A sermon given during the 6pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on March 10th 2024.

In the fourth of the Evensong Sermon Series preached by Cathedral clergy on The Lord’s Prayer, Canon Jenny reflects on the prayer in a death scene in one of her favourite novels, Bleak House.

This Lent, we are spending time with the novels of Jane Austen, which are certainly some of my favourite novels. But if I was asked to name my very favourite novel, that would have to be Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

Bleak House is a novel in which Dickens cries out about the state of England. The circumstances are bleak in Dickens’ description of his England – bleak for the environs and bleak indeed for the inhabitants. And in his novel, through the writing of his two narrators, he wrestles with the reason why things in England are in such a sorry and unjust state. One narrator is anonymous; the other, one Esther Summerson, is a young woman who believes herself to be without parents, a woman who was raised by her aunt, an aunt who told her that she was her mother’s disgrace and had better not have been born. The narrator, Esther Summerson – whose first name means star – will have some light to shine in the bleak wintry circumstances of the novel, despite her sad childhood.

As we gather for this fourth sermon reflecting on The Lord’s Prayer, I want to focus on one scene from this my favourite novel. There are many deaths in the novel, deaths of characters in poverty and characters in riches, all of them tragic, in one way or another. The death we will spend time with is that of Jo, a crossing sweeper boy. Jo is an orphan who walks the streets and sweeps the crossing near the court of chancery which is the focus of the court case that is at the heart of the novel. “Name Jo. Nothing else that he knows of. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What’s home? Knows a broom’s a broom and knows it’s wicked to tell a lie…” (Chapter 11). Jo contracts smallpox in the lodgings where he sleeps at night with others who are destitute and, through a series of circumstances, finds himself cared for by Esther who, too, catches the disease. After a struggle, Esther survives though her beauty does not. As Jo lays dying back in London, his longing is to beg her forgiveness. Jo dies, forgiven, with the three characters of hope in the novel Bleak House at his side, whispering a prayer. Esther, Mr Jarndyce and Alan Woodcourt, a doctor who works alongside the poor and who loves Esther despite her disfiguration.

“Jo!” Says the doctor, “Did you ever know a prayer?”

“Never know’d nothink, sir.”

“Not so much as one short prayer?”

“No, sir. Nothink at all.”

“It’s time for me to go to that there berryin ground, sir,” Jo says. … “Will you promise to have me taken there, sir?”

“I will indeed,” said the doctor.

“Thankee sir. Thankee, sir. … It’s turned very dark, sir. Is there any light a comin?”

“It’s coming fast, Jo.” …

“I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I’m gropin – a gropin – let me catch hold of your hand.”

“Jo,” says the doctor, “can you say what I say?”

“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”

“Our Father.”

“Our Father – yes, that’s wery good sir.”

“Which art in Heaven”

“Art in heaven – is the light a comin, sir?”

“It is close at hand. Hallowed be thy name!”

“Hallowed be – thy – “

The light is come upon the dark benighted way.

And so, Jo, the crossing sweeper boy enters peace for the first time.

And the words on his lips are those of the Lord’s Prayer.

Prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer are spoken on the lips of the dying, beside the beds of the dying, at baptisms and weddings, in the midst of each service we pray in our cycle of services, morning prayer, eucharist, evensong. A prayer that is whispered as lives fade into the arms of God; a prayer spoken so often day by day that we hardly know we are saying it. Jo is right though, when he says to those loving him at his side, “I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”

Before we leave Bleak House, there is another prayer in this scene and that is the raging of the narrator.

“Dead. Dead, your majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day” (Chapter 47).

For it is in the telling of Jo’s death that Charles Dickens cries out in a way that might remind us of Jesus crying out over Jerusalem. Prayer, I sometimes think, is telling God the truth, and Charles Dickens’ angst at the pointless and shameful deaths of the vulnerable is indeed a profound prayer.

Jesus did cry out in prayer. He cried out in prayer over Jerusalem. He cried out in prayer in his dying. And in his quiet times alone with his Father, God, we can only imagine that he cried out in prayer then too.  So often Jesus’ prayers were those that he knew off by heart from his profound engagement with his scriptures, the Jewish scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament. So many of his prayers were from the psalms.

Our reading this Evensong night from the Old Testament is one of the loveliest passages from the writing of the Prophet Jeremiah. God’s longing for a close and loving relationship with God’s people shines through this passage, a passage that we might almost call a prayer.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jesus is the one who inaugurates this New Covenant. Jesus the one who shines light on who God, who he knows as Father, is. Jesus who sheds light on the praying life, showing us his own life utterly woven in prayer. We see him climbing mountains for time alone with God, we see him on the Cross praying the psalms as he journeys, like Jo, into the light, that is his Father’s presence. He prays Psalm 22 in despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he experiences, I suspect, his Father’s absence possibly for the first time. He prays the night psalm, psalm 31, as he hands his spirit to his Father for safe keeping – “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”

As we have heard in other sermons in this series, on two occasions in the gospels, Jesus shares his thoughts with his disciples on how we might pray. Those of us who are nurtured in this New Covenant by the one who establishes it, Jesus.

The first time we witness Jesus teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer is in Matthew’s Gospel in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount. Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel is a reflection on the praying and reflective life. Pray and give alms alone he says… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

‘Pray then in this way: (Matthew 6:6-9). He says. And then he tells them the words of the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer seems to be to prevent us from heaping up empty phrases. These words seem to be there for us on the assumption that God knows what we need before we ask God. The prayer is for us really, rather than for God.

In Luke’s Gospel, 11th Chapter opens with Jesus “praying in a certain place”. It seems the disciples have been watching him, probably from a distance. They must have become accustomed to him going away for quiet times. Perhaps they realised he was spending time with God.

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.

   Your kingdom come.

 Give us each day our daily bread.

  And forgive us our sins,

     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

(Luke 11:1-4)

When the disciples ask Jesus, he does not give the disciples a psalm, one of the prayers that so sustained him. He gives them instead a prayer that holds within it all they and we might need. The Lord’s Prayer. The prayer whispered to and by those who are dying like Jo, the prayer said day by day. A prayer that might remind us of God’s longing spoken this night through the Prophet Jeremiah:

I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord…