Sermon given at Matins on Christ the King 2013
24 November 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
During this month of November, the series of sermons at Matins are on the theme of prayer. It began with a reflection on prayer as intercession; last week I spoke about prayer as confession and this morning I will be speaking about prayer as adoration. Today is also the feast of Christ the King – a very appropriate day to reflect upon adoration as a form of prayer which lies at the very heart of our Christian faith. Our New Testament reading from the book of Revelation speaks so powerfully of this type of prayer:
Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing, 'We give you thanks, Lord God almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign'.
This is an image of concentrated love, and by falling on their faces, the twenty-four elders adopt an extremely powerful posture of adoration, a clear physical symbolism for the outpouring of love and wonder and gratitude to their Lord God. The true essence of prayerful adoration is indeed symbolised by outward prostration, it represents the bowing down of the inner person; a heart-felt response to God’s greatness.
Such devotion to the majesty of God is nowadays almost counter-cultural to the vast population of our land, and yet it is important for us to remember that adoration is not something purely restricted to the confines of faith; it is one of the most natural things that we all do as humans. Reflect for a moment on the hordes of people who regularly gather in Trafalgar Square for the opening night of a highly publicised new film. The jostling that goes on with reporters and paparazzi anticipating, with baited breath, the arrival of famous film stars; the hyper-ecstatic tension that erupts when they step out of the car. Or think about home football fans at either Stamford Bridge or Wembley, uncontrollable when their hero scores a goal and the ground erupts with shouts of joy. It seems that humanity is obsessed with adoring things.
However, when we take a moment to adore God, a very different transformation happens. Our hearts are lifted above the mundane, and that natural human response becomes one of a very different type of adoring love. We move outside of ourselves – and here we can stay for a while, gazing at the beauty of the majesty of Christ our King – and renewing our spirits by the power of his presence.
I suppose the prayer of adoration, adoring prayer, is not that dissimilar to the discipline of Christian meditation – rather like it but not quite the same. The great spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill often advised others by saying: ‘Let your soul be in your eyes’. In other words, she’s saying that when we come to adore God it is often invaluable to have something to focus upon: A cross, a candle, a picture – the very presence of Christ at the altar. Her advice is to slowly filter out all other distractions until one’s mind and heart are totally focused upon the object in question, and through this simple discipline we come to find a deepening stillness and peacefulness.
Just like meditation, adoring prayer can be greatly helped if we take a little time to make sure that we are in a comfortable position, focusing our eyes, heart and attention upon God. It is from such a position of stillness that we have the best possible chance of being led into a deeper sense of the presence of God in all other humans. Silent prayer is a marvellous aid, and I warmly commend to you the early services of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion that take place quietly every morning in the chapel of St Faith or one of the other chapels. The chapel of St Faith is a particularly special place: reserved for quite prayer, and within which the blessed sacrament is itself continually reserved.
Back in 1990 I became a parish incumbent for the first time. Within that parish there is now a retirement home that only a few years before my arrival had still been a significant Augustinian Priory of Roman Catholic nuns. The chapel is now converting into a library and sitting room, but is still an extraordinary peaceful space. Behind a large curtain (shielding the old sanctuary) stands a now decommissioned, dusty and huge stone altar and equally large stone canopy upon which the sacrament had once been reserved. I later discovered that perpetual prayer (night and day) had been made there continually for over one hundred years, with groups of nuns changing every two hours. Such devotion and adoration is awe inspiring – and even though it was no longer a place of formal prayer, a deep spiritual presence lives on in that building, the product of thousands and thousands of hours of adoring prayer. Such adoration reminds us, if we need to be reminded, that all worship begins with adoration, and to worship is to be in complete awe of God.
Just as the twenty-four elders fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing, 'We give you thanks, Lord God almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign', so we too are brought to our knees in adoration of him. We do this because his love, power and wisdom are so greater than ours, that we are naturally moved to bow down before him. Sometimes in prayer we are so caught by God’s presence that all we want to do is praise God continually. At moments like these there is no need for words, even petitions and intercessions feel out of place. At such times we feel God’s infinite and indescribable greatness, and his power and love completely overwhelms us. It is no wonder that the living creatures, the elders, the angels, and the multitude in St John’s vision could not stop praising God before his throne. It is no wonder that they continually fell down before the throne to worship.
Just a few chapters before today’s reading we read:
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands and thousands, singing with full voice, 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!' Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, 'To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!' And the four living creatures said 'Amen!' And the elders fell down and worshiped.
Such adoration reveals the very source of our human desire to adore. It puts the film star, the rock star, the football star, firmly in their place, and it reminds us, if we need to be reminded, that God is unique in his absoluteness and different from everything else created. We adore you O Christ and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen.