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Westminster Abbey and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Sermon at a Meditation for Holy Week 2021

The beginning of the Church is often ascribed to Pentecost and the sending of the Holy Spirit.

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor

Monday, 29th March 2021 at 4.00 PM

But there is an equally venerable tradition that the Church begins here, at the foot of the Cross. When Jesus commends his mother Mary, and his beloved disciple John, to one another’s care – behold your Mother, behold your son – he inaugurates a new kind of belonging.

Before the iconoclasm associated with the Reformation, the Abbey, like every church up and down the land, would have contained a rood – a large and highly visible representation of the moment we heard read from St John’s gospel: a large crucifix, with the figures of Mary and John standing at the foot. In the Abbey it was set on the High Altar screen, but in most churches it would have been set on a rood loft overlooking the Nave. The congregation would have had this constant reminder of where it comes from – the new kind of belonging that Jesus commanded, that began with Mary and John and continues today in us.

There are good cases to be made for either moment to be claimed as the beginning of the Church – each highlights different facets of the Church’s nature – but what the rood, the scene at the foot of the Cross suggests is a Church that emerges out of utter desolation.

We just heard William Byrd’s searing setting of a verse from Isaiah; Civitas sancti tui…

'Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.'

The prophet mourns for his people and the desolation of the holy city and its Temple. St John in his gospel, recalls Jesus speaking about the destruction of the Temple, and how he related it to his own body.

We observe Holy Week this year at a moment of cautious optimism. Vaccinations seem to be going well, the prevalence of the virus is reducing, and there is the prospect of a steady unlocking of society and a slow return of freedom.

This is all very, very good, and a cause for thanksgiving; but if we are in a hurry to forget the desolation of the last year – the damage to businesses, to cultural life, to mental health, to the education of our children, and the terrible loss of life – then we will not only risk leaving many people behind, but we will miss the opportunity for a proper beginning.

Desolation is not a good thing, but it can be put to good purpose – as Jesus demonstrates.  The Church begins with a broken-hearted mother and a devastated friend. It reminds us that such people must always be held at the heart of the Church, because they are held in the heart of Jesus. Indeed, this is the guarantee to us that, no matter how low we may be brought in this life, the Church/Jesus will not leave us desolate. 

The Prime Minister, early in the pandemic, talked of the government throwing its arms around the nation to protect us through the crisis. There would be, and has been, desolation, but there was also the promise that none would be left behind or forgotten.

There is an opportunity now for a new beginning, not just for this nation, but for the family of nations, to make open arms a way of life and not just for the time of pandemic; to make sure that no-one is left behind, and to develop political and economic systems that have the needs of the desolate at their heart.

After the second world war this country made extraordinary efforts in that direction, not least with the establishing of the National Health Service. The Church had a significant part to play in that – we are less sure of our role now.

What we can surely offer is a reminder of the story that has given impetus and meaning to the establishing of a more compassionate social order. We who still gather at the foot of the Cross, with Mary and John and all the broken-hearted, we who find our beginning here, can remind the world where arms were first opened widest.

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