SERMON FOR FEAST OF THE PURIFICATION, CSM FEB 7 2015 (transferred from Feb. 2)  The Rev. Robert D. Hughes, III


CSM-seal-as-stained-glassThe Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-indeed he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.  Malachi 3:1

Today we celebrate two major events and their consequences, both celebrations transferred from Monday so we could all be here.

  1. The Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, formerly known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  2. The dedication of the Mother Harriet Cannon and four other sisters at St. Michael’s Church, Bloomingdale New York on February 2nd 1865 by Bishop Horatio Potter. This was the first time since the Reformation that an Anglican Bishop had received such promises openly in a public service.  We also give thanks for the coming of the sisters to Tennessee in 1871, just in time for the yellow fever outbreaks that would number four of them among “the Martyrs of Memphis,” and of their coming to Sewanee in 1887, with the founding of St. Mary’s on-the-Mountain on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 1888.

These events established the religious life in the Episcopal Church in  the United States,   Tennessee, and Sewanee, respectively.

Some 2000 years ago the Holy Family fulfilled their obligations as good practicing Jews, probably as numbered among the anawim, the little people of the land who formed a faithful remnant.  Mary and Joseph took their newborn son to the Temple in Jerusalem to make the required sacrifice, and complete the time of purification for Mary from what were then seen as the impurities of childbirth.  In the 1928 Prayer Book we still had a rite, seldom used, for “the Churching of Women” following childbirth.  In the 1979 BCP that fortunately became a rather nice service of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child.

The Christian Church has, from early times, seen this visit to the Temple as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi we read as our OT lesson and which forms the text for this sermon.  In Jesus, the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel in the promises of God begin to be fulfilled.  What must have been at first a quite ordinary event in the Temple came to be seen as more like a dramatic royal visit.

Hanging around the Temple were two elderly faithful people blessed with prophetic insight by the Holy Spirit, Simeon and Anna, who recognized in this particular baby being presented the salvation of God, the light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel.  In Simeon and Anna we may find the roots of the religious life as it developed later in the Christian Church and came to be established for us in the Community of Saint Mary.  Men and women felt called to devote their time and resources to waiting in prayer for God’s salvation to manifest.

Mother Harriet, though known for her holy simplicity, was in some ways quite a complex figure.  She was already a United Sister of the Holy Communion, a sorority of women dedicated to nursing the poor and ill in New York, established by William Augustus Muhlenberg along evangelical and definitely non-Romanist lines.  She and her companions felt called to a deeper commitment and a more formally structured life, and, following in the wake of sisterhoods formed in England around Edward Pusey’s influence, they decided to pursue a more recognizably monastic model.  This would allow them to place equal focus on ministries of service and on the daily round of prayer and eventually Eucharist.  The ministries of nursing, rescue from poverty and abuse, and education of young women would continue in the new community, but now in a firm framework of daily office and Eucharistic worship.

The struggles of the early community remind us of things we need to pay attention to in our own day.  First was the ideological controversy surrounding all things “high church” in the fifty years or so following the first professions, a resistance sometimes sincerely based on Protestant principle, but all too often fueled by a nativist anti-Romanism hiding what really amounted to a racist dislike of newer immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe.  Remnants of this remain in some brands of evangelicalism today, and the vocation of Anglicanism as a reformed catholic expression of Christianity seeking to unite love of Gospel, Creed, and Sacrament remains.  More deeply perhaps, we are all reminded to beware the ideological false consciousness that can infect our most sincerely held views, and more simply that we are all better when we are being for what we are for than when we are opposing what we are against.  Purity of heart is much to be desired and hard to come by.

Second, we confront the risks of mission.  An ultimate expression of those risks is the yellow fever deaths in the Community that we celebrate especially on the feast of Sister Constance and her companions.  They remind us, though, that the One we follow faced those risks as well, ultimately dying for us all on the cross, with Mary’s heart being pierced by grief also, as prophesied.  Mission is always costly, and we cannot know in advance what the cost will be.  Those who enter it deeply know the risks of the life of prayer as well.  Often it seems there is more darkness than light, more desolation than consolation, and perseverance in prayer can require tremendous courage.  But to be called is to be sent, and sent in prayerful waiting for the Lord to return to the Temple.   The Pearl of Great Price is, well, costly, after all.  It will finally cost everything, and be worth every bit.

Third, even a cursory glance at the history of the Community reminds us of another truth we would often rather not face:  other people are difficult. Whether experienced in the domesticity of some version of the nuclear family or in the rigors of the common life of a religious house, family life is almost never smooth sailing.  Psychiatrist Israel Charney defined a family as a cooperative society for fostering human growth through vaccinations of pain.  That is as true of a religious house as it is of a biological family, and it has been true of the history of this Community from the beginning as an exit from the Holy Communion sisterhood to the departures for Rome in the early 20th century, to more recent events in this Province.  As long as these remain vaccinations and not the actual dis-ease of the evil one, they can be a means of grace to us.  Indeed, one of the more annoying characteristics of the God we serve is just how often grace appears as someone we find difficult.  In the end, grace is even present in the midst of the dis-ease itself, and we hope when that happens the vaccinations will prove effective.

In all three areas, after the delight comes the refiner’s fire, of which the ascetic life is one embrace.

Purity of heart, faithfulness amid the risks of mission and prayer, and commitment to the difficult gracefulness of community, are all reflections of the purity, covenant fidelity, and risk acceptance of that little family in the Jerusalem Temple, as well as the elderly prophets who greeted them.  We celebrate these today, even as we embrace them in all their riskiness.  We give thanks for Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Anna and Simeon, and also for Harriet, Constance, all the sisters in our local cemetery, most recently Lucy, and for the sisters presently of this Province, Madeline Mary, Elizabeth Grace, Mary Martha, Mary Izita, and including Margaret and Mary Hope and Inez who cannot be with us today.  We give thanks for all the Oblates and Associates, and we pray for all those whom we trust the Spirit is even now moving to join our ranks in one capacity or another.  We offer 150 years of history, and pray for a future we can scarcely imagine, asking for grace to seek, to wait for, to delight in, the Lord who comes, even the messenger of the covenant.