Sermon for Festal Evensong & Solemn Benediction – First Evensong of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple Sunday 1 February 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar Prebendary Alan Moses
EVE OF CANDLEMAS Feb 1, 2015
Evensong & Benediction with Dedication of the New Lighting Scheme
Readings: Haggai 2.1-9; Revelation
“The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.”
A famous church is being restored. The grime of the ages is being cleaned from its walls and now there are colours – reds and greens and golds – there is even some black but it’s paint not soot.
A visiting American architect who is not expecting this is appalled. “It’s scandalous”, “a desecration… like adding arms to the Venus de Milo,” he thunders.
Now – before our architect Colin Kerr blows a fuse – I’d better explain that the American visitor is not in an apoplectic rage about the restoration of All Saints, Margaret Street – but about that of Chartres, the iconic medieval Gothic cathedral.
That American architect is not alone in thinking that medieval or Victorian churches should be dark and gloomy, not bright and cheerful. But this was not the intention of the original Gothic builders who saw light as reflecting the being and glory of God. And when we had cleaned the interior of this church, removing generations of grime laid down by Victorian gas lighting – the cutting edge lighting technology of its time but one producing appalling amounts of filth, as well as the contributions of London smog and the smoke of candles and incense, and it was clearly not William Butterfield’s either. He intended this to be a place vibrant with colour and light not one sunk in sepulchral melancholy. In both churches, floating jewels of light now dance on cleaned stonework as sunlight plays through stained glass. But you have to come here on a bright sunlit morning to see them.
When we set about restoring this building, we decided to leave replacing a ghastly and inadequate lighting scheme until we had seen what the restored interior looked like, so that something sympathetic could be designed. The intention was to provide a variety of lighting options which would complement and enhance a building used not just on bright sunlit days but early in the morning and on dark winter evenings; both for grand services like this one and for quiet one and times of private prayer.
As I said before the service, we still have some work to do, but this evening, the Eve of Candlemas, the feast of Presentation of Christ in the Temple, when he is recognised by the old priest Simeon as the “light of the nations,” seemed an appropriate occasion to dedicate a new lighting system. So tonight we bless not candles as the church’s custom has been on this feast, but these new lights. (Holy water and electricity don’t go well together, so we’ll confine ourselves to prayer.)
And as we bless, we give thanks to God for all that has made this work and what proceeded it possible:
- The skill and dedication of those who have designed and carried out the work – and it is good that some of them are with us this evening;
- The generosity of those who have given, and indeed are still giving, of their substance to fund it – and again a good many of them are here this evening and others are with us in the Spirit.
On a number of occasions over recent months, people have said to me, nothing much seems to be going on. We have had a long spell with temporary lighting. The services of Advent,. Christmas and Epiphany are full of passages about light and darkness:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.”
“And God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light.”
Well there were times when it seemed that we were not getting much light for our money up here: just a temporary string of light bulbs on the scaffolding. But below decks, in the engine room so to speak, a great deal was being done. We could not just tack a new lighting scheme on to antiquated and dangerous wiring, so everything had to be replaced. Otherwise all out efforts might go up in smoke one day. Almost the last things to be installed were fittings and lights themselves. In the language of the Catechism, they are the “outward and visible sign” of a work hidden but real.
And what is true of a lighting scheme is true also of the life of this church. We are not just conserving a piece of architecture, however interesting and significant. This is a working church not a tourist attraction.
Each morning, when electricians or lighting engineers, scaffolders or conservators have arrived, they have found us at our work; for our day begins when many of those who work around us are on their way to work. The foundation of all our work is prayer. Its guiding principle is the Gospel. Its energy source is the Holy Spirit. Its wiring is the life of word and sacrament. We are to be a community of people who seek to live our common life in the light of Christ the light of the world, on the pattern of Jesus Christ and the self-giving love which is the very being of God.
From the beginning of this restoration programme, we have said that we are not doing this just for ourselves but for all those people who live and work around us, or who look to this place for spiritual strength, and for those who come after us. We did not build this church, we inherited it from our forebears. It has been given to us in trust. Our responsibility is to hand it one to future generations. We are here not to keep that light to ourselves, safely sheltered behind closed doors, hidden under a bushel basket but set it on a lampstand where others can see it. So like the heavenly city in the book of Revelations, its doors must stand open to the world.
This church is set here in this earthly city to represent that heavenly city, the New Jerusalem; to give people a vision of that city and the hope for the world which it embodies.
On Friday afternoon, while we were checking and adjusting some of the light settings, two young women, one of them wearing a hijab, slipped into church. I went over to speak to them. They were from the language school across the street. They asked what was happening, so I explained what we were doing and a little about the church and what goes on here. It was the young Muslim woman who said how good it is that there is a building here where people can come to be quiet and pray and to be reminded of the meaning and purpose of life.
Over the years to come there will be many who will ask what this building means and what we are doing here. Our task will be to know that for ourselves and to be able to explain it and share it with them.
“The latter splendour of this house will be greater than the former”. Those words from Haggai about the restored temple in Jerusalem which I borrowed as the motto of our restoration programme, will come true not just because we have cleaned the interior and installed new lighting, but because it and those who serve and worship here shine with the light of Jesus Christ.