I don’t know if I am just being particularly aware of it this year, but a lot of people have wanted to hold meetings this week. And it is not just the secular world, which doesn’t hold much store by what week this is, church groups have also seemed not to be restrained by this being Holy Week. I may be suffering from a bit of ‘stop the world I want to get off’ syndrome, but actually I think Holy Week should be different, when we journey at a different pace. This is an aspect of what Justin Welby refers to in his Lent book, Dethroning Mammon (Bloomsbury 2016 p 156), as the Christian Church ‘dancing to a different tune and seeing a different vision’. Now he is actually referring there to why we get involved in society and the public square debates, but to dance to that tune we have to hear it and to see differently we have to stand still in a place that enables us to take in the view.
There is so much angst about and we are constantly encouraged, urged to frenetic activity. So many events to plan and yet another initiative comes at us expecting us to spring on board, it can leave us feeling just a little breathless. When those with the activist personalities are in the driving seat, as is their way, everyone gets a push and wound up. That, of course, is their gift – to stir us up. But there are times when we need to be stilled and so do they. And today is one of those days – in fact this week is one of those weeks. Today we are asked if we can watch with Christ just one short hour? The truth is many can’t. It’s not always won’t, but many struggle with stillness; it is not easy to get into it, especially if you are wound up, stressed or conscious you have so many other things to do – and clergy are no different not least at this time of year when we just put on so many more services which have to be serviced. The very thing we are trying to achieve becomes harder to find.
Last summer I spent a day a Ferrar House at Little Gidding leading a Deanery Clergy Quiet Day. While I was in the church there, I found a copy of T S Eliot’s poem Little Gidding and so it seemed the perfect place to sit for a while and read it in the quiet and midsummer sunlight. Here’s the famous section:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
As I read that, in a place ‘where prayer has been valid’, I was reminded that poetry requires a different pace. It is not instant, but reflective; it will not be hurried, but requires a slower lane – it takes us down the back roads of life and faith where the scenery passes and we are aware of every corner and gradient.
Activity can become a displacement activity, where we avoid the reflective and the stillness. And there is a kind of praying that just fills the air with words. But watching with Christ just one hour does not require words. It requires ‘the communication’ with a ‘fire beyond the language of the living’, the ‘intersection of the timeless moment’. And in that communing we become aware of the different tune which calls us to dance and start to see from a perspective in which we can take in the view and so be inspired to love and live and long with the Passion of Christ.
So, the question of Christ to his slumbering disciples in the garden comes to us. Can we, will we watch with him one short hour? Will we journey at a different pace over these next few days, dancing to a different tune and so come out of it renewed by the view? This service is followed by the Watch until 10.00pm – silent prayer for an hour and a bit, for that different pace. Tomorrow, Good Friday, after the walk of witness and hot cross buns have been shared and we have enjoyed the company of friends and strangers the church will remain open for quiet prayer until 3.00pm. Drop in, spend a moment before the cross – not to instruct, inform curiosity or carry report, but just to be where prayer has been and is valid.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Maundy Thursday 13th April 2017