Some of you may be aware that our new Diocesan Bishop, The Rt Revd Graham Usher – The Bishop of Norwich is like myself, a great fan of Twitter – and if you follow Bishop Graham on Twitter, not only do you very quickly get a sense of all the things that he does as our Bishop, but you begin to pick up on the things that really interest him – and so I know that our new Bishop is very keen on ecology, and concerned like many of us about climate change and its impact upon the environment. But the tweet which really caught my eye recently, was the one where he expressed his delight in Snowdrops and the lovely display that he had in the gardens of Bishops House. He called them Candlemas Bells which is a phrase I hadn’t heard of before, so I decided to look into it.
Now of course most of us will know about the 12 days of Christmas – the traditional period of time for leaving up your Christmas tree and Christmas decorations before they come down. Traditionally they are supposed to come down by the evening of the 5th January because on the 6th January we have moved from Christmas into Epiphany being the time when the church marks the arrival of the three wise men, the Magi who travelled so far in order to visit the baby Jesus, the Saviour of the World; the new born King. But in some church circles the Christmas festivities are not taken down at Epiphany but extended and kept up until the 2nd February being 40 days since Jesus was born, and marking that point in the biblical story when Mary, with Joseph following the Jewish custom of her day presents herself for purification at the Temple in Jerusalem – and who together as proud and loving parents present their new born son to Simeon the elderly priest for his blessing. A priest who had been told that he would not die until he had witnessed the Lord’s comfort and the consolation of Israel. Consolation springing from the same word as comfort. This is the occasion marked by the church as Candlemas. A time when church candles symbolic of the baby Jesus as ‘the light of the world’ are brought into church and literally blessed for their use throughout the rest of the year just as Jesus was blessed by that elderly priest. And of course for us back home, this convenient fits with the appearance of Snowdrops breaking through the soil, signifying that winter is past and that spring is just around the corner. Did you know that the protruding shoots of the snowdrop are particularly hard and capable of breaking through the frost hardened soil, and not only that but the energy generated by the little snowdrop is actually capable of melting the snow under which it may find itself. It’s no wonder is it that snowdrops were very quickly perceived to be little white symbolic beacons of hope transforming a dark world into one of light. Indeed, some have thought that these Candlemas bells look like little lamps shining in the darkness. Now of course as lovely as snowdrops are the truth may be that this is in reality no more than a spiritual gloss painted upon a rather nice and pretty flower and yet theologically speaking – there is a lot to commend it.
The Book of Genesis doesn’t hold back does it? When it tells us how God’s wonderful world was spoilt by the wilfully disobedient actions of Adam and Eve; a moment when humanity was not only tempted but actually believed that it knew better than God himself. Even the creation which God had surveyed and described as ‘good’ is now somehow broken, distorted, marred, thrown out of kilter as sin enters into the world permeating it like ink seeping into blotting paper. Instead of living in the wonder of Eden, Adam and Eve find themselves banished and destined to live in a fallen world. And I would like to suggest that we don’t really need to look that far before we get a sense of this distortion in our own modern day and age; because apart from the obvious ways in which people harm and hurt each other through wars and other conflicts, we see a great deal of injustice and inequality, and a great deal of damage affecting the natural world; as we constantly endeavour to sustain a high level of living without given enough thought to the environmental consequences; pollution levels are rising across the world whether it be on land, sea or sky; temperatures are climbing, sea levels are rising and our seasons are not as they once were or ideally should be and many of our animals face extinction – all in the name of progress. Even the Coronavirus is another sign that the world in which we live is far from perfect.
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans puts it this way. He describes the creation as being ‘subject to frustration’ because of the fall (Romans 8.20); ‘groaning as if in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (Romans 8.22). It’s very emotive language isn’t it? But of course we can’t speak of the natural world as if we ourselves are not part of it, because we are; our bodies are also prone to sickness, decay and ultimately death which is why the Apostle Paul is able to describe Christians, people who have a faith as also groaning, groaning alongside the creation as we anticipate something better, something different that comes through faith in Christ, and that is the redemption of bodies. St Paul describes it as as if we are waiting for adoption, but in reality it’s more like new birth. A new birth which is brought into being through hope and trust in the one who is able to bring about our salvation. And where does this hope spring from? Where is our salvation to be found? It’s to be found in the birth of a baby who was born some two thousand years ago to a young woman called Mary. It’s to be found in a baby who was placed in the arms of an aged priest called Simeon who was told that the child’s name was Jesus. Jesus being the Greek form of the Hebrew word Joshua, meaning God saves; the Lord saves, the Lord is salvation.
It’s no wonder is it that Simeon could rejoice by saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Luke 2.29-32 (NIV)
The old man is made up, his life is complete. He’s content to die in peace because he has seen the Lord’s salvation. The Lord’s salvation is literally in his arms in the form of the baby Jesus. The world isn’t perfect, it’s still dark and death still reigns, but it’s not as dark as it could be because the light has come, and even though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death as Psalm 23 puts it, we will not be afraid because the Lord’s rod’s and staff, the signs and symbols of his power and authority, they comfort us. They bring comfort because we know that the path by which sin will be overcome and death defeated has been set in train in the person of Jesus. He is our hope and salvation; the one whose purity will overcome our impurity. The one whose loving obedience to God will overcome our disobedience. The one whose death upon the cross will not only achieve for us our salvation, but the forgiveness of sins and eternal life; new life in all its fulness.
This is the hope that we have and the hope by which we are saved. A hope which brings about not only the redemption of our bodies, but a hope which St Paul states will liberate the creation itself from its bondage to decay as it is brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8.21)
The Snowdrop is just a tiny little flower representing purity, but perhaps perceived rightly it symbolises so much more – because ‘in Christ’ it symbolises a magnificent, glorious and wonderful hope that is so much greater than death. A hope that is not just for us and the world in which we live but for the whole of creation.
In the name of Christ. Amen.
Preached at the Snowdrop Service at All Saints South Pickenham – 16th February 2020