Maundy Thursday 2019
High up on the southern facade of St Paul’s Cathedral is the statue of a phoenix rising from the ashes, a symbol of resurrection. Christopher Wren had it put there after it was recovered from the ashes of the cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Underneath it the word ‘resurgam’ (‘I rise’), makes Wren’s rebuilding of St Paul’s a Christian symbol of resurrection, which both draws on the ancient imagery and makes the very building an emblem of hope and new birth for the City of London, so comprehensively destroyed by the cleansing power of fire. For it should also be remembered that to a great extent, the fire of 1666 purged the City of London of the pestilence with which it had been plagued in the preceding years.
This evening we have rung the bells in solidarity with the worldwide Christian Community – and others – who have stood in shock and awe as La catedrale de Notre Dame de Paris burned, with flames of fire licking heavenwards and smoke and ash pouring out over L’isle de la Cité – a poisonous incense to baffle prayer. The bell-ringing initiative has been suggested by the British Ambassador to France, Edward Llewellyn, and it many will have taken part. Suffice it to say that St Paul’s Cathedral have been ringing – they who carry in their stones so much of what it is like to be burned down – several times in fact. Indeed it was a former Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, whose term of office preceded the Great Fire of 1666, who wrote these telling words, which speak very much to our time at this time, in so many ways. I quoted them on Mothering Sunday, but this week they have a different ring to them:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
The bells have tolled for Paris this evening, for Europe is the less, as a promontory – Notre Dame, on its Parisian promontory - is a ‘manor of our friends’ the French, not so much washed away by the sea, but burned away.
I remember in 2001 there was a service at St Paul’s Cathedral hosted by the London Fire Brigade who wanted to show solidarity with the New York Fire Brigade who had lost 300 men in the Twin Towers’ collapse of 9/11, and fire officers from New York and all over the UK gathered to lament and praise. I suggested and was pleased to experience the profound use of this poem, with a tolling bell, as British fireman gathered only feet away from the ‘resurgam’ stone and pondered the fate of their brave American firefighting siblings.
For while the poem was written four centuries ago, it remains relevant today and will be so again no doubt. It is not a Brexit poem, not a fireman’s poem, but rather a poem that speaks of and sums up the underlying unity of humankind, the brotherhood of nations and the inherent empathy of the human spirit. Amidst all the soul searching and word-searching that has gone on these last few days in the aftermath of the near-destruction of a cathedral, these words of Donne’s remind us not only of the unity of the human spirit, but of the greater, universal call as creatures of God, striving to express our faith, our hope and our love.
The French government euphemistically called Notre Dame a ‘cultural artefact’, in order not to offend their secular nation, but it wasn’t long before the word ‘miracle’ was being used to account for what could have happened but didn’t. The image of a cross shining amidst the rubble will become as iconic, I’m sure, as the famous image of St Paul’s surrounded by smoke as a symbol of hope during the blitz.
But the word ‘miracle’, is misplaced, and Notre Dame is not merely a cultural artefact. It is a church – a house of God – and the roof which has burned away covered the place where the Holy Eucharist is celebrated daily. I was there on Trinity Sunday 2017, where part of the sermon and service sheets were in English and the great organ was played, and where I as an Anglican who recognised the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, was offered the sacrament. And it is not a miracle that Notre Dame survived, but thanks to skilled and brave fireman who knew what they were doing when dealing with the consequences of actions of workmen who did not. That it caught fire, was partially destroyed and significantly saved should not be attributed to divine interventions of either direction – I’m also thinking of that nonsense when York Minster was struck by lightning and some people said it was because the then Bishop of Durham was a heretic. Mediaeval thinking will always prevail it seems! Neither the burning, nor the saving or Note Dame are acts of God, despite what the insurance companies may call it. But this does not mean that God cannot speak to us through them.
A Cathedral is a church, and a church is the house of God, and, even more so, the house of God’s people. L’eglise – the French word for ‘church’ – and also, incidentally the Welsh word for church, too - comes from ecclesia – which comes from the Greek – ek and clesia – called out. The Church - this church – Notre Dame too – is the building under whose roof gather the people of God, whose mission is to go into the world proclaiming Christ and making disciples. We are called in to be sent out. And it all began, on this very night. On this very night on which our Lord prayed for his disciples, that they might be one. And prayed for them that they might have the courage and strength, and indeed the Holy Spirit to lead them into truth and sustain them on the journey of faith, hope and love ahead.
So, here’s the irony – the serendipity – that as the spire of Notre Dame falls in flames, we think of John Donne reminding us that we are one in humanity, and also of our Lord’s prayer at the Last Supper – immediately before inventing the Holy eucharist – that we may be one. Brexit is a minor detail – we are One whether we remain, stay, leave, or dig a hole in the ground six feet deep and lie in it forever. This is our hope, and it is our faith – that in Christ Jesus, we are one, united in the supper that he gave us this very night. United in the bread and wine, offered on our altar, and offered on the Altar of St Paul’s, and Notre Dame, and in Mexico, and in Jerusalem and in Dallas and in Auckland and thousands of thousands of other places this very night. And that’s before the saints and angels join in! We are united in what we believe, and in what we do. And we do it in remembrance of him – of Jesus, who, as the ancient mystic Peter Abelard put it in the hymn with which we began:
This night institutes his holy supper,
Blest food and drink for heart and soul and mind.
This night injustice joins its hand to treason’s
And buys the ransom price of humankind.
And this night when we remember, along with all of goodwill and faith that:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
… therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Thee, and me, and we all. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 18/04/19