I preached this last night, and people seemed to appreciate it. The Communion setting was the Messe Solennelle, and that started my thoughts going…
Jean Langlais, the twentieth century composer whose setting of the Communion service we are hearing tonight, was blind. He lost his sight as a two year old. His upbringing was not sheltered, and he loved climbing trees. He loved music, and as a teenager heard an organ, determining to learn it himself. He was taught first by another blind organist, and went on to be one of France’s most celebrated organists and composers.
He said that he had no memory of light, yet it seems to me that his music is full of richness and colour and light and shade. Perhaps because he was in darkness, his evocation of light is all the greater. For light defines us. Apart from a very few animals, we alone create light when there is none. Light is our essence.
The modern preponderance of light means that people today have no real regular experience of darkness. I was on a late train a couple of weeks ago, and all the lights went out. It was rather wonderful, but so disorientating that normally reserved English people started talking to each other.
We make light, because we need it and love it. It is necessary and beautiful. For much of human history candles, and oil lamps, were essential bringers of light into darkness. The lighting of the lamps became a religious act which could never be reduced to the flipping of a switch.
The festival of Candlemas, the Presentation, the Purification is about light. It commemorates the moment when Jesus was presented in the Temple. There he was recognised by a devout believer, and declared to be a light to lighten the Gentiles – the person whose life and death will be a means of revelation, illumination and warning to all the non Jewish peoples of the earth. He is also to be the fulfilment of all the hopes of Israel, God’s original people.
In church the moment is remembered every time the Nunc Dimittis is sung. It is such a part of our evening worship – first in Compline, then, since Cranmer, at Evensong, that we can become dulled to its challenge. It’s a massively radical statement. Hear it again:
God’s promise has been fulfilled. This child is the means of rescue, for every single human being on the planet. He is a Jew, but will be light, piercing the darkness for all the peoples of the world. He is everything the Jews have been waiting for and everything a dark world needs.
What is amazing here is that Simeon doesn’t keep this as a personal experience – ‘I can die fulfilled now’. Nor does he keep this as a Jewish experience: ‘we will be delivered and our nation’s borders secured’. This is global and eternal. He declares this month old baby to be the fulfilment of Israel, and a light to lighten the Gentiles – the person whose life and death will be a means of revelation, illumination and warning to all the non Jewish peoples of the earth. This child would unleash shalom, true peace, and no one would be able to stop it. It would burst out of the confines of Israel and transform the world.
This requires much of us. It means being the light and proclaiming Christ to everyone – the indifferent, the hostile, and the devout of other faiths. It means taking a long look at ourselves. How can Christians proclaim Christ as a light drawing all people to himself when our lives are not as well lit as they could be, and when as the church we enjoy our disagreements more than what binds us together?
When a candle shines in darkness, things are seen in a new light. When Christians say that Jesus is the light of the world it reinterprets the world as it is, and shows the world as it might be. As we proclaim Christ Light of the World, ask yourself what is being illuminated for you, and what you can illuminate with the light within you. Jean Langlais could not take light for granted. He had to recreate it in himself. Seek Christ’s light. Shine with it. And transform the world.