‘Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
This year we have been living through extraordinary times. Almost certainly in the lifetime of this church there has never been a period as long as the lockdown we have been experiencing when public prayer has not been offered in this building. Today is a day for celebration as we are able once again to hallow the stones of this beautiful place with our worship and praise, giving thanks for Bishop William of Edington and all those who have built and maintained this place for over 600 years.
Yet our thanksgivings and our celebrations today are tinged also with sadness. We remember all who have died during these weeks of pandemic, both locally and around the world. Our prayers today are also for those who are still at risk, as we know that the battle against Covid-19 in this country is still not completely won and still blights countries around the world. There is sadness also because we cannot yet sing, and, in this church in particular, singing is a really important part of our expression of Christian faith.
In the pages of scripture I am reminded of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These two heros were involved in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple following the seventy years of exile that the Israelites had endured in Babylon. The Temple, the focus of Jewish worship, had been destroyed. Ways had to be found to worship God without the building and the sense of God’s special presence in that place. Worship then was confined to people’s homes. The psalmist wrote about that time: ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion….Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Yet the exiles remained faithful. And on returning they set about restoring the life and worship of the Temple they had missed so much. Even so, the oldest among them who could remember the Temple as it was in the old days complained that the new one wasn’t a patch on what had been there before.
Here we are, then, back in church, and it will feel different. It’s not just that we cannot sing, and we have to obey social distancing and wash our hands and so on. We are different because of what has happened over these past few weeks. People we know have had the disease. Some have died from it and have had funerals attended by only a few mourners. Others have been working like never before in hospitals and care homes to provide for the vulnerable and the sick. And each of us has been touched in some way or other with fear, anxiety, a sense of loss and isolation as we have missed hugging loved ones, and still cannot enjoy the full freedoms we had before this crisis. Virtual worship, while the best we could offer, cannot replace the need for coming together as a worshipping community to be fed with words and with the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. It has been as though we were back in Babylon, in enforced exile, albeit only for a few weeks.
Thankfully the church building is much as we left it back in March. Unlike Ezra and Nehemiah, we don’t have to start from scratch, and it is still possible to sense the prayers of the faithful worshippers who have hallowed these stones and left their spiritual imprint upon them. We see around us also evidence of the turbulent times of the past. Like the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, this place carries evidence of past iconoclasm, with headless statues and niches emptied by angry protestants/Protestants centuries ago. The church, like this nation is not immune from sin and evil and the abuse of others. Disfigured monuments are a powerful reminder of this, and prompt us to self-reflection and confession.
Yet through the grace of God we are here, and we are called to give thanks for that and to recommit ourselves to live lives of faithfulness, love and service. We sense the special presence of God around us, as he invites us once again to add our prayers to those of the faithful down the years. So I want to finish by sharing with you some inspirational music which our choir may have sung for us today had they been permitted. It’s the anthem ‘Locus Iste’ by Anton Bruckner. Translated, the words are: This place was made by God, an inestimable sacrament, irreprehensible.