The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
This year 2015 is one of remarkable centenaries. Earlier in the year we marked the 800th anniversary of the signing by King John of the great charter, Magna Carta, in which he promised that he would not rule despotically but would allow fairness and justice to flourish in the land. Then more recentlywe marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which brought to an end the dictatorship throughout much of Europe of the French emperor Napoleon. And next month we shall mark here in the Abbey the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, won in pursuit of his claims to the throne ofFrance, against overwhelming odds, by the English king Henry V, who died only seven years later and was buried under his chantry chapel just to the east of the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor.
Magna Carta, 1215; Agincourt, 1415; Waterloo, 1815: two of them great battles in which the English forceswere victorious; the other arising out of real conflict within the English people, between the king and the barons. Battles and conflict more generally form an important feature of the history of any nation. And political conflict and military battles are an inevitable, sometimes an overwhelming, featureof the daily news we read or hear.
How can we escape conflict or the news of conflict? We might like to try to focus our attention away from the things of the earth on to the things of heaven, to become, as it was said of one mild curate, so heavenly minded that he was no earthly use.
But ourreadings today should warn us away from such a simple approach. St John the Divine in the book of Revelation tells us that even in heaven there was conflict. 'War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, andthere was no longer any place for them in heaven... The great dragon was thrown down … to the earth.' The power of evil, personified in the tradition as Lucifer, the greatest of the archangels, the bearer of light, who over-reached himself and wanted to be as God, was cast out of heaven and throwndown to earth. Evil roams the earth. 'Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith.'
There is a true power of evil. This cannot be an equal and opposite power to the power of God, as if light and darkness, good andevil, God and the devil, are in an eternal contest whose outcome is unknown. In the book of Job, Satan is a creature of God, subject to the power of God. There, we read of God asserting to Satan that amongst all his creatures Job is a truly good man. Satan denied this, saying that Job was only good becauseGod had made him rich and protected him from suffering. So God sent Satan out to put Job to the test. 'Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!' Job lost his family and his position and his wealth and was afflicted with sore boils. Severely tested, hestill did not deny God. At the end of the book, his wealth and his position were restored to him.
So, the power of evil, the power of the devil and his angels, is not equal to the power of God, the power of love, the power of good, and his angels. But it is even so a great and terrifying power,divisive and destructive. We see terrible ills in the world at the moment, civil wars, refugee crises, religiously based extremism. All these can be traced to people's ill will and lack of compassion, to their greed and cruelty, to man's inhumanity to man. The power of evil is terrifying, destructive,whether we see it in great world movements and forces, or in the casual cruelty of daily callousness and ill-consideration, of blindness to the needs of others, of concern only for our own comfort and well-being.
There is a choice to be made, for each of us and all of us, a choice between the eviland the good, between the devil and God, between the angels of darkness and the angels of light. The choice is not made once and for all. There may be, for some of us, a life-changing moment of revelation, when we see for the first time, or perhaps afresh, the stark contrast between the destructive powerof evil and the creative and lovely power of good, when we grasp the nature of the choice. We must come to see that the glitzy attraction of evil is tawdry, cheap, worthless, destructive; then we can see that the pursuit of goodness, of holiness, of truth and beauty is the only way to integrity, to truehappiness, to the self-fulfilment of self-sacrifice, of a life given for others. Even if we have made a life-changing once for all choice for good as against evil, for God, then we still need to re-confirm, to re-make the choice, not only every day, but every morning, afternoon, evening and night, everyhour, every minute, in all the particular decisions and choices we make.
We cannot do this alone. We do not have the power to choose and to do good alone. Even St Paul recognised that he did not do the good he wanted but the evil he did not want is what he did. 'Wretched man that I am! Who willrescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.'
Before a baby or an adult is baptised, he or she is marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross. The priest says, 'May almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness, restore in you the image of his glory,and lead you in the light and obedience of Christ.' The power to choose the good is by the grace, by the working in our lives, of almighty God and in the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The sacraments, especially of baptism and holy communion, the gift of God's holy word, the life of thechurch, the ministry of the angels are all means of God's grace, God's transforming power in our lives that enables us to choose and to do the good and to avoid the evil.
Quite an aspect of our education system is about developing autonomy. People generally mean by that: learning to stand on ourown two feet, not to be dependent on other people. In truth autonomy means 'being a law unto ourselves': not really a good thing. But we learn to take it for granted that all our ideas and thoughts are in some way autochthonous, inherent, from within us, generated from our substance.
Another wayof thinking that this celebration commends to us is that our thoughts and notions may come from outside us: our lowest, our destructive, ideas from the source of evil; our highest, our saving notions, from the message of the angels, from our loving Father God. Just as God spoke to Mary through the archangelGabriel, inviting her to be the Mother of his Son, so God speaks to us in the interstices of our daily lives, our actions, our thoughts and words, through the agency of the blessed angels. But God's loving intimations are so easily drowned out by our preoccupation with ourselves.
Listen carefullyfor the message of the angels and let all that leads to death and destruction be driven out of our ears, our minds and hearts, by their loving, glorious song.