A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 4th February 2024.

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

In the morning, while it is still very dark, Jesus gets up and goes out to a deserted place, and there he prays. (Mark 1:35)

This one sentence, set at the heart of our reading from the 1st Chapter of Mark’s Gospel gives us great insight into who Jesus is and what nurtures him, what guides him and what gives him the love and insight to heal Simon’s mother-in-law, to take her by the hand and lift her up, to restore her to love and service, to cure many with diseases and to look into the hearts and minds of those who are possessed by demons and set them free, to teach, proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God which is, after all, found in him.

It is Jesus’ life of prayer, close to God’s heart, that makes him who he is.

We might wonder about his time in deserted places, up mountains, gazing at God.

As Sally reminded us in her wonderful Sermon of Farewell last Sunday, Mark’s Gospel is not imbued with a lot of details. The action is fast. In the first Chapter of the gospel that will be our guide this year, Jesus is baptised, he sees the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove on him and he hears God’s voice, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Very soon after this, his ministry begins. In God’s words to Jesus at his baptism, not only is Jesus named Beloved, but God is named, as Father, Parent, one who creates and loves and cares about, always. Light is shed in this baptism on Jesus and on God.

In his time of prayer when he goes apart to deserted places, to the sides of mountains, to silence, in the heart of the natural world, does Jesus remember that holy day. When he saw … heavens torn and a dove that he sensed was God’s Spirit … when he heard … God’s words Beloved …Son …well-pleased …Does he rest, “Close to the Father’s heart” as John’s Gospel has it, knowing he is loved so deeply. Is that what gives him the strength and power, really, and insight and love, to heal, not frightened as we are frightened by the things that trap us, the physical things, the emotional things, the spiritual things, that keep us from thriving as God longs us to thrive. Is it the memory of his baptism that he dwells in there?

And then there are the scriptures. For him it is what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. They are his texts of faith. And we know he knows them well. Does he have ringing in his ears the words from the Prophet Isaiah that we heard read this morning. Words that make so clear how finite, how frail we are.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

   Has it not been told you from the beginning?

   Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,

   and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,

   and spreads them like a tent to live in;

who brings princes to naught,

   and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. (Isaiah 40:21-23)

He, God, stretches the heavens like a curtain, we, though, are like grasshoppers …

And yet, the strength, the will, the love to go on is found in God…

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

   the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

   his understanding is unsearchable.

 He gives power to the faint,

   and strengthens the powerless.

 Even youths will faint and be weary,

   and the young will fall exhausted;

 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

   they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

Does Jesus know, does he hear in his deserted place about God, does he find there in his place of prayer the renewing of his strength that he might mount up with wings like an eagle, that he might run and not be weary, walk and not faint.

We might wonder about his time in deserted places, up mountains, gazing at God.

We might wonder if it is Jesus’ life of prayer, close to God’s heart, that makes him who he is.

This morning as we gather in St Peter’s Cathedral for our first Choral Eucharist for this year, it is a great joy to welcome back our Cathedral Choir from their wonderful time singing in the UK. We might reflect on the fact that this time away has helped our choir know a little more the essence of who it is.

As they sang in three cathedrals near Gloucester, in Salisbury Cathedral, in York Minster and St Paul’s Cathedral in London, at the home of the late Queen’s grave in St George’s Chapel in Windsor and, finally, with Oxford college New College’s Choir at their Choral evensong before a celebratory dinner in the college, did our choir in going to this distant place find out more of who they are. It was not a deserted place, anything but … but it was close to the heart of the Choral tradition, as Jesus was close to his Father’s heart in his deserted place. It was there that they were reminded of what they do and who they are, singing for u,s Sunday by Sunday, Choral Eucharists and Evensongs, just as Choral Eucharists and Evensongs are sung in English churches and cathedrals Sunday by Sunday and have done for many, many hundreds of years.

Travelling is a mixture, as we all know, of very hard work, and, if we are fortunate, moments of great joy and wonder. What was it like for our newer trebles to sing in St Paul’s Cathedral? … What was it like for an experienced lay clerke to sing again in Salisbury Cathedral… What was it like for our Cathedral organist to play in York Minster, where his own organ teacher David Swale sang as a treble, was taught by Bairstow, was a dear friend of Francis Jackson whose canticles we often hear sung? What was it like for Ant to conduct his choir, our choir, in so many holy places… Did they all find, choristers and parents alike, in the midst of the bleary-eyed truth of jet lag and a busy schedule, the sheer joy and wonder that they were singing in home of the choral tradition. Was this their time away with God being nurtured and formed more deeply for their work helping us know the great love of God. Was this, for our choir, not unlike Jesus’ time in a deserted place? Did they find, a little more, their vocation?

Which is, after all, to helps us find ours.

How do we find ours? Our vocation? Our sense of who we are?

Is it here in the midst of the singing of the choir, and the dwelling in the scriptures, and the holding out of our hands for bread and wine, that holy food, and the company of one another … is it here that is our place of prayer, one place of prayer, at least.

Thomas Merton wrote that

Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and your heart has turned to stone.

Which seems a most kind acknowledgement that neither prayer nor love are easy or at times natural.

But it is our vocation, isn’t it? To try. To pray and to love as he prays and loves. In his deserted place. At the bedside of his friend’s mother-in-law. At the side of those who are deeply troubled. With the distracted who seemed to know so little of who they are.

But it is our vocation, isn’t it? To try. To pray and to love as he prays and loves. With the blessing that our Cathedral Choir has returned to hold and nurture us here.