Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
I’ve gone for the Candlemas theme for this week, on the assumption that it is likely to be celebrated a day early in many churches, and also because it is an occasion I enjoy. The familiar words of Malachi, mediated via the gift of Handel’s Messiah, raise an interesting question for us.
This week I have been involved in a long facebook conversation which came out of a friend’s blog. Somehow we got onto the subject of ‘niceness’. We started off on why men hate going to church, but we soon arrived at the suggestion that church was too ‘nice’ for most blokes. I put the word safely inside inverted commas so you’ll know what I mean, but it was suggested that being nice is fine: kindness, gentleness and so on are good Christian qualities. But to me the problem is when we’re only ever allowed to be ‘nice’; when the harsher realities of life, and church life, are brushed under the carpet because they’re not ‘nice’. Stuff like conflict, reality, death – you know the kinds of thing.
Candlemas is basically a nice festival. You’ve got some all-age worship as an elderly pair of people encounter a little baby, you’ve got the beautiful words of what the Church has called the
Nunc dimittis, and some lovely prophecies about Jesus’ life and ministry. But the OT reading, and indeed even some of the Gospel story, give us a different picture. This sweet baby comes bringing judgement. Many are going to fall because of him, Mary herself will know the pain of a pierced heart, and her son will naturally enough stir up great hostility. The truth is, he is not being born into a ‘nice’ system. Malachi, writing after the completion of the rebuilding of the Temple, is telling people not to get too up themselves just because a building project is complete. If the God in whose honour this building was raised were actually to come among the people some things would be anything but ‘nice’. The images of launderers’ soap and refiners’ fire are violent images, and the testifying against various categories of naughty people sounds scary for those people. They must surely reflect some of what was currently going on, and the images of occultism, adultery, lying, injustice and oppression are not a pretty sight. In the same way Jesus’ ministry was going to be one of comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable, as many of those around the Temple were to find out. Following him was no easy option, and he never told anyone it would be.
On a larger scale Candlemas is about a change of direction: we face away from Christmas, and all the lovely birth narrative stuff with its shepherds, little lambs and the like, and turn towards Lent and Passiontide; away from birth towards death. This too is a turn away from ‘niceness’ in the direction of something far less comfortable and far more demanding.
To follow Jesus is to be challenged, judged and purified until the offering of our lives are ‘offerings in righteousness’ (v 3) Purification is not ‘nice’, but it is essential, and the end results are much nicer without the inverted commas.