Sermon 21 Mar 2010

Posted on: Sunday 21st March 2010

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Passion Sunday), 21st March 2010

Fr Richard Coles

From the prophecy of Isaiah: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tell it not in Gath, but we are short-staffed in the Deanery of Westminster St Margaret at the moment, and although short-staffed in central London is nothing like short-staffed in rural Lincolnshire, you may have seen less of the clergy than you’re used to. Enjoy it while you can.

One of the churches we’re helping to look after, as it awaits a new Vicar, is St Mary Le Strand, which despite its distinction as one of London’s finest churches – Gibbs’ masterpiece, according to those who know about such things – is little-visited. If you’ve ever tried, you’ll know why. It stands in the middle of one of London’s busiest streets, the Strand, not on a generously proportioned island accessed by zebra crossings, adorned with statues of the heroes of Bomber Command, like St Clement Danes; but slap bang in the middle of two lanes of unyielding traffic, King’s College London to the south, the BBC World Service to the north.

As an alumnus of both I suppose it is fitting that I should find myself celebrating the Eucharist in the church that stands between them; but it is not that which diverts my attention when I should be concentrating on what I’m there to do. It is the view west.

Most people in churches look east, towards the pulpit and the altar. The priest, however, looks west, at the crowd, and that in itself can be most distracting. But at St Mary le Strand you can look out beyond the congregation into the street, to see the two files of traffic passing by on either side. Thus it ever was: please note this morning’s cover picture, by George Sydney Shepherd, showing St Mary Le Strand thronged, in 1836, with landaus, barouches, phaetons and gigs. Today it is cabs and couriers and trishaws and London buses, Leyland Titans on their way to unfashionable postcodes in south London, Routemasters on the heritage trail, like scarlet dowagers disappearing into the distance.

Standing there, not paying attention to what I was doing, watching the world literally go by, struck me as a potent symbol for Lent, or rather, my Lent, which this year has been notably disappointing. On Ash Wednesday, the cross still smudgy on my forehead, I resolved to give certain things up and to take certain things on. In the former category I’ve done OK, giving up smoking, and apart from a single and in my view forgivable lapse outside the Royal Geographical Society on the centenary of Edward King, bishop of Lincoln, I’ve stuck to it. I’ve been less successful in moderating my diet, and find myself embarrassingly fatter in Passiontide than Epiphanytide, but that’s giving up fags for you.

I have been less successful, however, in taking things on. In the past I’ve been pretty diligent, saying more prayers, earlier, and more earnestly, than in the impenitent weeks of Ordinary Time; reading sermons by the Greek and Latin fathers; re-reading Paradise Lost (even years) The Divine Comedy (odd years); and giving, with grudgingly relaxed parsimony, to charity. This year it hasn’t really happened. Early in the morning, when I should have been in church and on my knees, I’ve been in Hyde Park watching Daisy frolic amid the nodding jonquils and half-eaten KFCs. This year I’ve eschewed the Homilies of St Basil of Caesarea in favour of Nordic crime fiction; and my surplus, paltry as it is, seems to have been diverted from the rattling poor box into Belgravia’s chiming tills.

So all my good intentions, or most of them, cannot rise, they are extinguished, they are quenched like a wick. I don’t really know why. I’m busier, which makes it harder to find the time to make the effort; and busier with extra-curricular activity, which takes me into a world which barely notices, if it all, the Church’s calendar. Perhaps trying to maintain the disciplines of Lent has left me feeling a bit like St Mary le Strand, stuck in the middle of the road, going nowhere, while everyone else passes by.

I’m not being nostalgic for an age when Lent was more widely observed – I don’t really remember such an age. When I was growing up I think my mother gave up Noilly Prat and badminton, but she grew up in Presbyterian Scotland in the forties and was susceptible to Calvinist enthusiasms. My father took Lent in his stride, shall we say, and apart from the shops shutting on Good Friday and Hot Cross buns for tea I don’t think it intruded much into our family life. Even for an older generation than my parents’ the disciplines have faded. I remember in my last parish spotting one of the oldest and crustiest members of the congregation in Costa’s on Good Friday when he should have been out with us on the Churches Together Walk of Witness. As he enjoyed a pain au chocolat and a cappuccino we were processing round the precinct, taking it in turns to carry the cross, while the Salvation Army band played hymns about penal substitutionary atonement. One shopper, I remember, seemed particularly moved, and came over for a word: Can we have Away in a Manger?, she asked, which perhaps tells you how little of Lent survives in our secular world.

In the monastic world, at Mirfield, where I trained for the priesthood, Lent endured. No meat, no fish, no sherry, BCP Holy Communion on Fridays, poverty lunch, and the silent retreat. In Holy Week, the brethren went away to preach missions in parishes (you had one here not so long ago) and the College took over the running of the monastic church and the forty-six services that took place between Palm Sunday and Easter. There was the Watch of Maundy Thursday, which lasted all night, a three a.m. start for the Vigil, and most burdensome of all, an obligatory fancy-dress party on Easter Day, which went on well into the small hours, followed by Silent Prayer and Mattins at six thirty the following morning. How very virtuous we all felt after that.

Maybe that tells you something, congratulating ourselves for our spiritual heroics. Just when I’m most pleased with myself I think of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple. The former, like the Pharisee Paul, or Saul as he was then, is proper and diligent and righteous, and thanks God for not being like the latter; the latter simply beats his breast and asks God for mercy. The tax-collector, not the Pharisee, goes home justified before God.

So if your Lent, like mine, would be marked could do better, don’t worry about it too much. Perhaps in acknowledging our failures we’re closer to God than when we’re congratulating ourselves for our piety.

Passiontide, which begins today, brings this into sharper focus. The austerities of Lent are more marked, with the veiling of statues and a liturgical paring-down; and as Jesus approaches Jerusalem and the climactic events which are to take place there, our part in his story also begins to take on shape, and body and pattern.

We are not willing participants in this – who wants shame and humiliation and failure and worse? – a human reality the Gospel unflinchingly tells. Jesus, in agony in the garden, is abandoned; Peter, the rock upon which Christ build his church, betrays him; and Judas, quibbling over the cost of perfume, finds a way to generate extra revenue – thirty pieces of silver.

Even Jesus himself, in his humanity, is agonised by the approach of his inescapable destiny. Let this cup pass from me, he pleads, in flesh anticipating the nails, the thorns, the spear, the cross. If you look round the chancel you’ll see carved onto shields in the frieze an odd collection of, well, hardware – a ladder, a hammer, a sponge, a pair of dice – as peculiar and arbitrary a collection of curios as the thimble, the wheelbarrow and the iron in a Monopoly set. But these are the Instruments of the Passion, the ladder which will stand against the Cross, the hammer which will drive in its nails, the sponge, filled with gall, that will be pressed to Jesus’ lips, and the dice his executioners will roll to divide up his clothing.

It’s as if the full horror of what is to happen can’t be confronted, in its totality, not yet, not ever. So we’re offered these bits of kit, tokens of Christ’s Passion, not as aides-memoire, but as nudges, goads, keeping us going along the Way of the Cross, towards the New Thing, in all its terror and wonder, that God in his infinite mercy and fathomless grace has prepared for us.

We’re like those buses and cabs, indifferent traffic, breaking and reforming around St Mary Le Strand in the middle of the road, with places to go, people to see, not even beginning to understand the disruption to our journey.