Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on St Michael and All Angels: Wednesday 29 September 2010
29 September 2010 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
“God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world”, said Robert Browning the 19th century poet whose body lies in the south transept of the Abbey, in Poets’ Corner. Or to put it another way: a place for everything and everything in its place; God in heaven: at least something’s right. But surely there’s more: God is also with us, God is also among us and between us and God is also within us. Today’s great festival draws our attention inexorably to heaven, to the presence of God transcendent, majestic, glorious, God worshipped by the saints and angels. “…in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne … they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” But this festival also draws our attention to other modes of God’s presence: by virtue of his eternal Word and in the power of his Holy Spirit, God is with us, God is in us.
Thomas Merton, the 20th century Cistercian monk, so beloved of our beloved Robert Wright, for whom this is his last service as a Canon of Westminster, wrote over 60 years ago of his perception of the mode of God’s presence within us. He spoke of le point vierge, the virgin point, sometimes translated as the virgin heart. “At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives. This little point of nothingness is the pure glory of God in us. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”
Merton is here finding language that can explain what Christians mean by the soul, the essential principle that connects each created individual with the Creator Himself, that reflects in human beings the reality and presence of the Divine. Closely linked to the idea of the soul is of course the idea of conscience. We might understand soul and conscience as respectively the means of access to the knowledge of God and to the knowledge of what is right and true. The then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote an article on Cardinal Newman in 2005, which revealed his personal admiration for Newman as a theologian. Newman, the great 19th century churchman, whom the Pope beatified in Birmingham just over a week ago, has often been quoted as saying, “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still to conscience first.” Newman had a powerful sense of the individual’s conscience even overriding the teaching of the Pope. He said, “Suppose there was a Papal order to hold lotteries in each mission for some religious object, and a priest could say in God's sight that he believed lotteries to be morally wrong, that priest … would commit a sin … if he obeyed the Pope, whether he was right or wrong in his opinion.” The soul and the conscience are, to quote Merton’s words again, “this little point of nothingness … the pure glory of God in us” or, to use the words of St Paul, “Christ in us, the hope of glory [cf. Colossians 1: 27].”
But ‘God in us’ is not of course the only mode of God’s presence, the only way in which we encounter God. Here in the Church, we encounter God beyond us, God reaching us from without, in word and sacrament, in each other, in our community. God speaks powerfully and authoritatively in his word. From the letter to the Hebrews, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart [Hebrews 4: 12].” God transforms and feeds us, unites us with himself in the sacraments. “Jesus said to [his disciples], ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ [John 6: 35].” God is also among us, between us. As Jesus said, “truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. [Matthew 18: 19, 20]”
We can and should then think of God speaking directly to us, out of his love and care for us as individuals. However we must understand God’s presence with us as a reality inseparable from that of God’s presence among us. Through our fellowship in the Church, Christ’s Body, God informs our conscience through his Word and feeds our soul through the sacraments, drawing us together as Christians into unity with each other and with himself. If we try to go it alone as Christians, we run great risks of going astray. The Church understands the work and role of the angels as assisting in mediating the presence of God with us and amongst us. The angel Gabriel is God’s messenger to Zechariah and to Mary in Luke’s nativity stories [Luke 1]. St Mark, in the earliest Gospel account of the resurrection, tells of a young man in white at the tomb, telling the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead. We see Peter’s guardian angel in action when, as recounted by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, he is freed from imprisonment and restored to the Church [Acts 12: 12]. This love and care of angels for the Church extends, Jesus tells us, more generally, when he says of children, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven [Matthew 18:10]”
So our thoughts are directed back to heaven, where the angels who bring messages of love and care for us here on earth also constantly see the face of God and seeing him love him, and loving him worship him. It is impossible to imagine what heaven can be like, since our own perceptions are inevitably bounded by time and space. Even so, there are powerful biblical images which point us to an experience rather like worshipping in a “House of God, the gate of heaven” [Genesis 28: 17] but infinitely greater and more magnificent, where the worship of God is constant and perfect. There must be more. Such an image provokes the question why it is necessary to worship God constantly. Does God need all that worship? The answer must be that God does not need to be worshipped but that we need to worship. If we don’t worship God, we, who have a real need to worship something, will worship ourselves or money or power or the theatre or, heaven help us, football – none of which as we know can ultimately fulfil us. I was given fresh insight into this teasing question earlier this year when I was with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As far as I could tell, everyone was absolutely delighted to see him. People wanted to be with him, to touch him, to spend time with him. There was spontaneous applause in the street from passers-by when he emerged from his hotel. People were enlivened and uplifted in his presence. If this can be true of one of God’s creatures, we are given some pale shadow of an insight into what it must be like to be face to face with God himself, whom to see is to love and whom to love is to worship.
One day, one day, by God’s grace and if we persevere, we shall see as we are seen and know as we are known. In heaven, in the very presence of God himself, we shall join the song of the angels and saints, the eternal worship of those who simply love being with God without let or hindrance and experiencing the fullness of joy in his presence. We shall sing, “Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” Then we shall be perfectly happy. Such happiness we cannot conceive here on earth. But there are moments that give us the pale shadow of an insight, moments that sometimes come unexpectedly, when we are caught unawares by some particular joy or sorrow, moments that take us deeper into the reality and glory of God, moments when the veil between heaven and earth is particularly thin.
In such moments, we here on earth are caught up to heaven and ourselves join with the saints and angels in their endless, glorious song of praise and love for the God whose love for us surpasses anything we can know or understand. We sing that song here in the Eucharist. Here we sing the song of the angels, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, full are heaven and earth of thy glory. Hosanna in the highest!” Here the veil is thin. Here we are caught up to heaven.