“Look a virgin shall conceive and bear and son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”
I am struck at the end of this year by how many Christmas carols are lullabies and I have been wondering why.
There are plenty of carols which are the opposite, of course: Hark the Herald Angels Sing is a call to wake up. O Come All Ye Faithful summons us to worship. Some of the best-loved carols tell the Christmas story: O Little Town; Once in Royal David’s City; While Shepherds watched.
But many are simple lullabies. They are full of gentleness and tenderness and welcome and love. Away in a Manger. Silent Night. The Coventry Carol. The Rocking Carol. There is even a Radio 3 website which ranks carols by how likely they are to send you to sleep.
After a difficult year, those simple carols move us in ways we don’t fully understand. A tear comes to the eye. Sobs rise in the throat. We take the hand of those we love. Friends embrace. What is going on?
The carols are reminding us of the very centre of the Christmas story; the very centre of the human story. At the end of a difficult year, the world does not need to be told to pull itself together. The world does not need to be shouted at or scolded or condemned. The world doesn’t need yet more words seeking to explain the mysteries of life.
The world simply needs to catch a glimpse that, after all, God really is love and mercy and goodness, despite everything. The world needs simply to be held and loved and mended. The world needs rest and peace.
Our world needs to hear again that God speaks in gentle whispers and not through earthquake, wind or fire.
That wisdom comes from teenage girls and foreign lands and ordinary working people.
By common agreement, 2019 has been a difficult year. There is a deep fear abroad in the world. The very climate of the earth is changing in ways which are damaging and unpredictable. Still, the leaders of some of the most powerful nations on earth are in denial and others too slow to act.
We hoped technology might bring us together. We are more connected than ever before, but we are also more lonely and isolated and divided. So-called social media eats away the borders of our person and encroaches on every secret place. We see the worst side of human life and inequality reflected in the mirror of our online lives.
The political rancour and stalemate we have endured has affected workplaces and families and morale and spills over into every day fractures and divisions. The ordinary trials of life, illness and insecurity are amplified the more we understand the lostness of the whole world. Where are we to turn for help when all everything is coming apart?
“Look, says the prophet, a virgin shall conceive and bear and son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”
Over all this sad and weary earth, God sends and sings this lullaby. Christmas in our culture now is a time for deep remembering. We have almost forgotten the story but not quite and not at Christmas. Here is the great and mighty wonder. God is love. God is born into our broken and frightened world. God comes to us as a child, the Son of Mary. God enters creation in humility and truth. God comes to redeem us. God comes to be with us.
God comes to save us from our very selves and the from the mess we make. That is why God’s Son takes the name Jesus, Saviour. God comes to mend us and remake us: Jesus is the Prince of Peace. God comes to end loneliness: we are not alone in the vastness of creation. God is with us, Emmanuel. God comes to bring hope for all our futures and the promise of a just world and a kingdom which will live forever, a new heaven and a new earth. This is the story we are called to live and called to tell.
Jesus is God’s own lullaby, the Word made flesh, the word of life, the word of love. Whatever your year has been like, hear this lullaby this Christmas. Take hold of this word of love as a person who is sinking in quicksand seizes a rope.
Hold it fast.
Allow yourself to be anchored and pulled to safe ground. Rebuild from this strong centre.
You are loved. God is with us. Jesus is born.
He is here.
Christ Church Cathedral
Christmas Day, 2019
“Thank you so much to the Wardens elect, and to the outgoing churchwardens for the ministry you exercise week in and week out. ” That was the opening line to Bishop Steven’s annual Charge to the churchwardens who tirelessly serve our parishes. His words are applicable to every churchwarden in the Diocese:
Father Jean Marc Fournier is chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade. On Monday evening, Abbe Fournier led the successful attempt to rescue the precious objects from the burning Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Among them was the crown of thorns, the equivalent someone wrote this week of England’s crown jewels, but surely an even more important and powerful symbol. This simple crown was brought to Paris in 1238 when Notre Dame was newly built.
It looks like a wreath comprised of brittle but elegantly woven marine rushes. The first reference to this crown of thorns is from the early fifth century in Jerusalem. The crown was moved to Constantinople around 500 years later and then onto Paris where it has remained ever since.
Much has been written this week of the symbolism of the burning Cathedral and the plans to rebuild. Images of the cross which survived in the ruins of the nave have been passed across the world.
But the most powerful and life-giving image of all, I think, is this fragile ancient crown, a brand snatched from the burning, whether or not it is the actual crown worn by Jesus Christ.
This crown is central to John’s gospel. If you have a moment later today, look back over the story of the passion and see references to Christ as King. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, coming as the anointed king of Israel.
Pilate’s dialogue with Jesus and with the crowds is all about what it means to be a king. “Are you the king of the Jews?” and “Here is your king”. The crowds reply “We have no king but the emperor”. Pilate’s charge above Jesus cross is written in three languages: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”.
“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head”.
We cannot understand the real meaning of Easter day unless we understand who is crucified and risen. Jesus is the coming king. The crown of thorns is the symbol of his kingdom.
Here is your king. This is the king who does not assume his throne through violence and force of arms.
This is the king motivated by love who brings in a kingdom not of this world.
This is the servant king: the one who kneels to wash the feet of his disciples and who brings in a kingdom marked by justice and peace.
This is the king who gives to his followers a new commandment: above all we are to love one another.
This king is not for one nation alone in a single lifetime but for every nation in all the time to come. This king does not inaugurate a dynasty for his reign will last for ever. Instead, he forms a community through his death on the cross and his rising from the dead. He does not come to be served but to serve.
And this is why the crown of thorns is such a remarkable symbol: of power and glory combined with suffering which saves and redeems the entire world.
In the garden on Easter Day, joy and pain are woven fine. Mary is weeping. Four times we are told of her tears. The gentle gardener speaks her name and that is all it takes. In and through her grief Mary recognises that this is indeed Jesus, her teacher and her Lord: the king whose death has brought salvation to the world. In Peter’s words in Acts: “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”.
All those who believe and follow him are taught to pray, each day for the coming of God’s kingdom: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. The kingdom of the king who wears this crown of thorns. This is the kingdom of Isaiah’s vision, realised through suffering, where infants will not die and the elderly will live out their days in sand peace.
How will this kingdom come? The way is symbolised by this crown of thorns. It is the way of love and reconciliation. It would be a wonderful consequence of a terrible fire if the crown of thorns were to find its way back to the centre of our common life and our understanding of power.
The suffering and tears continue even in the midst of joy in Sri Lanka today and in South Sudan and in many places where Christians suffer for their faith. Joy and pain are woven fine. Easter is our reminder that it is the songs of joy which will prevail.
We live in an age of sharp and polarised debate. Extremes of left and right offer us their certainties. Words are used to wound and tear down and incite fear and violence. More and more people live in echo chambers of their own making and blame others for their misfortunes.
Our nation flounders in uncertainty: or rather we flounder in the conflicting fire of different certainties. The result is deeper and deeper fragmentation. There is a danger we will inflict damage on our common life which will endure for a generation.
The crown of thorns offers a better way. It does not point to a particular path but it does lead us back to a better politics. It is a symbol of servant leadership; of suffering and glory woven together; of not seeking power for its own sake; of exercising that power when gained with gentleness; of holding together glory and sacrifice; of being willing to draw and hold all things together.
Her Majesty the Queen celebrates her birthday today. Her reign has been built on the pattern of the servant king. The Queen offered words of wisdom to the nation in January speaking to the Women’s Institute in Sandringham. “I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture”.
The recipe sounds so simple. But it is really very difficult and this kind of wisdom is slipping from the centre of our national life.
I am sure France needs its crown of thorns in this present moment as much as we do, but I would be enormously cheered if we could borrow this powerful symbol of a different way and set it for a time in Westminster Abbey or even here in this Cathedral. It would be a reminder that each of us is called to share in the ministry of the risen Christ and especially Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.
This day we remember and we celebrate that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In Christ there is forgiveness and new life for all. In Christ, death has been conquered. In Christ there is fresh vision for the whole world. From Christ there flows a different way of combining suffering and service and glory and power. All of us are called to follow in this way: the way of the crown of thorns.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The Easter Day sermon given by the Rt Rev Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford
Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
21 April 2019
Who is your favourite character from Narnia? For those under 30, the Narnia chronicles are children’s books penned by CS Lewis, a kind of forerunner to Game of Thrones with much less blood and sex.
My favourite is Puddleglum the Marsh Wiggle from the Silver Chair. Puddleglum is the Eeyore of Narnia. His outlook is uniformly bleak. In his world, it’s best to keep your expectations low and it is almost certain to rain tomorrow. But Puddleglum has the best line in the story.
Jill and Eustace are trapped in the Underworld trying to rescue the Prince. All three fall under the Witch’s spell. All is about to be lost. Then Puddleglum bravely sticks his foot in the fire. He draws a line. The smell of burnt Marshwiggle starts to lift the enchantment. The pain clears his head. “One word, Ma’am”, he says to the Witch…
“Suppose we have only dreamed and made up all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself…. Then all I can say is that the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. We’re just babies making up a game if you are right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real-world hollow”.
Puddleglum holds the vision of the light, of the kingdom of Aslan, even in the darkest places of despair. In that tension he finds the courage to stand, to act, and to bring hope to others. We come together this Maundy Thursday to renew our commitment to ministry and to place our feet back in the fire for another year.
How are we to minister and serve in such a very lost and broken world? In a society which is so unsure of itself? In which people carry heavy burdens and face fear and despair with such meagre inner resources? How are we to help our communities back to a place of confidence and fairness?
How are we to continue to help the world find the strength to fight the chaos of climate change and unite around the goals of justice and peace? The imperfections of the Church sap our strength. All of us have heavy burdens to bear ourselves. How can we shoulder them and yet still offer hope and healing to the world?
Puddleglum is a character from a story. But Puddleglum stands in the long line of the prophets: men and women who are utterly realistic about the condition of the world and of the human heart and of the people of God and yet are filled with a vision and hope beyond themselves.
When Jesus stands in the synagogue at Nazareth and unrolls the Book of Isaiah and reads these words, he is standing in that tradition: holding the darkness of the world in tension with the deeper vision of God’s kingdom. We must stand there too: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. To let the oppressed go free”.
We must stand there too, however difficult we find it. There is another kingdom. We must stand in the place of hope. We must hold out in our lives and our preaching the tender message of salvation for lost and broken people. We must craft and proclaim from the scriptures a vision for humankind and creation which is more loving and honest and hopeful than anything this world offers. We are called to sustain by word and sacrament thousands of imperfect and countercultural communities who hold out a different vision of human life and which infect and re-infect the world’s dis-ease with God’s deep medicine of joy.
This is no easy ministry. The longer I am a bishop, the more clearly I see what this vocation to serve God’s church can cost; the more deeply I appreciate the sacrifice and dedication of colleagues and friends who are LLMs, deacons, priests and bishops and who serve in different ways. Thank you on behalf of God’s church for your faithfulness to God’s call. Thank you to all who support and encourage those called to these ministries.
This is no easy ministry. But these ministries remain vital ministry not only for the Church but for the world. There is no greater need than the rekindling of hope, the singing of a different song. All of us need to watch over ourselves, to acknowledge the difficulty of our calling, to take time out for refreshment and renewal, to recover where we are wounded, to live gently where we can because we too are loved by God and precious in God’s sight.
And as we renew our commitment to this ministry, how will we minister in this coming year? May I offer you three pathways to reflect on and to explore which flow from this service and especially from the blessing of the oils.
The first is to recover confidence in the Church’s ministry of healing, symbolised by the oil for anointing the sick and dying.
To pray for healing is to be utterly honest about the human condition but also to hold out a vision of love and hope.
For some years now, the ministry of healing has been, I think, declining in importance in our churches. But we live in times of great pain and confusion. I have begun to notice some churches offering opportunities for prayer and anointing again: moments of grace where we lift those who are suffering to God. Take these oils and use them to anoint the sick and the dying and see what God will do.
The second is to recover confidence in the great sacrament of baptism with confirmation, symbolised by the oil for signing with the cross at baptism. To baptise and mark others with the sign of the cross is to be utterly honest about the human condition to but also to hold out a vision of love and transformation.
We are still at the beginning of the renewal of catechesis in our diocese. We want to see children and young people and adults come to a living faith in Christ, baptised into the life of the Church and equipped as mature disciples to serve God in the whole of their lives. I see encouraging signs of new beginnings, first steps in confidence but we have much still to learn. Take these oils and use them to sign many with the cross at the beginning of their journey of faith as children and as adults.
The third is to recover confidence in our ministry of calling others to Christian service in a thousand different ways, symbolised by the oil of chrism. To call others into ministry and mission is to be utterly honest about the state of the world but to hold out a vision of God’s purpose and of a new creation. There is much good work going on to encourage vocations across our Diocese and I am thankful for all those who are involved. One sign of growing confidence and life will be that the flame of this vocations work will spread to more and more parishes as we recover hope and confidence in God’s grace and see more and more diverse groups of people offering themselves in God’s service.
Take these oils and use them as a reminder that you too are called to invite others into the cost and joy of these ministries.
Four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. On this day we will remember all that Christ gives to us in the Eucharist. We will remember Christ’s call to service and to the washing of feet. We will remember the new commandment to love one another.
You and I are called to be a people of hope; contemplative, compassionate, courageous. May God renew in each of us that hope and strength in ministry for the sake of God’s Church and for the sake of God’s world.
The sermon from the Blessing of the Oils service at Dorchester Abbey on Maundy Thursday, 18 April 2019.
See a behind the scenes photo gallery of the service on the Diocese of Oxford Facebook page.
There is a refrain which runs through Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus: “Do not be afraid!” How we need to hear it. Read more
Most of us will have our own memories today. Both of my grandfathers fought in France. One never spoke of it to me. The other Arthur, took me aside when I was 16, the same age as the youngest boys who served in France. He told me of his time in the trenches as a volunteer. He was wounded in one of the great battles of the war, I think the Somme. For three days he lay in no man’s land. He was eventually rescued at the cost of several other lives. He carried shrapnel in his body for the rest of his life, was unable to find work and, like all who served, carried memories which scarred and shaped him and his family.
Arthur’s sacrifice and the sacrifice of his generation mattered. He lived to see his children and his grandchildren which many did not. It mattered that we understood why they fought and what they endured. It mattered that his generation passed on those values and remembered. It would have mattered to him that we are here today, remembering together, giving thanks, keeping alive the meaning of their sacrifice in music and silence and prayer and memory.
Over the past four years as a nation we have together remembered each stage of the Great War. In 2014 I was present at the moving commemoration of a memorial to a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross in the centre of Sheffield, where I was then Bishop. In 2016 I travelled with a group from Sheffield to the Somme battlefields to remember the Yorkshire PALS regiments, many of whom were mown down by German machine guns on the first and dreadful day of that battle. In November 2016 and 17 I have been with vast crowds and people of all faiths in St. Giles in Oxford as we remember together all that this war has meant. It seems to me that these centenary years have only deepened our commitment to draw together, to value the sacrifice of Arthur’s generation and to draw on their example and commitment to the good of others.
We are wise enough to know now that the battles our grandparents fought did not end at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the artillery fell silent on the Western Front. The battles against tyranny and isolation and prejudice and inequality continue. The search for purpose and meaning and love continues still. Those battles need to be set in an eternal perspective. They recur in different ways in each generation.
Paul writes of that new and eternal perspective which flows from one person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. God has reconciled us to himself through Christ. The destiny of humankind is not fragmentation and war but common purpose and unity and a new creation. We are part of this bigger story. God has now entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation. It is our mission, in every generation, to work for peace and freedom and justice with the same commitment shown by the generation who fought the Great War.
As we look back one hundred years it is possible to see in our nation then a greater common purpose than we see today. We are not blind to the weaknesses of the war generation nor to the mistakes that were made. But we do see a commitment to a common cause, a confidence in the values of peace and truth and the common good, a desire to see the world reconciled and a willingness to face together the great challenges of the age.
Such common cause today defeats us. We are finding it difficult as a nation even to rethink and reimagine our relationship with Europe in a way that brings unity and common purpose. We grow more not less fragmented along lines of race and religion and politics and wealth. Our common discourse all too easily admits the language of hate and violence.
If we cannot reimagine a new relationship with Europe how will we begin to face the global challenges of climate change, of new technologies, of global migration and of common purpose and meaning?
The generation of the Great War faced their moment of great crisis and rose to that moment in unity and sacrifice and purpose. We face in our own generation challenges of equal weight though we do not see them as clearly. In the stories of our past we need to find inspiration and fresh vision for our future. In our acts of remembrance in this centenary year we need to remember who we are. As we remember the fallen and care for those affected by war we need to rededicate ourselves to the cause of peace and to the common good for which men and women gave their lives.
This is our long story. We are part of a longer story of remaking and peace and reconciliation. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us.
a sermon given at the 2018 Festival of Remembrance, Reading Minster.
see also First World War Centenary – Remembrance resources for church leaders, children’s workers and teachers.
A sermon for St. Frideswide
Our view of the universe is becoming smaller. One of the reasons is light pollution. There is so much wasted light now in urban and suburban areas that we can no longer see the night sky. We are so blinded by the artificial light that our view of the heavens is limited.
Psalm 8.3 is familiar to most of us:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them”.
What happens to our sense of wonder and our humility when we can no longer see moon and stars and planets and galaxies with the naked eye. Perhaps we become blind to the glory of God.
To restore your sense of wonder, you will need to travel outside the city, outside the villages, to one of the few remaining dark places and let your eyes drink in the wonder of the universe.
Spending time in the Church is good. It’s good to pray, to worship, to gather, to study. But when we spend all our time on church affairs, we begin to suffer from a different kind of light pollution. We lose our sense of wonder at all God is doing in God’s world. A different kind of retreat is needed.
In the great monastic tradition there are two kinds of movement. The first is to retreat from the world to catch a fresh vision of God in quietness and solitude, community and prayer and study: the path of Anthony and Benedict. The second kind of movement is to retreat from the Church and go again into the world to catch a fresh vision of God in service and in mission: the path of Cuthbert and Francis.
I think St. Frideswide our patron is part of this second great movement, not the first. Frideswide retreats according to the legend. But Frideswide retreats into the world, as it were, into the darkness and in the darkness she is able to catch a fresh vision of God’s wonder. For God is still at work beyond the life even of God’s church.
Frideswide is not called into an established monastic house with a recognised rule in an existing town or city. Nor is she called into the remote countryside where no-one lives. Frideswide is a young missionary pioneer, a breaker of moulds. She retreats into the darkness. She establishes a simple community at a crossroads, a river crossing, where she knows there will be people but in a place where there is as yet no settlement and no church.
Frideswide is in new territory. She pioneers a fresh expression of the church. She welcomes both men and women. She is called beyond the life of the court, the life of convention and the life of the Church of her day to begin again from first principles. She travels out into the friendly darkness, to where people are. Frideswide prays. She serves the poor. In the friendly darkness, as it were, she is able to catch a fresh vision of God’s wonder.
There is a beautiful definition of mission, often wrongly attributed to Rowan Williams because he quotes it often. “Mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in”. The original quotation is from John V. Taylor in his wonderful book, The Go Between God.
The saying captures, arguably, the most important lesson the global church was learning in the 20th Century and is learning still in the 21st . It’s captured in the Latin tag “missio dei”: the mission of God. God is at work in and through the whole of God’s world. We see only a part of what God is doing as we see only the part of the night sky. To see more of what God is doing we need to retreat beyond the church, to watch and listen, to find out what God is doing and to join in. I dare to think that this is what St. Frideswide does.
It’s certainly what Paul and his companions are doing when they arrive in Philippi (Acts 16.11-16). Heaven holds its breath at this point in the Acts of the Apostles as the gospel comes to a new continent. Every place Paul has visited to this point has had a synagogue – a natural starting point. We know from Romans that Paul’s very mission is continually to go where Christ has not yet been named (Romans 15.20). Paul the missionary continually travels beyond the church to discover afresh what God is doing and to join in. So what is God doing in Philippi: a place with no synagogue; in a different continent. Will the Spirit still be at work so far from home?
It takes a few days for the eyes of the team to become accustomed to the friendly darkness, as it were. On the sabbath day they come to the river. They are not retreating into solitude but, like Frideswide, coming to where the people are.
“And we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul”.
The Lord opened her heart – a powerful and beautiful phrase. Lydia and her household were baptised. The Lord has been at work already. Paul is symmetry joining in what God is doing. Then in a beautiful intentional symmetry, perhaps echoing Martha and Mary, the opening of Lydia’s heart leads to the opening of her home:
“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”.
When we dare to go beyond the life and light of the Church, we begin to see new things as the light pollution fades. We see that God is at work richly in human lives already. We discover spiritual hunger and thirst for meaning which is sometimes hidden in the life of the congregation. We see the wonder of the gospel through new eyes. We learn as Frideswide did that God graciously answers prayers for healing. We sit with the poor and we learn from them. We discover that the people God is calling do not fit our stereotypes. In Philippi the Church is established around the households of a wealthy single migrant woman and a suicidal gaoler.
St Frideswide is a radical in our midst. This city and diocese grew up around a place of prayer, where God was at work. The first church on this site was founded by a pioneer who retreated from the church and retreated into the friendly darkness, who discovered and rediscovered the wonder of God at work.
In all of this St Frideswide follows the pattern of Christ who continually breaks out of the circle of disciples to call unexpected others and the pattern of the missionary Spirit who calls and guides St Paul to preach where Christ has not yet been named.
We discern a calling in our generation to be a more Christ-like Church in this place: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous. Part of our calling will be to retreat in mission away from the life of the Church. We need to attend to what God is doing in contemplation; to sit with those who are like sheep without a shepherd with compassion and with courage to discover what God is doing and to join in.
May the prayers of Frideswide and all the saints assist us in God’s mission.
It is very good to be here. Thank you for the music. Thank you for all that is invested in giving glory to God through choirs across the Diocese and through the Royal School of church music.
What do you think is at the centre of the universe? The excellent new Dr Who last week was in Sheffield but I think tomorrow ventures into outer space. Perhaps we will find out.
A long time ago, our ancestors believed the earth itself was at the physical centre of creation. The sun and moon and stars orbited our own planet. We were ourselves therefore near the centre of the universe.
Almost 500 years ago, Nicholas Copernicus, the German mathematician and astronomer, demonstrated that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the solar system. It was a massive revolution in self-understanding. The planets orbit the sun and not the other way round.
But then we discovered that our sun is one of billions of stars and our galaxy is one of millions of galaxies and a rather modest one at that. We learned that the universe has been expanding for the last 14 billion years since the Big Bang. And actually there is no physical centre for reasons I don’t fully understand. We are in a vast expanse of space but the universe itself gives no clue about meaning, except that we are physically a tiny part of creation.
So what is at the centre of the universe?
If you love the Anglican choral tradition, you will soon grow to love the psalms – at least I hope you do. Their phrases will stay with you for years. The psalms are at the very centre of the Bible. The psalms emerged from generations of Hebrew poets, men and women, wrestling. They were wrestling with faith and anger and pain, guilt and passion, pride and shame, trust and hate: all the things we feel.
The Hebrews of our Old Testament were forbidden from making graven images. It’s there in the second commandment. The visual arts played very little part in their worship for that reason. Instead the energy of the Hebrews was poured into crafting songs and choirs and music in which all the drama of life was present. Their mixed choirs were famous throughout the civilised world. People would come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem especially at festival time. They would camp around the city, like an early Glastonbury.
By and large they would come not to sing but to listen and often to walk in procession. They would come with their questions and their suffering and their wrestling with meaning. And as they listened they would identify with the psalms where everything was falling apart and with the drama of the ancient stories. But then slowly, as they listened their world would begin to make sense again. Patterns and meanings and reason begin to appear in the beauty of the liturgy and music. There would be new strength and healing and reconciliation and new resolutions for the journey home.
What is at the very centre of the universe?
Psalm 118 was sung to us this evening, very beautifully. Thank you. Psalm 118 contains all of that wrestling and drama. It is a song about suffering and danger and death and victory and coming through adversity and rejection to triumph. Psalm 118 is a collection of songs for different choirs and soloists. It’s the libretto for a whole drama to be acted out in procession.
And at the beginning and the end of the Psalm there is an answer to the question: what is at the very centre of the universe? The question is answered not in terms of geography but in terms of meaning.
O give thanks to the LORD for he is good
His steadfast love endures for ever.
Let Israel say, His steadfast love endures for ever.
Let the house of Aaron say, His steadfast love endures for ever.
Let those who fear the LORD say, His steadfast love endures for ever.
At the end of the psalm we return to the beginning:
O give thanks to the LORD for he is good.
His steadfast love endures for ever.
The same refrain runs through many of the other psalms. At the very centre of the universe, the psalms tell us, is nothing other than love: the strong, steadfast love and mercy of God, enduring generation after generation, deeper than any human sorrow, higher than any human aspiration, wider than any human heart can embrace. This is a love which endures, which forgives, which believes and which hopes.
This is the story you commit yourself to singing as a musician of the Church. It’s the story and the centre of all church music. As you play and sing, you are rehearsing the love of God. Through your art, you are helping others to find and understand a little more the love which is beyond our understanding.
This is the story and the song which runs through the best of music in every generation, which recurs in unexpected places: that love is powerful and strong and endures despite all of the evil in the world.
This is the very centre of the universe. This is the love which takes flesh in Jesus Christ. This is the love which guides and shapes our lives.
In the words of the recent song by the American country singer, Carrie Underwood:
Love will, love can, love still, love wins.
Love will, love can, love still, love wins.
To sing of that love with the best of human skill and craft, to dedicate yourself to the telling of love’s story is a high and holy calling. May God bless you as you sing:
O give thanks to the LORD for he is good.
His steadfast love endures for ever.
A sermon at the RSCM Annual Diocesan Choirs Festival
Saturday, 13 October 2018