A Sermon for
(and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
By Dr. Robert Crouse
St. James' Church, Halifax,
February 7th, 1988
"The seed is the word of God…that on the good ground are they who hearing the word keep it and bring forth fruit with patience." (Luke 8.11-15)
"For thus saith the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: Break up anew your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns" (Jeremiah 4.3)The three Sundays before Lent, Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, constitute a time of preparation; and the Scripture lessons appointed for these Sundays have the purpose of preparing our minds and hearts for the spiritual undertaking which lies before us in the season of Lent – our spiritual pilgrimage, our spiritual journey with Jesus to Jerusalem.
Thus, on the first of these Sundays – Septuagesima – the lessons impress upon us the urgency of our task. We are like athletes, says St. Paul, striving for a prize: the incorruptible crown of life eternal; and, like athletes, he says, we must discipline our lives and concentrate our powers; not as fighters who beat aimlessly against thin air. The Gospel lesson for that Sunday likens us to workers in a vineyard. Some are called early to work, and some are called late; some even at the last, eleventh hour. But all labour for the one, everlasting reward, which God gives freely, of his own goodness, to those he calls. "Why stand ye here all the day idle?" that is the message of Septuagesima. "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation." "Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive." It is an urgent summons to every one of us: a summons to strive earnestly to overcome the lethargy of spirit which impedes us; to undertake with zeal the labour of spiritual awakening and enlightenment. "Why stand ye here all the day idle?" Great is the challenge, and great is the reward.
Now, today's lessons instruct us further in the meaning of this undertaking. In the Epistle Lesson, St. Paul speaks of those perils which impede us and distract us from our goal: not just external things; not just "weariness and painfulness"; but, "besides those things which are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches". Not just external circumstances, but our legitimate cares and duties, and our own inner weaknesses. "Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is offended, and I burn not?" It's not easy for any one of us, but the trials and infirmities are to be embraced as the very stuff of glory: "If I must needs, glory" says St. Paul, "I will glory in the things which concern my infirmities".
The Gospel Lesson for today explains all this further, by way of one of Jesus' parables: a story which uses visible and tangible, familiar things symbolically to draw our minds to consider spiritual truths. In today's story, God is himself the sower, who spreads far and wide the seed, which is His word: by the wayside, on the rocks, and among thorns, as well as on the ploughed field. His word goes forth, freely and generously, into all the world, to the Jews and to the Gentiles; he is manifest to the shepherds and the wise men; his word is everywhere proclaimed; the good seed is broadcast everywhere.
Some falls upon the wayside, the hard unbroken ground, trodden on by the feet of all who pass. So the word of God is preached to hardened souls; whose sterile and unyielding minds and hearts will not open to receive a divine or sacred word, whose wills are stubbornly committed to all the demons – all the fads and fancies, all the manifold preoccupations – of the present age.
Some seed falls on rocky ground, where it finds no root, and quickly withers. These are those who hear the word, and receive it superficially, but will not give it roots of understanding and commitment, and there cannot persevere through difficulties.
Still other seed falls among thorns, which, Jesus tells us, are the "cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life", which can choke and suffocate the spirit's life within us. The tender plant needs space in which to grow. The word of God cannot thrive as just one concern among others, but must be cultivated and tended as the central focus of our lives.
And so, we are called to make good the soil of our own souls, to cultivate the word of God within us, with understanding and devotion – deeply, and not just superficially; to practice our religion with steadiness of purpose, and thus "to bring forth fruit with patience". Renewed attentiveness to the word of God, renewed commitment to the practice of religion, to prayer and works of charity: that is the challenge of today's scriptures, and that is precisely the challenge of the Lenten season for which these lessons are intended to prepare us. Next Sunday's lesson will complete the prescription, reminding us that all our striving, all our struggles, without charity are nothing worth, and setting before us the charity of Christ as he sets out for Jerusalem to die and rise again. But just now, for this week, the emphasis is on the conflict and the perils that beset our spiritual quest, and I think that seems a particularly timely consideration to many of us in the church these days.
Each year, at this season, we keep the festival of the Purification of St Mary, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, sometimes called Candlemas. The festival was last Tuesday, but there are echoes of it in today's liturgy, and the message of that festival may serve to reinforce the message of today's lessons. On Candlemas, we celebrate St. Mary's presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple at Jerusalem, according to the ceremonies prescribed in ancient Jewish Law. Jesus is hailed by the aged Simeon as the light of all the world: "A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel".
The Holy Mother Mary, who is the symbol of the church presents the infant Christ, the eternal Word of God, in the temples of our souls. Those temples are to be sanctuaries of his presence, the altars of offering and sacrifice, "in spirit and in truth". Here in this holy Sacrament, Christ, the Word of God, is presented in the temples of our souls. The seed of God's word is planted there: in honest and good hearts. May we keep that word, cherish and cultivate that word, and "bring forth fruit with patience".
As a hymn for the Feast of the Purification puts it:O Light of all the world
Thy children wait for thee;
Come to thy temples here,
That we, from sin set free,
Before thy Father's face
May all presented be.
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