Candlemas Farewell Sermon
The Feast of Candlemas, which the church celebrates this Sunday, is an ancient holy time. It comes 40 days after Christmas marking the end of the glorious season of Epiphany and a turning towards Lent/Holy Week & Easter. In northern Europe it is the end of the darkest time of the year. Traditionally it was the day when candles were blessed and distributed to the faithful, to be lit during storms and times of trouble. It is an appropriate moment in the liturgical calendar to say farewell.
My final weeks have unfolded in ways nobody could have quite imagined. There was always a risk of saying farewell in another lockdown. Strange and disorientating though it may be, I am quietly confident that the time is right for all of us, even if this can at times be hard to face. God knows I don’t do hard endings. It seems I am being given the softest of partings, a beautiful spiral of completeness. I have a deep sense of ‘In the end is my beginning…’
Candlemas falls on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the temple, 8 days after his birth, as was the Jewish custom. The gospel reading tells how Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus were greeted by old Simeon and Anna. Simeon speaks wonderfully of the child’s future. His parents are amazed. He blesses the child. Then he speaks poetically of the pain both mother and child will experience. Simeon and Anna are representatives of the old order, ready to move off-stage, waiting to depart in peace.
There is much to lament and there is sorrow for failings, which this liturgy encompasses. But there is a far greater call for all of us to attend to the cries of the multitude of souls in this parish and to hold in our hearts the needs of the world. If I am to produce a valedictory message, it is this: don’t ever stop praying. Wherever, whenever, however, whoever you are with – don’t ever stop praying for the needs of the world, for this fragile planet earth. As we witness a new era coming into view, it is vital we take notice of shifting patterns and learn to adapt. Making space for prayer powerfully transforms our own lives and the world around us.
Being in lockdown has been an opportunity to slowly sift the years I have been here. In my archives I found last week the news sheet for 10 November 2002 – my first Sunday at St Peter’s. The thought for the week was signed with the initials RD. It was titled A New Radiance.
Today’s themes are markedly female and reinforce the joy we feel at welcoming our first, own female vicar…On Tuesday she was officially entrusted with ‘the cure of all souls’ of the parish. After the splendid service, there were sighs of relief from some of the extremely hard-working lay people in the parish that the burden of the interregnum was now lifted. Maybe not. A new leader may well seek more contributions from the congregation not fewer. The cure of souls sounds like an awesome task. However, Julia is not on her own.
With the help of God, the support of her family and us, her flock, we pray that she will be ‘radiant and unfading’ and like Wisdom itself ‘found by those who love her’.
Not so radiant these days, I am now leaving this place of my sending and returning, where I have crafted and curated a priestly ministry for so many years. The grief, at times, is beyond words. But I am confident that the Spirit of St Peter’s is strong. It is a delight to see so many willing and capable hearts and hands to carry the church through the coming months and who will be there to support your next new vicar.
Farewells are a time for gifts. I have chosen as my gift to St Peter’s a bronze wall plaque of Brendan the Navigator, patron saint of boatmen, mariners, travellers, elderly adventurers and whales. It’s from a detail in an Irish stone cross with the motto Strength in Unity and made in a studio in Ireland. There have been some supply problems in the past month – I hope by the time we can gather for a full celebration of my years at St Peter’s, Brexit will be done. I trust this image of Brendan the Navigator will help everyone remember the importance of pulling together, especially in stormy weather. And also the excitement of venturing out with only God as a wild goose to guide. The last time we tried a traditional Candlemas procession in this church, it was very slow because we could only go as fast as the frailest members. Hold on to this image too, as you continue to build your ‘communion in community’ at St Peter’s.
There have been many highlights and heart-stopping moments in my years at St Peter’s. There will hopefully be time to share some of these in the months to come. And there are a few unfinished projects still in my head…I would still love to see a community history project documenting the lives of the ‘Windrush Generation’ at St Peter’s, as a memorial to their immense faith and spiritual traditions that have enriched this worshipping community for over 60 years.
And so, as we prepare to depart in peace, I leave you with words by the mid twentieth century writer, Elizabeth Goudge: ‘Oftener than not what we call beginnings are fulfilments of things set in motion a long time ago’ Journeying on from here, let us be aware of this deep narrative of God, coursing through our lives. And let us not be afraid to be immersed in turbulent waters, trusting always in the God of our endings and our beginnings.