2nd March 1997
St Agnes, Kennington Park
In this series of sermons on the Sacraments we've just passed the half-way mark.
Next Sunday is Mothering Sunday, so it, and the following three Sundays, Passion, Palm and Easter, each provides a subject of its own to think about; so although the Sacraments may well feature in what we consider, they won't form the main topic.
This is why it seemed appropriate to sum up this first part of the series on Sacraments by telling you in some detail about a series of events which took place last week, particularly on Friday and yesterday, because they illustrate, so to say, "The Sacraments in Action", as well as any series of events that I can remember.
It happened like this.
Anne's aunt, Mary Ferguson would have celebrated her 85th birthday next week.
During the past year she has become increasingly frail, but all through her life she has been the sort of person to whom people of all ages and all kinds found it easy to talk and relate. It used not to matter whom she sat next to at a party or a picnic: you could be certain that within seconds she would be chatting away with that person.
It made no difference whether they were young or old, scholarly or simple, black or white, shy or forthcoming: the certainty was that they would find themselves talking happily together with her, sometimes in a group but more often one-to-one.
Yet for all her social confidence and grace, Aunt Mary (for that's what she was always known as both by the family and everyone else, regardless of age or kinship) was, by her own admission "a private person". She seldom talked about herself. Not because she had anything to hide or be ashamed of, but precisely because she did not. She really didn't think of herself as being sufficiently interesting to be a topic of her own conversation.
She worshipped at St Paul's Cathedral on Sundays. But during the past year it became increasingly difficult for her to get there. So we made the arrangement that I would take her the Sacrament of Holy Communion in her own home.
This involved using what is called the Reserved Sacrament.
In many churches, including St Agnes and St Stephen Lewisham, there is a locked cupboard in the lady Chapel, inside which there is a small silver receptacle called a ciborium in which are placed some of the consecrated bread-hosts from one of the Sunday Masses.
When someone is ill, or unable for any reason to get to Church, the priest goes to the cupboard (or Aumbry), unlocks it, and puts one of these hosts in a small silver box called a pyx and takes it to the house of the sick person.
Thus once a month or so during the past year I have been carrying the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ with me on buses and the Tube, unbeknown to my fellow travellers, across London to South Kensington where she lived and giving her Holy communion in her front room.
Not only myself. As often as possible one of her closest friends would come with me who is also a Christian. In this way we showed that the Holy Communion is not just a "private" thing between God and the Communicant ("an exclusive telephone line to the almighty" someone once called it) but an actions of the whole Church as the Body of Christ on Earth.
We need to remind ourselves of that important fact over and over again. There is no such thing as a purely "private" sacrament. Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Anointing, Holy Communion are essentially acts of the whole Church. as the Body of Christ, even when, as in the case of Sacramental Confession, the Priest acts as the representative of the Church. In giving the penitent absolution he is not only reconciling them to God but to their fellow Christians because all wrongdoing is by definition something which affects the Body of Christ, putting us at a distance from our brothers and sisters and needing their forgiveness as well as God's.
Last week you may remember we considered Anointing. And we saw that it was not some kind of Alternative medicine to be used only when all else has failed, but a complementary source of healing to be used alongside and in co-operation with whatever medical science prescribes. For that reason we have during the past year been in constant touch with Aunt Mary's doctor and he has kept us in the picture as to her general condition.
Well, a fortnight ago he told us that he thought her end was approaching.
And so it was that the day before yesterday, Friday, we called together a small group of her fellow-Christians, seven in all, who travelled from as far afield as Yorkshire and Oxfordshire, and there, in her bedroom in our company she was anointed with holy oil and we held a celebration of the Mass using her bureau as an altar.
Those who came were all people whom, during her lifetime, Aunt Mary had regularly chatted with, written to, listened to and generally taken an interest in their welfare as was her invariable habit. After the service we went our different ways.
Then yesterday morning we heard that Aunt Mary had died in her sleep some time on Friday night and her death had only been discovered by the carer when she went in on Saturday morning to wake her up.
Thus, by one of those coming-togethers of events, which ignorant people call "co-incidences" but Christians call co-incidences because they can see the hand of God at work in them as plain as a pikestaff, seven of us found ourselves gathered at her bedside on Friday morning to be "The Church that is in her house".
It resembled that incident described by St Luke which we thought about at Candlemass, when Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Simeon and Anna, led by the Spirit, "co-incided" at the Temple steps.
Of course God's providence required human co-operation to bring it about. Sacraments are not a religious magic performed by priests which happen in a vacuum. They work, so to speak, because we allow them to work, which involves making the necessary effort and taking the trouble to see that they do.
So, between the sacrifice of Jesus once for all upon the cross, and its local re-presentation or anamnesis or remembrance which he has commanded us to and which has taken place in thousands and hundreds of thousands of churches around the world ever since, there is the sheer physical effort of priest and people actually getting there, of coming to Church, of planning their lives week by week around this focal point so that they may be present at the Lord's Table on the Lord's Day; or if this becomes impossible of planning so that the Lord's Table and the Lord's people can be brought to people in their homes as we did for Aunt Mary on Friday.
And when we say that the Sacraments are an act of the whole Church we don't just mean the local visible church on earth here in Kennington or Lewisham. We mean all those places where the Word of God is proclaimed and his Sacraments administered according to his will.
And by the People of God we don't just mean the people who are here this morning or even just those who are alive today. For in the Mass, the Holy communion, The Lord's Supper, the Eucharist or whatever you like to call it the Church in heaven is most clearly seen as being united with the Church on earth.
For the worship which we join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven includes all those people for whom we pray Sunday by Sunday who have obeyed our Lord's command to "do this in remembrance of me" People in the old St Agnes 75 years ago some of whom were to go to their deaths in the First World War; people who worshipped God round these parts long before there was a St Agnes church to go to; people far and near, of every nation and language and people and tongues.
Let me end by reading you the famous passage from Dom Gregory Dix's Shape of the Liturgy.
Was ever another command so obeyed [as "Do this in Remembrance of me]?
For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetch because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc — one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei — the holy common people of God.
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