“Candlemas Compromise”

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

I first heard the expression, “Not kosher,” from my father.

There were no Orthodox Jews in the rural Massachusetts town where I grew up. So my father had to explain to me the Hebrew dietary laws.

Yet if I had been studying Church history at that time, I would have known about the restrictions that Jewish tradition placed on what the faithful should eat. For example, shellfish were forbidden food in the Old Testament; so was meat from animals which hadn’t been slaughtered in a certain way.

In the early Church, there was a great battle about the kosher rules. The battle was between Christians who had formerly been practicing Jews on one side and converts from pagan religions on the other.

The controversy centered on meat that had originally been sacrificed at rituals in pagan temples. This meat was later sold to provide money to support the temples.

Such food was not permitted to those practicing the Hebrew faith; these offerings had been made to pagan gods. Eating this meat would therefore break the Commandment to have no other gods but the Lord God of Israel.

But pagan converts to Christianity had been eating such meat all their lives. And these converts believed that they were under no obligation to follow Hebrew laws. For that matter, most of the meat in the marketplace came from some temple. So non-Jewish Christians felt that there was no sin in eating food that had once been dedicated to idols.

This is the context of the long passage from St. Paul’s writings that we heard in today’s Second Lesson. Paul agrees that the food regulations make no difference. He writes, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.”

For Paul, the crucial issue is not upsetting the community of faith. He argues that if some of the more traditionalist members are shocked to see him eating non-kosher food, then he won’t eat this food when he is with them. He won’t upset their feelings.

In such instances, religious compromise is good. And, as Paul notes, it’s not a lot to ask. Most of us could easily imagine not eating pork, for example, if that bothered other church members.

Today’s Feast of Candlemas follows another Hebrew custom. Newborn babies were brought to the Jerusalem Temple to receive a blessing. The Gospel lesson for today describes the visit that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus made to the Temple.

When they arrive, a holy man, Simeon prophesies great things ahead for Jesus. Simeon thanks God and says, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Here, too, new Christian belief emerges from older Hebrew teaching. Simeon foresees that the Gentiles will receive revelations that will give credit to the traditional faith of Israel. At the same time they pass beyond it. For in Christ, all people will be able to find spiritual truth.

The Church of the Incarnation was founded by leaders of the Broad Church movement that arose among Anglicans in England and America during the mid-1800’s. This movement tried to transcend the conflicts between conservatives and liberals, and between low church and high church parties. The result was that Episcopalians could see that different beliefs should be tolerated.

In any event, Paul claimed that it was fine for Christians to keep the Jewish rules if they felt more comfortable doing so.

This proved then to be an occasion when compromise in the church was possible. But even here, the dispute wasn’t settled without sacrifice: a split in the church occurred later, and a number of Jewish Christians left the church and returned to the synagogue.

It is also worth noting that only a few years ago, it was controversial to observe Candlemas as we are doing today. Some Anglicans claimed that it was too “Roman Catholic” to have all these candles in church! Some who liked the candles still found the ceremony too “ritualistic.”

As it happens, it was the great-grandmother of the baby being baptized today, Mimi McWilliam, who suggested many years ago that we begin to celebrate this feast at Incarnation. Happily, Candlemas didn’t provoke controversy when we introduced it here. People liked the bright lights and cheery music in the middle of the dark winter, and they were happy to try something new.

Mimi McWilliam died in December a few days before her 100th birthday, and during her long life, she wasn’t always in favor of every change! Like the early Christians who came out of the synagogues, she usually liked worshipping in ways she was used to.

For religious people, to compromise on an important principle is to go against our deepest beliefs. When you compromise, then by definition you agree to something that you are opposed to.

Today, the fights over food laws in the early church or candles in our own day might seem trivial. But even a small sacrifice of one’s beliefs can hurt.

Of course, inclusiveness isn’t always possible. We Christians can’t abandon our basic doctrines–like our belief that God loves every person.

But Christians can still have open minds! A friend of mine described the Anglican version of Christianity this way: our faith has a firm center and fuzzy edges. So while we all believe in the generosity of God, we may disagree about exactly what behavior God approves.

This general tolerance of other religious beliefs has permitted British Anglicans, for example, to enter into deep conversations with Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu leaders. Finding ways for the world religions to get along is obviously one of the most pressing spiritual issues of our age.

One final conclusion suggests itself on this Feast of Candlemas. We should look for spiritual light that is shining from whatever source we find it. We should look for whatever agreement we can find with other faiths. For that agreement, even when it involves some compromise, will certainly please the God we love. Amen.

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