30 YEARS A PRIEST
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY FEBRUARY 2nd 2010
In Australia there is a chocolate bar (which of course I would know) which is full of Brazil nuts. It’s called, surprisingly, a Brazil nut bar. The English have a chocolate without nuts called a Mars bar.
Years ago in Australia I was speaking with a Baptist missionary, who had recently returned from South America. We got into a conversation and I was very anxious to know what moved him to go to South America. So I said: “What made you decide to go to South America as a missionary?” His instant reply was: “God called me”.
I replied: “Well of course God called you, but how did you know it was to South America?” He said: “One night I prayed about very seriously about my future, and what the Lord wanted me to do.I asked for his guidance. When I woke up the next morning and went into the kitchen, there on the table was a Brazil nut bar. So I knew God wanted me to go to Brazil and preach the Gospel”.
My reply was: “Thank God it wasn’t a Mars bar”!!!
30 years ago I answered a similar call as a priest in Christ’s Holy Catholic Church. Of course 30 years ago I never dreamed I would end up in San Diego! How wonderful that you have all come tonight to rejoice with me here in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, San Diego.
Saturday, February 2nd 1980 was an extremely hot day in Adelaide, South Australia – as it usually is at that time of the year – mid-summer. I was ordained in the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, a rather marvelous Victorian building. It was the same Cathedral where I was confirmed many years before. Amongst those who laid hands on me 30 years ago, was the bishop who actually confirmed me, then retired, and also the priest who baptised me.
I was thrilled not only to be ordained to the priesthood, but to be ordained on the feast of the Presentation – because it speaks to us of Our Lord’s offering of himself in the great Temple of Jerusalem all those years ago. This is such a wonderful image for any priest. And for any priest central to this Feast is Our Lord’s own mother, Mary.
Let me set the scene. There are knives and shouting, chanting and singing, hugging and kissing, strange noises, and strange smells – and the smell of barbecue and the sound of singing and yelling. You might think I’m describing the party after my ordination in Australia! But no, this is the scene in the Temple in Jerusalem, where Mary and Joseph have brought the Christ Child this very evening.
There they are gathered with others to fulfill the rites and laws of the Jewish faith. There was only one Temple and this was the third to be built – built by Herod in the year 20 BC. It was a rather grand and wonderful edifice because Herod wanted to make himself popular with the Jewish people – so he built this rather marvelous Temple.
But it was not like this church. It was not tidy and clean inside with beautiful flowers and furnishings like tonight. No organ, no well-cared for linen, no altar guild to make sure everything was decent and in order. No – for the temple was a place for animal sacrifice. It was bloody and smelly.
We read in Saint John’s Gospel, on a later occasion when Jesus entered the Temple, of people buying and selling animals, and money-changers – for they had to buy the temple coins. It was quite a business, and Our Lord reacted against that.
Mary needs to come to the temple today for her purification rites as set down by the Law of Moses all those years ago.
And Jesus has to come to the Temple today also – because Jewish Law requires him to be consecrated to the Lord. He who is our Redeemer must be redeemed with the Temple offering of two pigeons.
So money changes hands, birds are brought, the priest is sought out, the ceremony takes place and all that needs to be done is done.
It might all be done but it is not finished. For there are two old people who will not let this moment pass by: Simeon and Anna. These two faithful people loved the Temple. Out of their love came prophecies and the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.
Simeon enthusiastically proclaims that this child, Jesus, is the Messiah. And Anna cannot stop talking about him. To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, says Simeon. Simeon’s song became our Nunc Dimittus – the canticle sung at Evensong and Compline in the Church’s tradition.
The Nunc Dimittus began the ancient ceremonies tonight of Candlemass, during which we not only proclaimed Christ as Light of the World by music and ceremonies and candles, but we also shared in that light as an acted- out prophecy while holding our own blessed candles.
In Europe it is still winter and Candlemass marks the end of the dark nights. In sunny San Diego, the image and symbolism is not so profound. It is therefore good for us to turn our attention to another part of tonight’s story – to another prophecy which is not of light. Simeon turns to Mary and says: “This child is destined for the fall and rising of many, and a sword shall pierce your own soul too”.
Immediately we are taken to Calvary, where at the foot of the Cross a sword does pierce Mary’s soul on that very first Good Friday. Even at this beginningof Jesus’ life tonight, his end on the Cross already looms large. So tonight reminds us that our own faith is a mixture of the joy of Candlemass and the sorrow of Calvary. As it must be for all who follow this Christ child.
From this moment on nothing could ever be the same for Mary. Forty days after Jesus is born and laid on a manger made of wood, his mother is being prepared for him to be laid on another bed of wood, the Cross.
At Candlemass Mary is there, and at Calvary Mary will be there. Mary is there at all the significant moments.
She is, of course, the mother of Jesus – and since we, the church, are his body in the world, therefore she must be the mother of the church.
She is also our elder sister in faith. Especially tonight as she stands with Joseph wondering what it all means, sharing our wonderment at the mysteries of God. Sharing our puzzlement as we go on our pilgrimage through this life.
As I come to the altar tonight to celebrate 30 years of priesthood, I too am filled with wonderment, like Mary and Joseph. And with Mary I say: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Saviour, for he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his name”.
By contrast Simeon’s words: “To be a light to lighten the Gentiles” really summarize the purpose of the priesthood – and I thank God for that privilege. To be a light is, in fact, the purpose of all the baptised children of God. All of us together are called to be this light. So as all of us carried our candles tonight, now it is up to all of us to carry the light of Christ with us. Candlemass bids us hold up that light as surely as we held up our candles in this ancient ceremony.
To be a priest is to share in the tradition and ceremonies of the church, like Candlemass. Especially if you’re an anglocatholic! It is also to share in the joy of this feast as well as the sorrow from the sword that pierces the soul – and every priest knows of the joy and the sorrow of the priestly ministry.
I have had my share of both, and like most priests I have tried to be faithful in following the example of Mary. My time here at All Saints’ has brought home to me in a wonderful way the joy and the privilege of being a priest amongst his people.
The great joy and privilege of being a priest is of course to offer the Mass. In offering the Eucharist the priest tries to imitate and share in the very sacrifice of Christ as we see it in the Cross.
What a joy and privilege this has been for me for 30 years. Please pray that I will always be faithful, like Mary.