A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Micah 5 v2-5a; Luke 1 v39-45
“I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself”.
More than one thousand of us were thrilled by the Choral Foundation’s performance of Messiah a week ago. Under the baton of David Halls our musicians excelled themselves, and gave their audience a stunning evening of music.
The scope of Messiah is breath-taking. John Challenger reminded the audience in his programme notes that it is the only oratorio which attempts to summarise the entire Biblical account of Christ from prophecy to ascension. The origin of its composition is said to lie in the vision which Handel articulated in the words with which I began: “I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself”.
Seeing God - and communicating that in Scripture set to music – that’s quite an ambition. Messiah opens with the first promise of hope for God’s people, expressed through the words of Isaiah, prophet of ancient Israel. The nation’s warfare is accomplished; its iniquity is pardoned; its God is returning to it. It concludes with the final, triumphant fulfilment of that promise, expressed through the words of Revelation. Christ is exalted on high; all power belongs to him; he has redeemed his people.
So Messiah tells a big story, what critical theorists call a metanarrative. It tells the big story of God’s dealings with humanity - with us - from first hope to final redemption. It has to be said, it’s not a story from which humanity emerges with much credit. You and I have a number of roles in it. We are sinners: “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way”. We are inhabitants of a realm of shadow: “the people that walked in darkness”. We are rebels: “the kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed”. It is in these roles – as sinners, as lovers of the dark side, as rebels – that we take our place in a metanarrative which is crafted as a seamless whole from the first cry of hope to the last trumpet of glory.
Messiah is a selective presentation of Scripture, and selective presentations of Scripture often present us with seamless stories, whether they are choices made for the lectionary readings that we hear in Church, or stellar oratorios. The prophet Micah, for example, in today’s first reading, writes of a promised ruler who is coming from God. Shepherd-like, he will feed his flock. He will be born in Bethlehem. So the one who will feed the people will be born in the town whose name means “house of bread”. Perfect. And tomorrow we will be reminded that at his birth, in the house of bread, the one who will call himself the “bread of life” is placed in an animals’ feeding trough. Again, perfect: everything in its place.
The perfection of the story is beautifully represented in the sacred geometry of our stained glass. I’m emphatically an amateur in interpreting any sort of art, but it’s always seemed to me that the circles that are so prevalent in the windows of the north and south transepts represent that perfection. They have no beginning and no end; they are an unbroken whole; they echo Handel’s vision of all heaven and the great God.
But there’s a problem with perfect stories and a problem with closed circles. It’s just that – it's that they are closed; they are inaccessible. When the great story is presented, in the perfection of Messiah, or in a sequence of lessons such as those that are the backbone of our carol services, the hearer is entitled to ask: what about me? Where do I fit into this great story, this seamless whole, this closed circle?
I think that’s why the circles of the windows are criss-crossed with the right angles of squares. It’s as though the perfection of God is interlaced with the angularity of human life, its fits and starts, its segues to the right, its sashays to the left, its beginnings - and its endings. Look at the windows, look at their sharp corners: that’s you and me. Up and down, right and left, starting and finishing.
And today we celebrate the sharpest corner of them all. It’s there in Messiah, of course, but today we pull it out of the metanarrative and give thanks for it. The sharp corner is the Galilean girl, who all generations call blessed. It’s Mary. She’s the one at whose shoulder Gabriel appears with the news that she is to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. She’s the one upon whom heaven and earth wait. She’s the one for whom angels hold their breath. She’s the one who says ‘Yes’.
The great story of God’s dealing with humanity relies upon Mary’s ‘Yes’. It has to, because it’s a story of love, of God’s love for humanity, and love never forces itself upon the beloved. We can refuse the type-casting that Messiah suggests for us. The great story relies upon a young woman choosing the light rather than the darkness, choosing the King of kings rather than the kings of the earth, choosing the shepherd rather than the fleeting fancies of the flock. Like Mary, we have choices. Like Mary, we can choose to accept God’s loving offer. Like Mary, we can choose the pain and hurt that loving and being loved brings with it. In making her choice, Mary shows us that while there was no room in the inn for her son there is always room in her son’s story for us. The sharp angles of the windows are always encompassed, encircled, by the perfect all-embracing circle of God’s eternal love.
Perhaps – of all places – Salisbury Cathedral needs to work harder at spreading the rumour that the great story is our story. The very perfection of our architecture perhaps suggests a story that is impenetrable; a circle that is closed. And here’s the thing: the story is perfect; the story is astounding; the story is unashamed good news for all the earth. But it’s only perfect; it’s only astounding; it’s only good news because it’s a story in which we can belong if like Mary we refuse our type-casting and say ‘Yes’. It's customary for the audience to stand and listen to the Hallelujah Chorus. But we are invited to join it. Amen.