TWO CHORISTERS AND A TOWNSHIP WAIF
A sermon preached at ST..PAUL’S church, West Street, Brighton on 14th January 2018
As John stood with two of his disciples, Jesus passed and John stared hard at Him and said “Look, there is the lamb of God.”
Once upon a time, there was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral who loved singing at Matins, the Sung Eucharist and Evensong. He was being prepared for Confirmation by the great “headmaster”, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher and he didn’t know much about theology or Christology. That was me, 60 years ago.
Another chorister sang at S.Peter’s in its previous incarnation as Brighton Parish Church, and he asked me, a newly ordained Priest in 1996, which service I preferred – evensong or sung eucharist. (We didn’t have Matins at S.Peter’s)
Fair enough. He loved singing, was thinking only of the music and hadn’t even started preparing for confirmation.
Of course, we “churchy” catholics recognize that, in his innocence, he was lumping together two very different acts of worship: what we call an “office”, the singing or saying of morning and evening prayer and what is a “sacrament”, the celebration of Holy Communion.
He was also innocently putting his finger on a common mistake about how making one’s Communion works.
What actually enables us to receive Christ at the altar rail is NOT the fervour of our own emotional feelings. If, like my young friend from S.Peter’s, you found the Mass a bit boring but got particularly excited about the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis set to Stanford in C, would that mean that Choral Evensong with Charles Villiers Stanford is the best religious medicine? A more effective sacrament than the one instituted by Our Lord Himself?
Of course not.
On the night before He died, Christ didn’t say “I want you to sing Evensong, chaps”. Instead, He took, blessed, broke and distributed bread to be eaten and said “This is my body, Do this!” He could not have made it plainer.
“This is my body.” Or in the original Hebrew or Aramaic which He spoke and which doesn’t have the verb: “THIS – MY BODY”
He did NOT say what too many people persuade themselves that He did: “Now chaps, I want you to look on this bread as a sort of symbol or metaphor for my body. Do you see what I mean?”
I suppose that is what He might have said, in fact all He could have said, if He had been just a man. But He wasn’t.He was God who had existed from all time, the logos, the word through whom all things were made.
That is why John the Baptist said “He ranks before me because He existed before me” And that is why God comes to us Himself in any form He chooses, in consecrated bread as well as in human flesh.
And that is why we borrow the very gospel words of John the Baptist in our liturgy.
John pointed to the figure passing by and said “Look, there is the lamb of God.” We elevate the consecrated Host and say “This is the lamb of God”. Or if we want to make the gospel connection even clearer, “Look, here is the lamb of God.”
And let’s not beat about the bush. It either is or it isn’t.
What would be the point of elevating the Host and stating, as if the Host and the words had no connection, “Jesus is the lamb of God.” What would be the appropriate congregational response to that? Presumably: “You don’t say!”
Unless you believe in transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and wine into flesh and blood, there is no connection between the bread and the words.
But if we do believe in transubstantiation, we must accept that we get nowhere trying to analyse or define it. It is a miracle, a gracious gift by God of Himself to us in a mysterious way of His choosing, according to His own unfathomable will. It depends not a jot on human reasoning or stubborn human unbelief.
And indeed there have always been plenty of scoffers on hand. .
I was quite shocked when I first discovered that the expression Hocus Pocus used in bogus conjuring tricks is actually a blasphemous medieval parody of the words of the Latin mass hoc est enim corpus meum (this is my body). Hocus Pocus. The sacred act of consecration just a load of mumbo jumbo.
Well actually, I suppose there is something rather magical about the works of God. Not only His institution of the eucharist but the miracles Christ performed in His active ministry.
There is no point in asking how they were done but we do need to ask why did He heal and cure and turn water into wine and multiply loaves and fishes and why did He leave us with the Holy Spirit and the miraculous mystery of the Mass.
Not just out of love and compassion but more importantly because He wanted us to see how He lived and what He did and then go and do likewise.
Take just one example: the feeding of the 5000. Was He simply sorry for His tired, hungry audience or was He also dropping us a hint about how our behaviour is crucial as to whether the kingdom of God can be established on earth or whether we just let people starve?
What are we going to do with our own sandwich boxes when we go on a bring-a-packed-lunch day out?
Are we going to let the silly person sitting next to us who has turned up late, disorganised and empty-handed have half our BLT or half our Ploughman’s?
Or are we going to say: “No,sorry. All this is for me. It’s what I decided to earn the money to buy. I budgeted for it prudently. I’ve been quite lucky but I worked hard for it. After all, God helps those who help themselves, you know. You may think there’s rather a lot here for one person but, after all, that’s my business, isn’t it? If you don’t mind my saying so, you should have been more prudent in managing your own affairs, so that you could have bought your own sandwich. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sit down over there.” (the above to be read out loud in a Thatcherite voice)
If that sounds grotesque, it’s because it is. It’s certainly not God’s way and it doesn’t have to be ours either. In the midst of our depressing culture of greed and selfishness, the capacity for human goodness may take us by surprise in unexpected ways.
Like for example shaming generosity.
We’ve had two choristers. Let me finish with the story of another boy. This one was a starving black orphan from a township near Cape Town. I learned of his existence from a nun called Sr.Margaret Magdalen who was reminiscing about her missionary work in South Africa.
One day, she remembered, she was besieged by a crowd of hungry children and eventually she gave the most demanding boy an enormous biscuit. She expected him to clutch it for dear life and run off with it in triumph. Instead, he held it aloft for the others to see - for all the world, said Sister.Margaret, like a priest elevating a consecrated host. Then he broke it into small pieces and distributed it to his friends.
Look, glimpsed in the glory of his poverty and love, there was the lamb of God.