I am devoted to Christmas – I really love it, which is just as well as all our lives in the Cathedral get completely taken up at this time of the year with carol services and carol concerts. If you are a Scrooge – a ‘Christmas humbug’ kind of person – and they are not unknown even amongst Christians – then the weeks of Advent in a Cathedral would be a rather miserable existence.
But it doesn’t feel at all like that to me. So this last week I have been involved in six carol services and concerts. Others have happened as well that I have not been involved in but the ones that I have welcomed and officiated at have been varied and wonderful, each in their own way. Carol services tend to fall into one of three categories – the ones for a charity – such as Mercy Ships, Marie Curie and CRISIS which have all had services with us; the corporate ones – like the FT, Barclays, The Worshipful Company of Launderers; and ones for schools – St Saviours and St Olaves, JAGS, Dulwich Prep and Dulwich College, all of which have been with us in the past few days. There are some that don’t fit into these catergories – next week we welcome the Mayor of London’s Carol Service – for instance.
The thing I welcome however, is that whatever the organisation, people arrive in the cathedal in a receptive mood and wanting to hear the familiar texts and sing the familiar carols and it gives us a great opportunity to witnss to the gospel. Of course, it would be fantastic if all the people who came to carol services came to church at Christmas, but I’m realistic enough to know that they’re not going to and so you have to take the opportunity that you are given to make a witness to the Living God whom we know in the incarnation. So I will happily sing ‘Hark the herald angels’ again and again if it gives us the opportunity to tell the good news of Jesus Christ and in such a way that helps peope make the connection of the Living God with their own life.
Nevertheless, there is a price to be paid and it is our keeping of Advent which is where the price is paid. It is such a wonderful season, with some of the loveliest hymns to sing and great readings to listen to and amazing themes to think about. But you can easily lose all sense of Advent. So it has been good that apart from finding Advent in the liturgy we have been blessed with an amazing Advent course this year which has pulled us back into the reality of the Advent Season.
This week we were joined by the Very Revd Lister Tonge, Dean of Monmouth, who addressed with us the theme of ‘God comes … in silence’. Lister has had a great deal of experience, through working with religious communities and the Jesuits, in spiritual direction and in leading spiritual exercises. So he immediately told us that he wasn’t going to be talking about silence but that we would be experiencing silence together. In a really skillful way and by using hymnody as a way in, he led us into long periods of silence. It was tremendous. These are the comments of some people who were there.
“I found this [evening] extremely valuable… in my case, I felt not distant from God but something of a failure of connection with God, and I think this has given me a way to redevelop not so much my faith but my sense of God’s presence, and of God being with me and hopefully me being with God and it’s been a great evening”
“I feel better on leaving than I did on arriving”
“Normally meditation in the Christian church is about being read something and not actually sitting in silence so it’s great to finally have silence and we need more of it”
I agree with all of that. Fr Lister asked us to mediate on a hymn which spoke to us. For those for whom hymns were not evocative they could choose another text on which to focus. For me hymns work well and I decided to focus on one which means a huge amount to me – well, it has increasingly done so in recent years. I only became aware of it after it was set to a great new tune, Coe Fen. It’s often the tune that makes the words come alive; it did so in this case for me.
The text is by John Mason (1645-1694) but it feels so exceptionally modern to me in the way it describes God.
How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?
Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.
How great a being, Lord, is Thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere.
It has always been the final verse that has captured my imagination and especially the imagery for God that Mason uses – ‘Thou art a sea without a shore, A sun without a sphere’. But in my meditation it was the second verse that drew my attention and these words which have stayed with me since
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
What is the ‘sound of God’ was what I was thinking. It was 1 Kings 19.20 which came to mind and Elijah’s realisation that the Lord was to be found not in the wind or the earthquake or fire but ‘in the sound of sheer silence’. God comes in silence – the sound of God, but we need to be silent to attend to the sound and in midst of all the carols I need some silence as well.
Perhaps this quote from Blessed Mother Theresa could be our prayer
The fruit of Silence is prayer.
The fruit of Prayer is faith.
The fruit of Faith is love.
The fruit of Love is service.
The fruit of Service is peace.
But it all begins with silence ………