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The Chariots of Israel, and its horsemen!

The north aspect of the Cathedral, now free of scaffolding, on a frosty morning
Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 15th February 2015
A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
The Sunday Next before Lent 2015
2 Kings 1:1-12; Mark 9:2-9
 
The following homilies were preached as a set of four on Sunday 15 February, in order to “narrate” the Sunday Eucharist, as a teaching opportunity before the beginning of Lent.
 

Homily 1 – before the Processional Hymn

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

Father, father! The chariots of Israel, and its horsemen! So we shall hear Elisha cry in our first reading this morning, as he watches his predecessor taken up into heaven on the chariot of fire, drawn by flaming horses, a vision of the glory and power of God which gives him the strength and the inspiration to take up Elijah’s mantle as the prophet of Israel.

On this, the Sunday before Lent, we are offered in our readings visions of the reality of the created order. Visions of what is all around us, were we but able to see it. We are asked to consider that what we can see is not the entire picture, we are asked to imagine, and perhaps to dare to believe, that we are surrounded by wondrous things – angels, saints and chariots of fire.

This morning in this Eucharist we will reflect on seeing clearly, seeing properly and seeing prophetically. Having the vision to see the unseeable, to believe that though we may feel ourselves to be paddling in the shallow waters of faith, there is depth and glory and richness all around us.

And we are going to do that partly by thinking again about what we are doing when we come to the Eucharist, and specifically to the Sunday Eucharist here in the Cathedral. Why is the service shaped the way it is? Why do we do the things we do? What is this theatre, this liturgical action trying to remind us of?

And we begin with the entrance. It would be entirely possible of course, for the clergy and the choir to simply shuffle in wearing their normal clothes, a few minutes before the service begins, and there are noble traditions within the Church of England where that happens. But here, in a moment, a great procession will enter. Why?

Well because a procession, in Christian tradition, has ever been the reminder to the entire ecclesia, the entire community gathered, that we are a journeying people. And on a Sunday morning the procession, carefully ordered, reminds us that we approach the throne of God together. In a sense you need to imagine yourself in this procession, moving towards the altar, towards the place of gathering. This procession represents us all, as singers, servers, lay people and clergy move purposefully towards God. Of course it is representative, of course it is metaphorical. In a sense, as I have said, it is theatre. And quite deliberately, because it is trying to describe the indescribable. We approach God. And we carry things with us. The Cross – the most precious symbol we have, so it leads us. Light – candles, reminding us, even in an age of electric light when the candles are, practically, entirely redundant, of the flickering, fragile, light of Christ. The book of the Gospels borne this morning by our Dean. The record of the words of the Man who transforms the world, and so carried high, revered, not worshipped – for that would be idolatry, but reverenced, just like an altar, for that which it represents. Our Saviour, and his presence here today.

So we gather, we greet each other and as we reconstitute the assembly, Sunday by Sunday, we confess our sins first, making ourselves ready to receive, once again, the Word of God.

 

Homily 2 – After the Collect

“Collect” is an odd word, but like Ronseal Quick-Drying Wood stain, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It Collects our preparing and Gathering together, and forms the hinge between that first part of the service and what comes next. The Collect, which the Treasurer has just prayed, is used morning and evening and at Holy Communion each day in the week which follows the Sunday, and so in a sense it is the golden thread which runs through the entire week, linking the individual acts of worship together and reminding us of our duty and joy we share as children of our heavenly father to, as Herbert exquisitely framed it, praise God “seven whole days, not one in seven.” What we do here this morning is not escapism or displacement activity. It is supposed to be the fuel, the catalyst, for a week of serving and praying, in small groups, in small congregations and alone, as members of the body of Christ. And the Collect is a good way to remind us of that. Why not try using the Sunday collect twice a day in your own prayers, if you don’t do that already.

And today’s Collect reminds us that this is a hinge point, also, of the church year. Here we remember that Christ, revealed in majesty, is revealed in such before he suffers. Here Christ, in the Gospel accounts, turns his face towards Jerusalem and begins that long walk to the Cross.

The Liturgy of the Word is one of the two key elements of a service of Holy Communion. Here we engage with scripture. Most of the year, here in the cathedral, we follow the Common Worship Lectionary, which is simply a systematic table of bible readings so constituted that over three years we hear almost the entirety of the Gospel accounts, Matthew in the first year, Mark and John in the second and Luke in the third. We also hear almost the whole of the rest of the New Testament, and some, though not all, of the Old. We don’t have to use the lectionary all year and indeed we don’t – having found a new pattern in recent times of diverting from the lectionary in the summer to follow our own teaching programmes.

We usually hear two readings, separated by a hymn or a psalm. And we stand for the Gospel. Why? Well, to honour the words of Jesus himself. Some might argue that we ought to stand for all scripture, as the inspired word of God, and indeed in the Church of South India they often do. As the Dean carries the Gospel book to the centre of the Spire crossing this morning, and is flanked by lights and the Cross, all symbols of Christ of course, what we are doing is saying, without words, this matters. The words you are about to hear proclaimed matter, because they are the words of a man who can, and longs to, and should change your life. The book itself doesn’t matter – the words of the Man, do. Gospel simply means “good news” of course. We are not worshipping a book – we are celebrating good news. So the words are presented in a beautiful book, carried with dignity and surrounded by the cross - the greatest symbol of the faith, and the candles, a reminder that here are words of light upon our path and lanterns to our feet.

And so we hear our readings.

 

Homily 3 – after the Gospel

Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen! Elisha, at the very beginning of his formal ministry as prophet in Elijah’s place, sees this glimpse of glory, the reality which is so often hidden behind the everyday. And the disciples have a similar experience on the mount of transfiguration. They see Christ as he truly is – they see the entirety of the picture, for a moment. They see that here is a man of dazzling glory, a man who communes with the prophets, who stands in the story, as it were, with Moses – representative of the Law, and Elijah – representative of the prophets. They see what is real, but unseen most of the time. If I had chosen to set the epistle today rather than the Old Testament reading, we would have heard Paul’s exhortation to the church in Corinth, that the Gospel is very often veiled, not seen clearly. He goes on to say that we are very much like jars of clay, fragile and brittle, and yet containing within us the story, the person and the presence of Christ, which is treasure, bright and shining. As we approach Lent that’s a really important message for us. This church will don itself, as many churches across the world will, with sackcloth on Tuesday night. Gone will be the great celebratory Mass settings, the rich brocaded vestments, the gold crosses. But Christ will not be gone. His presence will not be gone. Our face, like his, must turn to Jerusalem, however, and to the reality of the passion. To the remembrance that this calling to follow Christ will demand of us. This is the moment when, if you like, our baptism must begin to bite.

So we don’t do it alone. In a moment we say the Creed. You’ll notice that we sing the Creed most of the time, but we say it some of the time now. And when we sing it, it is in its traditional form from the Book of Common Prayer, and it is in the singular. “I believe”. But when we say it using the modern language of the rest of our service, we revert to the older and more ancient plural form, “We believe”. The Nicene Creed, when it was composed, was of course in Greek and it was plural. We don’t proclaim this faith principally as a personal thing, though of course our personal relationship with Christ is crucial. But the natural unit of Christianity is not the Christian, it is the congregation. We are supposed to make this journey accompanied. We believe. And then we pray together. We respond to the Word of God in three ways in this service. Firstly by prayer, and then in two other ways which I shall come on to in a moment. And praying as a family is one of the things which Christ himself asked us to do. So after the Creed, as we sit or kneel, we will be led in prayer by a member of the family, as together we offer before God his world, his church and those whom we would particularly remember before him – not that he needs reminding of course, but because families work best when we talk one to another, and so we communicate with God and he hears us and answers us, through his grace and mercy.

 

Homily 4 – after the intercessions

The Peace itself has an ancient pedigree. It has moved around the liturgy over the centuries, and in the Roman Rite today it comes much closer to the administration of Communion, after the Eucharistic Prayer. Here, in the Anglican rite, it forms another of those hinge points, between the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Sacrament, into which we now enter. Another procession forms as the lay people, the clergy, the symbols of Christ and this time bread and wine too, move to the altar. The symbolism of bread and wine, borne by members of the community to the altar is important. It reminds us that all that Christ asks of us is the everyday things of our existence, which he by grace and the power of the Holy Spirit will make holy. The offertory procession in a sense is another representation of each one of us, carrying the things we have, whatever they may be, all of them gifts from God. We take them once again to the throne of grace and ask God to make them, to make us, holy in his service.

The table is laid and then we pray again, this time asking God to move by his Spirit over the bread and wine, they too may become signs, symbols and sacraments of the eternal. The Eucharistic Prayer is in three parts. The first, the Preface, sets Jesus’ ministry in its context. Then the Canon, the words of institution, recall that supper long ago in a Palestinian home, then by an epiclesis, an invocation of the spirit, brings the reality of that event into the present. Then we pray ourselves into that reality, claiming that grace of God. Here, in everyday things, wine and bread, are the chariots of Israel and its horsemen – the indicators to us of a deeper, more profound and more glorious world, at the edge of our vision, at the heart of our believing, as we, with arms outstretched, forming at once a throne, a manger and a tomb, receive the body and blood of Christ. We touch the divine, we see for a moment, the angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, the saints and martyrs, the glorious company of the apostles, and we grasp the heel of heaven. This is our second response to God’s coming close to us this morning. Stretch out your hands, and pray for the Holy Spirit’s action.

And the third comes right at the end. All of this has to have meant something. All of this must have changed us. As Elisha, provoked and inspired by the chariots of fire, takes up Elijah’s mantle and sets off into the future, so we, once again by procession, by turning at the end away from the altar and towards the doors of the Cathedral, make by a liturgical statement; the promise, the commitment that this will make us different this afternoon, tomorrow, on Wednesday, and it will make a difference to the way we are. Christians, members of the body of Christ, sent out in his power and in the peace of Christ, believing that though the reality around us might appear everyday and mundane, yet it is shining with glory and promise and light.

Father! Father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!

Amen.