One of my favourite motion pictures is the film Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it tells the story of C S Lewis, and of his relationship with the American poet Joy Gresham, whom Lewis eventually married. And the story which is conveyed through their relationship is a story of change: a story of moving out from a situation of safety and security into a context of risk, uncertainty, and loss.
More to the point, it is Lewis who undertakes this journey. The film constantly harks back to the death of Lewis’ mother when he was a child, and the trauma which this experience inflicted upon him; and it reflects on the fact that, in adulthood, he has spent much time and energy trying to ensure he never again experiences such trauma. As the film opens we find that, to a large extent, he has succeeded. He has the security of his position as a respected academic; his circle of reliable friends and acquaintances; the assurance of his rather intellectualised faith; and a settled routine centred on the ebb and flow of the academic year.
Into this comfortable cocoon, Joy Gresham bursts like an exploding bomb. And not just because she is unconventional and outspoken; but because she makes Lewis remember what it is to love. And love is the most dangerous of all conditions, because it exposes us to hurt, to pain, to suffering. And Lewis’ vulnerability is brutally rammed home to him when Gresham falls ill and is diagnosed with terminal cancer. All his security, all the safety and assurance he has worked so hard to build up is shattered, is torn to shreds with the knowledge that the woman he loves more than life itself is dying before his eyes.
Which is tragically ironic, because one of the themes that runs through Shadowlands is the theme of suffering. And this theme is repeated through the film in a series of speeches and public pronouncements, in which Hopkins, playing Lewis, says:
You see, I don’t think God wants us to be happy. It’s not that God wants us to be unhappy – it’s just that our happiness is not the point. What God wants is for us to grow up, to leave the nursery of being, and enter the world of others: to love and be loved. And in order to do that, we must suffer. We are like blocks of stone, and the blows from the sculptor’s chisel, which strike us so hard that we can scarcely bear the pain, are nonetheless what make us perfect.
This is Lewis the intellectual, acknowledging at a “head level” the reality of suffering. But this is a reality which Lewis, by the way he has constructed his life around the imperative of safety, himself denies. Confronted by his own and Gresham’s suffering, he has no experience to fall back on, no way of navigating his way through his circumstances. And one of the questions which Shadowlands poses is: will Lewis embrace this experience as part of the totality of his being, or will it cause him to once more retreat into a safe, sterile, comfortable world of security and insularity? In other words, will Lewis leave the child’s nursery into which he has for so long confined his life – will he grow up and become fully human?
It may seem strange to say so, but the situation portrayed in Shadowlands was not unlike that which confronted the early church. The Christians of this period lived through a time of change, a time in which old certainties were being challenged; and they were confronted with the question of whether they could come to grips with a new world, a new reality presented in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They were a people who had to work out what this Gospel of Christ meant for them as human beings; and because their past life experience was largely irrelevant for that purpose, they were rather like teenagers learning how to become adults: they had to “grow up” as it were, they had to emerge from the safe cocoon of their old lives into the riskier, more difficult life to which they were being called.
Sound familiar? Hands up anyone who thinks this might also be a picture of the church in the present? Hands up if you think that the church, as a community of faith, is in a situation where it must emerge from old certainties and old securities into a less certain, riskier future? Hands up if you think the church is currently experiencing some growing pains as we undergo a process of discovery, re-discovery, and change?
But we should not be surprised that this is the case, because the life of the church has always been one in which the People of God are called to reflection and renewal and change. When we think of the Church’s tradition, we can be inclined to think of it as immovable, unchanging, permanent; we can be inclined to associate Church tradition with its most visible monuments. But that can be misleading: because while we certainly do inherit much from the past, we also change this inheritance, re-shaping and renewing it to make it speak to different times and different contexts. Which isn’t to say we throw out the old and bring in the new; rather, that the old leads to the new, and the new comes out of the old.
Look at Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. In accordance with the Mosaic Law that required all firstborn male children to be dedicated to God, Jesus’ parents take him to the Temple. So from the very outset of his life, Jesus is steeped in the traditions of his people and their relationship with God. But here’s the thing: scholars now recognise that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was not the same as the Judaism of King David’s time; and that the Judaism of the present is not the Judaism that existed at the time of Jesus. Which isn’t to say that these three expressions of Judaism bear no relationship to one another, that the Judaism of the present and of two thousand years ago didn’t grow out of the Judaism of King David’s time. But what it does show is that faith does not exist in a vacuum. The Bible is such a big and complex and varied book precisely because it is the history of faith changing, developing, and renewing over time in response to the very changes which the challenge of faith produces in human beings.
And we see that symbolically in the figures of Simeon and Jesus. Simeon is an old man, righteous according to the Law and longing for the day of restoration promised by God through the covenant with Israel. He is the very essence of the tradition of faith, steeped in ancient, received wisdom; yet he also looks forward, to a time when the tradition he represents is brought to its fulfilment. And so God’s Spirit leads Simeon to the Temple, where he encounters Jesus, the child who, as an adult, will change everything. Simeon the ancient, the solid, the dependable, leads to Jesus the disturbing, the risky, the over-thrower of certainties. Jesus does not represent a break from Simeon – Jesus affirms Simeon. Jesus is not proclaiming a “new faith” – Jesus is proclaiming the Good News of faith brought to fulfilment.
But that fulfilment isn’t the restored kingdom of David that many Jews in Jesus’ day were hoping for. And neither is it to be found today in wishful thinking about any kind of “return” to a society in which congregations are big and getting bigger, where most people agree that it’s important to attend Sunday services, and our kids grow up learning the truths we want them to know without competition from other sources. Because however much this vision might have once reflected a social reality, and whatever might have been the benefits of that reality, we must always be careful to not confuse the fulfilment of our faith with the particular form the church takes in any given time or place.
Because the fulfilment to which Christ calls us is not to be found in security and certainty, it is to be found in faith as a lived reality, a reality in which we encounter what Christ himself came to bring us: life in all its abundance. And an important and necessary part of that abundance is difficulty and challenge and uncertainty, the kind of messiness and complexity that requires us to take responsibility and make decisions, even if our previous life experience is ill-equipped for the purpose. The kind of abundance that requires us to endure some “growing pains” as we undertake the life-long process of working out what our faith means to us as human beings.
Which isn’t to say that we can unthinkingly abandon the past under the delusion that we can create a future out of nothing. Rather, we must be like Simeon, blessing the future with faith’s ancient foundations – foundations that look beyond themselves, toward fulfilment. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, we are heirs: heirs to a tradition of struggle and growth and change and renewal. Heirs to a faith that draws us into the abundance of life with all its hardship and difficulty. Our adoption as children of God through our faith in Christ means that we are still experiencing the troubled and sometimes painful transition from our adolescence into adulthood; but we also have the assurance that that transition will come about – provided we are open to the Spirit of risk and change and uncertainty. Provided we are open to the sometimes painful process of growing up, of leaving the nursery of being and entering into the world of others.
For that, ultimately, is the lesson of our faith. As Lewis concludes at the end of Shadowlands: As a child I chose safety; as a man, I choose suffering. He learns to grow up, to love and be loved. And to be a person of faith is to be someone who takes the greatest risk of all: commitment to a relationship that is transformative, that leads to new and different ways of being. It is to be Simeon, who commits the whole of his life to the risk of faith and the promise of fulfilment. It is to be the one who searches for the Christ-child, never knowing where he may be found. And as we come to the end of one calendar year and enter the next, it is the reminder that what comes next may emerge from what went before; but it will be different, it will involve change, it will involve risk and maybe even pain. But from this will grow something perfect: the embodied and transformed reality that is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.