Whenever the reading from Luke comes round, of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Mary and Joseph, I recall probably the best sermon on it I have ever encountered.
This sermon comes not from a church but from a novel by the late great Canadian author Robertson Davies. Davies wrote many books but I have been particularly fond of two of his trilogies: the Salterton trilogy and the Deptford trilogy.
The Deptford Trilogy—Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders is generally regarded as his best work, taking the readers into a fantastical world of magic, horror and spirituality. It was The Manticore, the account of a Jungian analysis, that brought Davies out, as it were, as a scholar of the depth psychologist Carl Jung.
Jung, as you probably know, was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, but did not share Freud’s atheism, rather seeing the human spirit as amazingly resilient and in touch with the depth of life we call God.
The Salterton trilogy, written earlier than the Deptford trilogy, is less well known and more cartoon like in its depiction of the trials and tribulations of the lives of characters in a small Ontario town. Tempest Tost, Leaven of Malice and A Mixture of Frailties describe the effects of gossip, the scandals of affairs and the aspirations of artists in humorous ways.
There’s even a Dean of an Anglican Cathedral in the trilogy, an older saintly gentleman who not always but occasionally has some wisdom to impart. It is at the end of A Mixture of Frailties that Dean Knapp preaches a sermon on the passage from Luke’s gospel: I’ve excerpted it and want to read it to you and then ask some questions for our discussion.
As you read and listen to it, hear how Robertson Davies cleverly incorporates the insights of Jungian psychology and spirituality—many of us know these insights through the personality profile test—Myers Briggs….
“Education is learning; and learning is apprehension — in the old sense of sympathetic perception. We cannot all perceive the facts of our experience in the same way. As we draw near to the sacred season of Christmas we may fitly turn our attention to the ways in which the birth of Our Lord was perceived by those who first knew of it. Much has been made of the splendour of the vision of the shepherds, as told by St. Luke. But so far as I know, little has been said of the fact that it needed an angel and a multitude of the heavenly host to call it to the attention of these good men that something out of the ordinary had happened. Nothing short of a convulsion of nature (if I may so call it without irreverence) could impress them, and the Gospel tells us that they praised God for all the things that they had heard and seen’. There are many now, as then and always, who learn who apprehend only by what they can hear and see, and the range of what they can hear and see is not extensive. And, alas, instructive interruptions of the natural order are as few today as they were two thousand years ago . . .”
“If the shepherds needed a prodigy to stir them, the Wise Men needed no more than a hint, a new star amid the host of heaven. In art, and especially the Christmas card art … that star is usually represented as a monstrous illumination which a mole might see. That is so that the shepherds among us may understand without a painful sense of insufficiency the legend of the Kings. For legend it is; the Gospel tells us but little of these men, but legend has set their number at three, and has given them melodious names. The legend calls them Kings, and Kings they were indeed in the realm of apprehension, of perception, for they were able to read a great message in a small portent. We dismiss great legends at our peril, for they are the riddling voices by means of which great truths buried deep in the human spirit offer themselves to the world. Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar stand as models of those few, but powerful at any time who have prepared themselves by learning and dedication to know great mysteries when the time is ripe for them to be apprehended by humans . . .”
“A third figure, who perceived Our Lord in his own fashion, is particularly sympathetic, and presents in one of the most touching stories of the childhood of Christ another sort of apprehension, and that the rarest. He is the aged Simeon, who knew Our Lord intuitively (as we should say now) when He was brought to the Temple on the eighth day … Not the forcible instruction of a band of angels, nor the hard-won knowledge of the scholars, but the readiness of one who was open to the promptings of the Holy Ghost was the grace which made Simeon peculiarly blessed. We see him still as one of those rare beings, not so much acting as acted upon, not so much living life as being lived by it, outwardly passive but inwardly illumined by active grace, through whom much that is noblest and of most worth has been vouchsafed to the world . . . Oh, trusting, patient Simeon, the first to know, of his own knowledge, the Holy Face of God!”
So I wonder:
- What feelings or thoughts came up in you as you heard this analysis from sermon that closes this book?
- Which way does God come to you most powerfully—in what you apprehend? In what you reason through? In what you intuitively ‘get’?
- And I wonder what do you think this might suggest to the way the church proclaims the Christmas story—are there any clues here to make our proclamation more inviting, inclusive, powerful?