Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Ascension Day 2011

2 June 2011 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Last weekend I had the privilege of preaching sermons in two glorious Gothic chapels.

On Saturday morning I was preaching for Founder’s Day at Lancing College near Shoreham in West Sussex on the south coast of England. Lancing is an independent boarding school founded in the middle of the 19th century by the Reverend Nathaniel Woodard. He intended his new schools to be for the children of parents who were neither rich and able to afford to send their children to elite schools like Eton, Winchester or Westminster nor poor and able to send their children to the new National Schools being founded by the Church of England in every parish of the land. Later this year we shall hold a service in the Abbey for the many schools of Woodard’s foundation, to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth. Despite aiming at the middle range, his design and ambitions were great. The chapel at Lancing College is a magnificent neo-Gothic construction, soaring out of the hillside 150 feet high. On Sunday evening I preached for Trinity College Cambridge, but not in their chapel, which is having a new heating system installed, rather in the chapel of their neighbouring King’s College. That chapel, known throughout the world for the annual broadcast on Christmas Eve of Nine Lessons and Carols, was built at more or less the same time as the Lady Chapel here in the Abbey in the final glory of Gothic design, known as perpendicular, for the great height and large windows achieved by flying buttresses and fan vaulting. 

Those chapels at Lancing and King’s College Cambridge share several features with this great building in which we worship today. Above all, they are designed to lift the eyes and the heart above the earthly concerns of the daily round, the common task, towards the glory and beauty of heaven. The worshipper, surrounded by the magnificent beauty of the carved stone and the great height of the vaults, is transported emotionally and spiritually from earth to heaven. We cannot know precisely what impression and impact these great buildings made when they were first erected. Today we have sky-scrapers witnessing to the glory of mammon and vast edifices witnessing to the glory of man. When the chapels I have described and this Abbey church were first built, the only great buildings in the kingdom witnessed to the glory of God and transported those who saw them to the glory of heaven. The beautiful music of this afternoon’s celebration, the colour and spectacle, the vestments, candles and incense, recovering in the 21st century something of the medieval and renaissance eras, working with the magnificent building of this Abbey church, are themselves intended to offer us a foretaste of the joy and beauty of the eternal worship of heaven.

These churches express in stone a profound theological truth: that heaven is on earth and earth in heaven. The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, today’s great feast, marks the end of the Lord’s appearances to the disciples after the Resurrection but not the end of his presence on earth. From now on, he will not be seen on earth in his resurrection body. His ascension in the cloud of God’s glory marks the final moment of our Lord’s earthly presence. But the Lord’s disciples come gradually to understand that he will continue to be with them and work with them through his Holy Spirit and that they themselves in the power of the Spirit will become the Body of Christ on earth united with its Head in the glory of heaven. So, heaven and earth are one. Earth is lifted up to heaven; heaven is to be found on earth. Our Lord Jesus Christ is in heaven; he is also to be witnessed and encountered on earth. Even when he was born into flesh as the Son of Man, the Son of God was also and eternally in heaven. We who together with our fellow Christians make up the Body of Christ here on earth, the Church militant, are already united with the rest of his Body the Church expectant and triumphant in heaven, as we are united with the Head of the Body, our Lord Jesus Christ himself. We are then already in heaven. St Augustine put it like this. ‘While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but, in him, we can be there by love.’

It is the love of God revealed in our Lord’s life, death and resurrection that is able to transport us to heaven, God’s love alone, his self-giving love. We can do nothing to deserve this gift of love. We are to open our hearts and receive it. Then in the power of God and through the gift of his Holy Spirit we are able not only to experience and to enjoy God’s amazing love but also to share his love with others, to pour out ourselves in self-giving love, following the example and in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We need his grace day by day if we are to come close to fulfilling these high expectations, for we cannot do it in our own power. Left to our own devices we are weak and wilful, selfish and sinful. If we are to be a true part of God’s plan to bring heaven to earth, we must grow ever more reliant on God himself and his grace. 

So we rejoice and give thanks today as we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord and the wonderful gift to us of his great love. We open our hearts to him that we may receive his love and share his love with others. Through prayer, through attention to the scriptures, the Word of God, through the sacraments of God’s grace, we can become ever closer to the heart of God, ever more reliably part of God’s glorious mission to share his love with all his creatures. Above all through this holy sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the bread which is Christ’s body is broken and the wine that is his blood is poured out for us, we receive strength and power, the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. This sacramental grace helps transform us into his likeness from glory to glory, until we are fit to be with him in his fullness and to see him not through a glass darkly but face to face in the glory of heaven.