more recently said, the Church of the future will be much smaller but much more deeply committed to her Lord.
So we finish with some more words of St Sophronius of Jerusalem:
The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.
 See Standpoint January/February 2012 pp. 72ff