Sunday, 29 January 2012

Candlemas: Growing old gracefully

When anyone asks me how old I am, I usually answer “21 and a bit, and don’t ask about the size of the bit.” I’ll let you into a secret, though, if you promise to keep it to yourselves; I’m actually 51. Now, depending on how old you are, you’ll either be thinking that I am terribly ancient – most children regard anyone above 20 as  over the hill – or you’ll be thinking “she’s no more than a spring chicken – what’s she doing standing up in that pulpit?” It all depends on your point of view.

And of course the number of years we’ve lived doesn’t tell the whole story anyway.
How old do you feel inside?  I’ve met plenty of 70 year olds who still feel 17 to themselves.

Age and aging are complicated. Many people spend their childhoods wishing they were older, and the rest of their lives trying to claw back the years that the locusts have eaten. People go to great lengths to hold back the signs of aging. We know that whether we seem young or old people will make snap judgements about us based on our age. They will assume they know what we like, what we think, how we should behave, but those judgements will often be quite wrong. There’s no fool like an old fool, and some children have old heads on young shoulders.

It was today’s Gospel story which set me thinking about age and our attitudes to it. It tells the story of two very old people – Simeon and Anna – and a very young one, the baby Jesus, just 40 days old, and brought to the Temple by his parents for the rituals prescribed by the law of Moses. Age meets youth; those near the end of their lives meet one who is at the beginning of his. Luke underlines Simeon and Anna’s age. It’s clearly important. But I wondered why, and what it brings to this story that can help us think about ourselves and how we can live well in whatever season of life we are. I’d like to pick up two points that come out of this story for me for us to think about.

The first springs from the sheer unlikeliness of this encounter happening at all. How do Simeon and Anna spot Jesus in the throng of the Temple? How do they know who he is?

The Temple was huge, crowded and noisy. There were animals being sacrificed, people coming and going from all over the world. It wasn’t just a place of worship either, but a forum for debate and discussion about theology and politics too. It was nothing like a church might be today, a place of quiet prayer. This was probably more like Bluewater in the week before Christmas.

And yet in the middle of all this Simeon and Anna spot Jesus, recognise who he is and acclaim him. How? He’s just an ordinary looking baby, with ordinary looking parents, coming to do what was an absolutely ordinary thing at the time, no doubt one among many other families in the Temple. There was nothing special about his appearance; he didn’t glow in the dark, despite what you tend to see on the Christmas cards. I’m sure Mary and Joseph would have been able to pick him out of a line-up, but to everyone else he just looked like another baby.

So what do Simeon and Anna see in him? The answer, according to Luke, is nothing. It is simply that they are in tune with God, open to the prompting of the Spirit. “Guided by the Spirit Simeon came into the temple” we are told, and when Anna turns up on the scene later, she somehow knows exactly who this child is and what he is going to do for Israel as well. We aren’t told how they have felt God’s guidance. Was it a voice that they heard, or just the nagging sensation that something important was happening and that they needed to be paying attention?

Whatever it is, it all sounds a bit strange, but actually I don’t think it is as unusual as we might think. I’ve heard many tales over the years from people who experienced something like this. I recall one woman in a previous parish of mine who popped out to get a pint of milk from the shops one Sunday morning. Her route took her past the church and as she went by she suddenly had an overwhelming urge to go in; there was no reason, no crisis, no gradual build-up of interest. She just couldn’t resist it. In she came, and in she stayed. Something about that moment made it the right moment. She could have easily just told herself to stop being daft, get the milk and go home, but she didn’t; she listened to something beyond her understanding rather than to cold hard reason, and she was very glad of that. We are often rather reluctant to talk about moments like that, worried others might think us foolish. This isn’t how sensible grown-ups behave, we think – there are those assumptions about age-appropriate behaviour again - but it is far more common to feel these unexplained promptings than most people realise, and they can be very important in our lives.

The young bloods in the Temple, those with revolution in their minds and hearts, missed Jesus that day. The mature leaders, the ones in power missed him too. They knew what was what already. Their minds were on their own agendas. But Simeon and Anna were people who had opened themselves to God, opened themselves to mystery, through a lifetime of prayer. They didn’t assume - however long they have lived – that they had seen it all and knew it all, and so they didn’t write off the non-rational, intuitive aspects of life, the wisdom that was beyond their own.

That’s something which comes naturally to very young children. The world is a mysterious place when you are small anyway; you don’t expect it to make much sense. But as we grow we try quite hard to leave that mystery behind us. We are keen to be in control, to understand, to be in the know.  We mistrust anything we can’t explain.  And that can mean that we shut ourselves off to those promptings that come to us from the depths of our own spirit or from God, the things that nudge us in directions we’d never thought of by ourselves. Not so for Simeon and Anna, though, who hold onto that vital gift of childhood, the humility  to realise that they are in the hands of a God who is infinitely greater than they will ever be. As a result each day is a day on which God can surprise them with something new. 

And that brings me on to my second point. Simeon and Anna are ready, quite literally, to embrace God’s new work in the world. Simeon takes Jesus in his arms, and gazes with joy at the face of the future, despite the fact that he knows he won’t see that future come to pass himself. Anna celebrates a redemption that will come long after she is dead. But neither of them seems to mind. They care just as much about the world which their children, grand-children and great- grandchildren will live in as they do about the one they are living in, and they are going to do everything they can, right up to their last breath to encourage the ministry of this child who they know will shape that world.

There’s a phrase I often hear people use, especially if they are not as young as they used to be.  It’s the phrase “in my day”. “In my day people respected each other and the trains ran on time…”  It always fascinates me though, because by definition the people using it are still alive and kicking. Isn’t it still “their day?” And yet, somehow they feel as if they have now become invisible or irrelevant. The real action is all happening somewhere else, and they have no power any more to influence it. I can understand that – we live in a society which often seems to idolise youth - but the truth is that as long as we breathe we have a role in the world, gifts to give, a part to play.

I always rejoice that the Church is one place which is richly gifted with older people. I know people sometimes worry about the age profile of the church nationally, and I am glad that here we also have a very good number of younger folk too, but it is great that there is no retirement age from Christian life. You are as valuable at 99 as you were at 9, or 29. You may have different things to offer, but there is never a point at which you become useless to the Christian community. I recall an elderly woman I knew many years ago. Dora couldn’t get about easily any more. But she could pray, and she did pray, faithfully and often, and because she prayed she noticed, and because she noticed, she cared. As a young and rather exhausted mother , who was evidently on her prayer list, I would be invited around to share tea and scones with her, told to sit in a comfy chair and simply relax – just what I needed!

You never heard any nonsense from Dora about “in her day”. This was her day, just like all the others she had lived, and she was going to do what she could with it. It made all the difference to me. When she died, everyone was aware of what they had lost. I don’t know whether she lamented the things she couldn’t do - if she did she didn’t say so – but I do know that she served God, loved others and was loved by them to the day she died.

How old are you today? The number of candles on the birthday cake can only give us one, rather inadequate answer to that question. The truth is that however many or few days we have lived on the earth, God calls us to be born again on each of them as Simeon and Anna were. Their eyes opened afresh every day to a world of wonders.  And God puts the future into our hands, just as surely as Jesus was put into Simeon’s arms, and calls us to do what we can to make it a good future for whoever inherits it. We may not be able to hold back the tide of time physically, but spiritually it is always “our day” a day to live and to love as God calls us to.


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