A Pair of Turtle Doves

Candlemas and the Blessing of Vestments

Halifax Minster Sunday 3 February 2013

Sermon given by: The Right Reverend Stephen Platten, Lord Bishop of Wakefield

First of all, the four of us that is my wife, my son and his wife and I listened on the radio to the chimes of Big Ben and then sang an approximation of Auld Lang Syne. Then not long after the stroke of midnight I disappeared into the outer darkness and knocked on my neighbour’s door. With me I brought a piece of coal, a bottle of beer and a piece of Christmas cake. I was their first foot.

Now many of you will be familiar with all this. I was a (moderately) tall dark (moderately) stranger – they do know me quite well! So, first I went to be a friend, second I brought food and drink for succour, finally I brought fuel to keep them warm. Indeed it went straight on the fire. In response I was offered a powerful single malt whiskey. That’s not part of the ancient rite, I should add.

Now I said rite, a moment ago, for that is what first footing is. It is a rite of passage; it is the first crossing of the house’s threshold in the New Year. It has ancient – and I imagine Pagan roots. Rites of passage – and they would include Baptism , Confirmation, Holy Matrimony and even funerals – are a crucial part of human lives. They help prosper all and they mark out stages in our voyage through life on earth.

The gospel passage we heard moments ago recounts just such a rite of passage. It is the moment for the purification of Mary. Mary and Joseph brought a sacrifice according to the law of the land, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. We’re not told which they offered. Rather like my first footing some leeway is allowed.

But as the story continues, we see that it is more than just the recounting of any old rite of passage. In the moving language that one can expect of Luke’s gospel, a whole new world unfolds before our eyes. It is captured in that sentence: ‘Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts will be revealed.’

So this is not the everyday, albeit wholesome rite of first footing – a worthwhile but mundane left over from a Pagan past. This marks out Jesus for whom he is, the herald of a new humanity. The great feast of the Incarnation at Christmas starts us off. God is clothed in our humanity, but all set in the humblest of locations. Epiphany marks out Jesus well beyond the local bucolic setting of Bethlehem or Nazareth: the three magi represent the entire ancient world.

Now, however, on this day the hinge of Jesus’ fate is revealed: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul also,’ Mary is told. Her son will die a tragic and cruel death, but this child is set for the falling and rising of many…….’Jesus brings the promise of a new humanity. All are offered the promise of a new humanity. All are offered the promise of being taken into God, being subsumed into the heart of our creator and redeemer. But it will be a process which does not somehow bypass the normal human agonies, the tragedies of human existence.

So, how do we find ourselves heralding this new world and at the same time blessing new vestments? Isn’t this confusing the divine eternal with the ecclesiastically trivial? What have the court robes of the fourth century of the Roman imperium got to do with the nature and destiny of humanity? Surely these trappings are but a historic accident which might add a drop of colour to our weekly celebrations?

But that is entirely to miss the point. For vestments are worn not for their historic courtly origins. They are worn to mark out this and other services as part of our regular opportunity to encounter our creator and redeemer. During this hour or so, heaven opens up to earth and earth is offered a glimpse of heaven. Time itself is transfigured. As we recount the majesty of Christ in the great Eucharistic prayer, in the narrative of God being among us, these clothes tell us of this extraordinary gift. We don’t wear top hats and tails to weddings or black ties for dinners for historic reasons. Indeed they honour and focus the celebration.

So too it is with this rite of passage which we celebrate weekly, or even daily. This rite offers us a glimpse of heaven. A century and a half ago, the reintroduction of such vestments became the subject of a Parliamentary debate and a Royal Commission. It all began with the humble surplice and not splendid colour as we see today. David Scott, the Anglican priest and poet after the tradition of George Herbert writes memorably:

‘To think so many battles have been fought
over this four and a half yard circumference
of white linen. Not just by those who ironed it
up to the difficult tucks beneath the yoke
but by Divines wrangling over rubrics. 
For me it is my only finery, by law
decent and comely; a vestry friend
put on often in dread; given away
to old deft fingers to mend.
I have seen them hanging in as many ways
as there have been voices chanting in them:
immaculate in hanging wardrobes; or worn
with the peg mark still obtruding;
or chucked on the back seat of the car 
with the purple stole and the shopping.
We have put these garments on for centuries.
They persist. We wither and crease inside them.

Malachi 3:1-5 Hebrews 2: 14- end Luke 2: 22-40