Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Blessings Abound

2 February 2020
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

As many of you now know, we sent our daughter to a Catholic School in Sherborne

Known as the “nuns on the hill” they were educated in a beautiful Palladian manor called Leweston

The rule of thumb goes that “the boys at Sherborne date the girls at Sherborne but marry the girls at Leweston” – time will tell

However, due to the scarcity of Catholic priests they employ a lay chaplain

And, at the end of term Mass, I went up for a blessing

I was wearing a dog collar and found myself in front of the chaplain

It was a slightly awkward moment, as I knew it would be as an Anglican Priest

But we were good friends and this was an intriguing liturgical moment

Not being phased, I received a blessing which I still treasure to this day

The blessing recalls the words which God spoke to Moses

The Lord bless you and keep you, The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace

And I felt every word in the blessing which was bestowed upon me

Today is the feast of Candlemass

It marks the moment when Christ is presented in the Temple, forty days after his birth

It is conflated with Mary’s purification, echoes of which are still found in the Book of Common Prayer

At the same time we are introduced to Simeon and Anna

They have waited all their lives for this moment and recognise the Christ child instantly

It is a beautiful and touching story which concludes with the wonderful words of the Nunc Dimittis

“Lord now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace” “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation”

In the medieval Church, there was a candlelit procession to mark these words 

Hence the festival of Candlemass

But after Simeon concludes the Nunc Dimittis, the story tells us that Simeon blessed them

Blessings have always rather intrigued me

To the best of my recollection, I was taught nothing about blessings at Theological College

But after I was ordained, I was called upon to bless a great deal

But what is a blessing?

My dictionary of Liturgy and Worship tells me it is

“the authoritative pronouncement of God’s favour on people, place, events and even objects”

Therefore it is possible to bless an individual such as myself, a place such as a house, an event such as the opening of a school,

Or even an object such as a candle, which formed part of the ancient ritual of Candlemas which we have somehow lost today

At the more extreme end, the Airedale beagles recently asked me to bless some hounds but I have yet to respond to this request

A blessing also presupposes a benefactor and a recipient

And there is the possibility of a mediator who pronounces or confers the blessing, from God, to the human or inanimate recipient

And that is normally me – hence the word vicar – meaning to act vicariously on behalf of another

There are a number of examples of blessing in the Bible

In the Old Testament, we are told in the Book of Genesis that God blesses all of creation

“God saw that it was good…and he blessed them” (Genesis 1:22)

Blessings are also conferred vicariously

Moses blesses the nation of Israel and Isaac blesses his sons Jacob and Esau

In the New Testament, the emphasis on blessings changes

Blessings or being blessed is now seen as the spiritual state of those who belong to God’s Kingdom

The Beatitudes state

“Blessed are those who are suffer for my sake for theirs in the Kingdom of heaven”

St Paul makes a similar note when he says

“I do it all for the sake of the Gospel that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:23)

And so we come to the Feast of Candlemass which is a pivotal Sunday

It is the last time that we can look back to Christmas and, at the same time, we now look forward to Lent and Easter

And on this pivotal Sunday, I think that there are a number of things that we can take from the story of Jesus in the Temple

And particularly the blessing that is conferred upon him

First of all, this act of blessing sets Jesus apart and makes him “holy”

This blessing elevates him from a child – to a child who has been blessed

Blessing someone or something does make a difference

Whilst I was a chaplain at Sherborne, we conducted baptisms on the eve of Confirmation

We had no sanctified ground into which to pour the blessed water and I was rather perplexed with what to do with the baptismal water after the service

So I decided to leave the water, under a pew, to evaporate in the Church

I mentioned my dilemma to the Bishop over the Confirmation breakfast

 An evangelical housemaster intervened and said “it is just water, pour it down the sink”

But to me it was not just water, it was water that had been blessed

It was something different, something set apart

The Bishop wisely kept her counsel whilst we tucked into our bacon and eggs

Secondly, although the blessing conferred on Jesus sets him apart and makes him holy, it is a reminder that the people who are set apart are not actually separated from us

Jesus came to live amongst us and to share our lives

Holiness lived in our midst and is found in our ordinary, everyday lives

We need to recognise that, in the humdrum of everyday life, we too can encounter the sacred

Peculiarly however, holiness is not necessarily found in Church

In fact, Jesus is rarely, if ever, in Church

He is taken there as a child and the only other time he goes he gets rather cross

It is not to say that we should not go to Church – clearly Simeon and Anna find him there

But it is to remind ourselves that God can found outside of the Church as well

Finally, Simeon confers his blessing on the Christ Child, not only when he realises that he is “The glory of thy people Israel” but when he knows prophetically that

“this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and… a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also”

These dread words now set the scene for the events that will unfold between now and Easter

This tiny child, just forty days old is being prepared for his death and is done so by being blessed

So too with Simeon and Anna, who, at the very end of their lives, know that this also marks the beginning of their end

When I was in my last parish, I was daily reminded of Admiral Craddock whose memorial plaque was next to the lectern

In 1914, he lost his life commanding the British fleet at the Battle of Coronel

Before he departed for Chile, he preached at the Cathedral and handed in his medals

Perhaps he too departed in peace having been so blessed?

And so returning to my blessing by the lay chaplain

Peculiarly, although we minister as priests, we are rarely ministered to by others

However, this was one of those rare occasions and it was an occasion which I will not forget

For, not only was it a blessing conferred, but it was a blessing shared

If you like, we were both bathed in the candlelight, we shared God’s glory together

We both left the service, blessed as God’s Holy people

We too have now gone our separate ways in the world

My colleague to be a palliative nurse 

Myself to Bolton Abbey

Both of us, like our Lord, and in common with all God’s Holy people, on our roads to Calvary