All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction, First after Trinity Sunday Sunday 3 June 2018

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction, First after Trinity Sunday Sunday 3 June 2018

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 1 E&B

I don’t know about you, but our two lessons this evening left me exhausted [Jeremiah 5.1-19; Romans 7.7-end]. All those lusty stallions in Jeremiah neighing for their neighbour’s wives, and then Paul’s tortured attempts to affirm the Law, while actually somewhat explaining it away, could only make for an indigestible offering. At least we had some Handel to cheer us up [the anthem was Zadok the Priest]. 

So I’m going to talk about something else: feasts. Corpus Christi, which I helped to celebrate again this morning in Houghton Regis with my friend Fr Diego Galanzino; the feasts of the two hearts – the Sacred Heart of Jesus which falls on Friday, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which falls on Saturday – and the pilgrimage which some of us recently undertook to Italy. All of this with an eye to our parish dinner. Because that is another feast. 

We are eating a parish dinner together (have you bought your ticket yet?) on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. This may not feature in your Anglican desk diary; don’t worry, I’m not about to set out on what Fr Alan calls a fervorino. But as I’ve written to you before in a parish email, there is a 17th century Anglican pedigree for this feast of the love of Jesus. That’s what the Sacred Heart is about; incarnate love, the Word made flesh, an expression of love. We shouldn’t denigrate this devotion even if we aren’t especially attached to the gory statues (I am, but that’s another sermon). 

I won’t bore you with a history lesson about it, but just point to a well-loved Anglican hymn: 

All ye who seek a comfort sure, verse 2

Jesus who gave himself for you

upon the cross to die

opens for you his sacred heart

o to that heart draw nigh.

I’d also mention Love Divine, all loves excelling, widely used in Roman Catholic devotion for this feast. This devotion expresses Our Lord’s love for us, focused on the image of His Heart, pumping that blood ‘which is the life’ as the Old Testament puts it. Related to it is the lesser feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, our loving mother, watching her Son suffer (‘and a sword shall pierce your own soul also’, as Simeon prophesied). This focus on the loving and merciful humanity of Jesus and Mary is not bizarre or foreign to the Gospel and I have found these devotions helpful from an early age. 

Some of us have recently returned from a breathless pilgrimage to Italy, where of course we encountered plenty of Sacred Heart statues, but also many saints. Starting in Bari, where St Nicholas is buried, travelling to San Giovanni Rotondo to meet St Pio, better known as Padre Pio; then to Loreto with its holy house, a devotion clearly related to our own Walsingham shrine, Ravenna, with its ancient mosaics and early saints; and Assisi with Francis and Clare. These were the headline saints but there were so many more: in Italy there’s one round every corner, and sometimes, it seems, behind glass under every other altar, wearing very interesting clothes. 

There are many spiritual benefits to pilgrimage, but above all there’s the mixing of the human and the divine. Saints help with that. We weren’t quite Chaucerian pilgrims in our behaviour – well, I can only speak only for myself – but travelling together in a group means that the human elements, the comforts and discomforts of eating, drinking, sleeping and not-sleeping, walking, getting lost, shopping, sightseeing, the mechanics of luggage and travel itself: all these get gloriously mashed together with the spiritual experiences, of which there were plenty. I would highlight Loreto which, in my ignorance, I expected to be tacky, but which turns out to be very beautiful, well-supplied with history and art and also obviously a place of deep devotion. Both Fr Gerald and I observed how easy it was to pray there. That’s about the human/divine intersection – Mary’s humanity, and the extraordianry sentence carved over the altar in the Loreto holy house ‘Here the Word of God was made flesh‘. Even the most sceptical of us, understood that the documented history of the walls which make up three sides of this ancient building is verifiable: if we believe in the incarnation, this is one of those ‘thin places’ of encounter. We were encountering humanity in the company of sanctity and divinity: our own and each other’s humanity, and the deep meaning of St John’s proclamation that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.’ 

Corpus Christi, which I’ve now celebrated twice, is not a celebration of a doctrine or a sacramental thing: it’s our opportunity to give thanks, apart from the great events of Holy Week, for the gift of Maundy Thursday, the Word made flesh, made present, for all time: our Lord with us in the simplest of forms, bread, the staple food of humankind, a gift which all may receive, not a text for those who can read and analyze. This is divine presence, in the present moment. This evening we participate afresh in that gift by receiving the final blessing from our Lord in his sacramental presence with us. Here again is the Lord loving us and present with us: in our procession last Thursday evening accompanying us on a little pilgrimage around our tiny parish boundary, accompanying us with love, feeding us for the journey of our life together. 

And so to parish dinners. Hospitality and sociability are at the heart of our faith because of the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. The feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary express that truth in a particular way. The Mass does it in another. The Mass is a communion sacrifice, recognizable from the Old Testament, the most obvious being the Offering of Melchizedek and that recounted in Exodus 24[.1-11] which concludes:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

Another extraordianry sentence: They beheld God, and ate and drank.

We are invited into God’s presence to feast together. When we feast together, we should recall our communion here and our adoration of this most holy sacrament. When we meet for any social occasion as members of the Christian community we should do that with a sense of beholding God too, just as we seek to do when we go on pilgrimage. It includes meeting God in one another. Challenging sometimes, I know – but that’s the Gospel. 

It was very noticeable to us on pilgrimage that the two religious guest houses we stayed in were completely different from the two hotels. The two guest houses were practicing Christian hospitality, and they were doing it with obvious and welcoming love. You can’t do any of this stuff, or progress in the Christian life, without that love. It always involves sharing space, sharing food, sharing conversation, in which listening is as important as speaking, and making a pilgrimage, even if that’s only to the altar to receive communion. 

I hope Friday’s will be the first of many dinners. Hospitality and sharing a feast is not only cheerful and enjoyable. It is also a parable of the love of God incarnate.