In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The erudite words of our Associate Canon, for whose ministry we give particular thanks on this feast day, written in this month’s music scheme, remind us that there is a difference between a Patronal Festival and a Dedication Festival. The former focuses on the Saint or Saints whose names a place of worship take. In our case the Blessed Virgin Mary. In fact this Cathedral Church was actually dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so our Patronal Festival, properly is 15 August, the feast of the Assumption, but we could quite legitimately take any one of the other six or seven feasts of Our Lady that the church keeps each year instead.
Dedication Festival does something a bit different. It is an opportunity to give thanks for the place itself. It is an opportunity to remember with thanksgiving those whose vision and faith results in the place in which we habitually find the presence of God. An opportunity to give thanks for those whose care and skill maintain this house of prayer. An opportunity to remember that one of the truths of the incarnation, the fact that the word became flesh, becomes flesh, means that although we worship a God who is transcendent, universal, omnipresent and all those other big words, we worship a God who is also located, who meets us in particular places, at particular times. Who meets us, amongst other places, here in this Cathedral.
Think for a moment over the story of Christ in the scriptures. Think for a moment of the places which pop into your head most immediately when you think of the story of Jesus. Perhaps the image that pops into your head is the stable of Bethlehem. Perhaps it is the empty tomb on Easter morning. Both of those of course depicted splendidly in this house of prayer in the seasons of Christmas and Easter here, centrally, under the spire.
Perhaps it is Calvary. Perhaps the cross, with Christ hanging upon it is the image that comes into your mind. Well there is that image, hanging behind me, hanging above us, at the entrance to the quire, in the place where traditionally the screen would have stood, called the rood screen because on the top of it, at the point where the ordinary of the nave becomes the extraordinary of the chancel, the Rood, or cross, is the instrument of that transformation.
Perhaps you see images of Jesus teaching on the seashore, sitting on the mountain giving the eponymous sermon. Perhaps you see him at the bedside of the sick, or surrounded by children.
Our experience of the Christ whom we love and worship, though we have never held his hand or walked beside him physically, is geographical amongst other things. It is located. We are creatures of clay and dust, and God knows that. It was, after all, his idea! He created us that way. And so is it not natural that he comes to us, amongst other ways, physically? In places, in bread and wine, in water and oil, in the pages of a book, into a garden (as so many people testify to), at sea, or even in a cathedral.
If you are really bored one day, or if you, like me, struggle to sleep, you might consider reading the Chapter’s Liturgical Plan. One of the things about cathedrals is that you need to get people’s permission to do almost anything! One of the great things about the Cathedral Fabric Committee is that if you want to make any changes to the inside, or indeed the outside of your cathedral, one of the things they want to see is the liturgical plan. They want to know why what you want to do will make it easier for people to pray. They want to know why what you want to do is going to help people worship.
Let me put down a marker right now. As far as I’m concerned the only reason for this Cathedral to exist is to provide a shelter for the altar and those who worship around it. That is what this place is for. It is for praying in. It is for wandering into and accidentally encountering God. It is for that glorious moment when we suddenly realise that the world is bigger, and full of more promise and potential, and is kinder, and more challenging, and more exciting, and more divine than we had ever imagined. It is for, as U A Fanthorpe put it, walking “haphazard by starlight straight into the kingdom of heaven.” That is not to belittle anything else that we do here in this place. The concerts, the educational visits, the music-making, the historical enquiry, and the explicit tourism. Those things are all good. They are all worthy. But they are not why the cathedral is here.
One of the exercises that the Liturgical Plan explores is how you would sum up any place of worship in a single word. I have a go in this Plan, and the word I come up with is “up”. Up. Everything about the geography of this building is about pulling us eastward and upward. The thrust of the nave, choir and sanctuary; the central crossing, with tower and spire rising above. The slenderness of the pillars. The tall candlesticks, the incense drifting upward from the altar towards heaven. This building is designed for the Ascension. This building is designed to lift us up. The banner in the North nave aisle says Sursum Corda: Lift up your hearts.
But the trap of beautiful places is of course that they lull us into a sense that other places do not have the capacity to transport us in the same way. Actually that is true of familiar places as well as beautiful places. I’ve been into many churches where I have overheard people grumbling that “someone is sitting in my seat”. And actually although I’m not sure I’ve ever said it out loud, I have certainly snarled inwardly when I have rocked up at church to find someone else occupying the place where I prefer to sit. And of course whilst almost all of that is petty, there is a bit of it that is actually about geography again. It is true that when we pray somewhere regularly we sink into prayer more easily. Those of us who habitually come to church at half past seven on weekday mornings find that there is something particular about the early morning in the Trinity Chapel which does make it easier to sink into prayer more quickly.
But the seduction of that is that we allow ourselves to imprison God in a box, in a church, in a style which is actually more to do with us than to do with him. And we allow ourselves to imprison our own worshipping experience in those places too. And then the place and the ritual and the style become what controls our experience, rather than the expectation of being lifted up to heaven. And we do well always, but particularly on Dedication Festival day, to remember that the earliest Christians worshipped, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it, in caves and holes in the ground, the people who forged the faith which we inherit did so in the desert, did so in tombs, did so wherever they could find a place to kneel and talk to God.
Yesterday was the feast of Michaelmas: a day of particular thanksgiving for the ministry of the Angels. Jacob sets up his pillar as a visual reminder, a focus for continued prayer in thanksgiving, for a ladder which bears humanity up to divinity.
That ladder endures. The Angels are always there. There is a living connection between earth and heaven, the veil is very thin, and never more so than at the Eucharist where the most ordinary things in the world become too precious to express.
Everywhere is holy. Places like this are here to help us make the connection, so that we can better see, as George Herbert put it, ‘heaven in ordinary’. If you don’t have one already, create your own holy place at home. All you need is a candle, or a cross, an icon or a particularly beautiful view. Sit there once a day for a few minutes and dare to believe that rising from that place, as from this, there is a ladder set up on earth to heaven.