Love Bade Me Welcome – a Lenten sermon series by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Lent 3: Love Bade Me Welcome

A Spirituality of a Cathedral

The Altar (number 3 of 4)

24 March 2019

Two Sundays ago, in the first of our evensong sermon series looking at the spirituality of our cathedral in this year of its 150th anniversary, we pondered the Nave – we found there a place of welcome and also a place of journey, we found there a place where our value in God’s eyes is affirmed and a place where we offer to one another God’s peace, we found there an open door that sends us out into the world to share God’s love in generosity.

Last Sunday we spent time exploring the spirituality of the Choir, the place where our cathedral choir sings and our newly restored organ is played, the place where the scriptures are read from the lectern in the form of an eagle, and from where we can gaze in all directions at God’s story made visible in glass and wood and stone.

This sermon series is woven with George Herbert’s poem Love Bade Me Welcome and its final verse speaks to the place of our reflection this evening. God, described as “Quick eyed love”, has pointed out to the one speaking the poem that love made the poet’s eyes. The poet responds:

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame

          Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

          “My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

          So I did sit and eat.

Love invites us, flawed but forgiven, to a banquet.

Tonight in the third of our series we will spend time at the Altar and the sacraments that take place there. Only there is more than one altar here in St Peter’s Cathedral. Altars where we gather to remember Jesus’ breaking the bread and offering the cup of wine at his last supper with his disciples, the night before his passion and death. Altars are about Eucharist, remembering.

Our different altars give insight into different theologies, really, different ways of understanding God. The High Altar situated at the end of the cathedral speaks of a God who is transcendent, distant, always beyond our reach. The Book of Common Prayer Eucharist is celebrated here each Sunday at 8am. Above the High Altar stands the beautifully carved oak reredos which portrays Christ in Glory, surrounded by angels and characters of our faith, as well as showing four scenes from our patron saint Peter’s life of faith. The High Altar is adorned with the lovely needlework of the altar frontals – yet another art form that nurtures our prayers – and what a privilege it is to witness the highly skilled needleworkers at work, on Monday mornings, once a month, as they restore and create the linen and needlework for our worship. You will notice this evening that the altar frontal has turned from Lenten purple to white as we prepare to remember the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The liturgical year follows the story of Jesus from the awaiting of his birth – and also the coming of the kingdom – in Advent, through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost. As the story unfolds the different liturgical colours give witness to the different moods and ways of prayer of the seasons. Purple for reflective times, White for celebration, Red for the Holy Spirit and for remembering those who died a martyr’s death, and Green … Green for what I call the precious ordinary days.

The Nave Altar gives a different insight into God. We gather at 10.30am each Sunday morning around this altar, opening our hands, reaching out in vulnerability and need for God, and as we do so we give witness to a God who is with us, in our midst, God who is to be found where we are, at the heart of our lives with all their blessings and struggles.

The third altar at which Holy Communion is celebrated is in the Lady Chapel. This chapel dedicated to Our Lady, Mary the Mother of Jesus, points to her presence in several ways. Three lilies, the traditional symbol of Mary, decorate the centre of the silver altar cross, lilies are embroidered into the kneelers around the altar and a portrayal of Mary by Voitre Marek is on the wall.

The Eucharist is celebrated in this chapel each weekday at 7.30am, small congregations of people gathering to reach out for God’s blessing in bread and wine before they go out into the world to embrace whatever their day holds. Small funerals, baptisms, weddings, take place there. This intimate space lends itself to quiet prayer and visitors often spend time in this chapel reflecting on whatever is on their hearts, that time, that day. Once in a while a prayer for healing and an anointing with holy oil is shared in this gentle place dedicated to Mary; once in a while a confession is made and the words of absolution are spoken there by a priest.

Each time a Eucharist is celebrated the words of confession and absolution are spoken. Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey, wrote in Pray, Love, Remember, the book from which the idea for this sermon series came, about confession “Sin is our refusal to become who we truly are. In those moments when I kneel before God in penitence, or join with others in confession, sometimes I am aware of specific faults: unloving words, thoughtless conduct, selfish actions. I am aware of not caring enough. But chiefly I am aware of a much more subtle temptation: to settle for less than I might be. To choose the lesser good. To lack curiosity and wonder. … Not to perceive that I am ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in God’s image. And when I ask God to forgive me, I do so, because in settling for less than I am created to be, I know not what I do.”[1]

We often speak of turning away from our sins but I think we turn towards them first. Look at them, remember them, feel the discomfort of them, before we speak to God in confession and hear the words of forgiveness, the words that remind us that God’s knows us as we are, forgives us as we are, setting us free to try again in our vocation of living as God created us to live.

The cathedral is at its heart a place to pray. What are we doing when we pray, we might wonder? Michael Mayne, writes, “Prayer is not an escape from life, a few minutes cut out from life, but a regular disciplined reminder that all life is lived in God’s presence, a marvelling at God’s love shown in Christ, a thankful responding to that transcendent reality by whom we are held in being. Prayer, then, is not primarily something I do in order to achieve something, but something I do because this is the sort of creature I am called to be: one who has an intuitive sense of the transcendent, one who has a muffled but persistent sense of the presence of the holy.”[2]

The Jesuit book that we are using in this cathedral for our Lenten studies this year quotes another writer describing prayer as “taking a long loving look at the real.”[3] Strangers and members of our community gather in this cathedral around the altars at services of Holy Communion, or quietly alone in the Nave or the Lady Chapel to take a “long loving look” at what is real in their lives, in the lives of those they love and in the lives of strangers whose stories have touched their hearts in the news. This “long loving look” is taken surrounded by the truth that Jesus’ Spirit is with us, guiding our prayers.

In each of our reflections on the spirituality of different places in our Cathedral we have found not only wood and glass and stone, not only word and sacrament but also …us. The people of God…In the nave we found the welcomers and stewards and tour guides essential to nurturing God’s welcome in the Cathedral. In the Choir it was, of course, the musicians. When we ponder the altars in our cathedral and the liturgies, the works of the people, that take place there it is the liturgy team that is essential.

When I first came to be a priest in this cathedral I was overawed. It was the liturgy team that put me, particularly, at my ease. Their home is the sacristy – and the servers’ vestry – the places where the robes and vessels are stored, where liturgy is prepared. This team of MC’s and servers, vergers and acolytes, holds the liturgy together and is responsible for it. The priests play their part but the liturgy team carry us. And that team holds onto the sacred knowledge that is at the heart of Cathedral worship, and it is clear that they hold it sacred. Handing it down to each fledgling server, each new verger or MC. The liturgy team is a place of welcome in itself, gathering in students who come to Adelaide from overseas, children whose parents bring their families here to worship.

The final place in our cathedral on which we will reflect this evening, this evening when we have pondered the altars, the places of remembering, of Eucharist, is the aumbry. Behind the two small wooden doors on the left hand side of the High Altar we find a cupboard in which is placed the reserved sacrament, the consecrated bread and wine, reserved from Eucharists that have taken place at one of the three cathedral altars. The red light that is always alight there points to God’s continued presence. Priests and licensed members of the community take this reserved sacrament to those at home and in hospital that are too frail to come to the cathedral. Love bids us all welcome after all.

Our cathedral, a place to pray, a place to know God’s forgiveness, a place to be fed with the body and blood of Christ.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

          Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

          From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

          If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:

          Love said, “You shall be he.”

[1][1] Michael Mayne Love, Pray, Remember p46.

[2] Michael Mayne Love, Pray, Remember p24.

[3] Walter Burghardt – quoted in James Martin, SJ The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life