What are we waiting for?
Our lives are often overshadowed by the gap between how they are
and how we feel they should be. One of my favourite songs by Paul
Simon, 'Train in the distance', closes with the words 'The thought that
life could be different / is woven indelibly into
our hearts and our brains'.
Sometimes we make efforts to bridge the gap ourselves. And
sometime we wait in hope that things will change. Perhaps circumstances
will change, things will come right. Sometimes the change for which we
wait is internal: those changes which willpower
alone will never achieve, but time can sometimes make possible, as it
allows healing or growing up to take place.
The waiting in our lives can become especially intense as they
approach their end. The idea that people can choose the moment of their
own death would have seemed far-fetched to me before I was ordained.
But someone hanging on until a son or a daughter
has made one last visit is something I've seen enough times as a parish
priest, to allow me to change my mind.
Often what people are waiting for towards the end of their lives is a birth. Another grandchild. A great-grandchild.
Simeon, from our Gospel reading, had been waiting for a birth. We
read that he had been 'looking forward to the consolation of Israel'.
Simeon wasn't the only person in the Temple that day waiting for things
to change. The 84-year old Anna 'began to
speak about the child to
all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem'. In a country
and at a time when religion and
politics were inseparably bound up, 'the consolation of Israel', and
'the redemption of Jerusalem' were words with as much political as
religious significance. During the previous century the Kingdom of
Judea had been established as a Roman client kingdom
and today's story is set around the time when part of the kingdom became
a province of the Roman empire. Those who were looking for the
redemption of Jerusalem included some willing to fight to try to bring
it about. In the year AD 70, a revolt by the Jews
against the Romans, led to the destruction of the Temple and much of the
city, but even that didn't put rebellion to an end. Around sixty years
later there was a Second Revolt, and documents have been found dating
themselves in relation to what they call 'the
Redemption of Israel' and 'the Freedom of Jerusalem', terms fairly
similar to those used in our Gospel reading.
of what Simeon was waiting for, part of what those who Anna spoke to
were waiting for, was political liberation. Justice. Our gospel
reading doesn't explicitly say that Anna herself
was waiting for this liberation, this redemption, this consolation. But
it's not implausible to read it into the story. A woman approaching
the end of her days, waiting and longing for a sign of liberation, of
hear about a religious woman who finds herself centre-stage at a
religious ceremony bringing years of waiting by many to an end, years of
waiting for justice, I find it hard not to bring
to mind the consecration six days ago in York Minster, of the first
Church of England woman bishop, Libby Lane.
It reminds me also of another story, a story I know personally,
about a woman called Anne, an Anglican minister who is a friend and
former colleague of my wife Carys. Before she was ordained Anne had been
a psychiatric nurse. Back in the early 1980s she
was working at a psychiatric institution where one very elderly woman,
Mary, had been since the reign of Queen Victoria. In all that time, she
had never said a word.
But one night, as Anne was preparing Mary for bed, Mary spoke.
'It's nearly time for benediction' she said in a thin, reedy voice,
weak through lack of use. Mary then told Anne her story. When she was a
teenager, she'd been put in the institution by
her family and her Vicar, horrified when she'd told them she felt a
strong calling to be a priest. Mary had responded by resolving not to
speak until the calling of God on her life was about to be fulfilled.
Anne was deeply moved that it had been her to whom
Mary had chosen to open up, to say her first words.
When Anne came to work the following day, she discovered that Mary,
overnight, had died. Hard not to think of Simeon's words: 'Lord,
lettest now thy servant depart in peace.'
Mary had left a gift for Anne. A cross, which she then treasured,
especially when she later got ordained as a minister in the Anglican
church. It became a symbol of this unfulfilled vocation, which Anne was
now able to live out.
And this - is that cross.
Anne did get ordained, and for personal reasons was ordained as a
deacon, but not as a priest. She is now approaching the end of her
ministry. Last summer, just before Carys's ordination as a priest, Anne
gave this cross to her as a gift. 'It was a
gift to me' she said, now I pass it on to you. When you're approaching
the end of your ministry, hand it on to another younger woman as she
gets ordained. And tell her Mary's story.'
Women are hardly the only group in the church who've been waiting
to have their voices fully heard. There is plenty for which we are
still waiting as a church. Even more for which we are waiting as a
And each of us has long-cherished dreams,
though possibly muffled through age by fear of disappointment. They are
the key to who we really are. For those of you familiar with Orson
Welles’ film ‘Citizen Kane’, they are our personal
Sometimes clarifying our dreams, our hopes,
our deepest desires, can lead to action, giving a different meaning
to the words ‘What are we waiting for?'
Today's reading - the whole Christian Gospel
indeed - suggests that somehow the fulfilment of our deepest needs,
desires and wishes is tied up with the person of Jesus. Our deepest
desires are not the ones we’re often aware of from
day to day, born out of insecurity, anxiety, vanity. Our deepest
desires reveal the people God made us to be. We may be fortunate enough
to get glimpses in this life of this fulfilment of our deepest
desires. Or even to experience truly transformative moments
in which we find ourselves for a moment ´coming homé', where we'd always
dreamt wé'd be. The complete fulfilment though, is something which has
to wait. Some people die unfulfilled, even heartbroken. Our Christian
hope extends way beyond that.
But for Simeon and Anna, all waiting had come to an end, for, in Simeon’s words 'mine eyes have seen thy salvation'.