Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Today is not the feast of Saint Cornelius

Today is the feast of Saint Cornelius, or at least it would be were it not for Candlemas, which is ranked higher and falls on the same date. Poor Cornelius. He takes this in his stride, I'm sure, but it is a pity, as I am rather fond of him.

It's two years ago that I first went to church after deciding that Christianity was starting to make an alarming amount of sense, attending Candlemas at St. Luke's church with my friend Dave (now my godfather). Candlemas was not something I had given much thought to previously, and I was not aware of its particular significance. It just happened to be the first time I stepped inside a church with the intention of Christian worship.

A few months later I was reading through Acts 10 and the story of Cornelius struck a chord. Here we have a man whose defining characteristic, in terms of his depiction in the narrative, is his origin in the classical Roman world. He was a centurion, a member of the Roman establishment and someone whose background was, at some point before he arrives in the narrative, pagan. His posting to Caesarea with the Italian cohort had brought him into contact with Judaism, and his earnest enquiries after truth had lead him to a sober and God-fearing life, possibly as a "gate proselyte" who observed some of the customs of Judaism without having become an actual member of the Jewish people.

Cornelius was visited by an angel who told him of Peter, then in nearby Joppa, and lead the two to meet, whereupon Cornelius and his household were filled with the Holy Spirit and were baptised. These events astonished Peter's companions and kicked off the vigorous debate in early Christianity regarding the position of gentiles.

I hesitate to compare myself with St. Cornelius; God-fearing is certainly not a word I would apply to myself. The best I could say, perhaps, is that even if my journey towards truth has been circuitous, the Holy Spirit has spoken quietly at important junctures, and I have benefited insofar as I have had humility enough to listen.

Remembering things which have informed my religious development, there have been things I encountered whilst a Pagan which had in them, imperfectly reflected, an intimation of the perfect love of God. I am thinking particularly of the writings of Empedocles, who suggests a universe where love is a fundamental cosmic force. Trying, and failing, to quite fit this truth into a Pagan paradigm was one of strands which ran through the period immediately prior to the beginning of my encounter with Christ.

After that first reading of Acts 10, I looked Cornelius up online and noted his feast was February 2nd, the same day I had attended the Sunday service at St. Luke's. This is the Presentation, of course, but I think it all comes together quite nicely in today's gospel reading. The Canticle of Simeon, after all, is Simeon's response to the meeting the infant Jesus after his many years of faithful waiting, and it too speaks of the universal relevance of God's incarnation:

"My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel."

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