On May 23rd the Diocese celebrated the anniversary of the Dedication of our cathedral church of St. David, Cardiff. Archbishop George Stack reflects upon the significance of the celebration as we are locked away from our churches:
It might seem strange to be celebrating the dedication of St. David’s Cathedral when the church is locked. But these anniversaries are important because they give us an opportunity to give thanks for the past, for those who made this building possible and for those whose lives have been shaped within these walls. It gives us an opportunity to look to the future with hope and courage. And to live in the present with faith, facing all the challenges brought about by the corona virus pandemic. I am inspired by the words of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) when he wrote:
“Anxiety is the greatest evil that can befall a soul, except sin. God commands you pray, but forbids you to worry”.
The bishops of England and Wales are working with the governments of each country in preparation for the phased re-opening of churches. This will not be without its problems, not least in that churches are unlike parks, garden centres and supermarkets where people can be spaced out in the open air and in large spaces otherwise known as Temples of Consumerism (with apologies to Tesco’s!). Worshipping in churches, and the whole meaning of communion, is that we are together as one body, the Body of Christ in this place, through our common faith and baptism. But we shall have to have some measure of social distancing even though it is an alien concept.
Today’s reading from the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah showed the Jewish people ‘locked out’ of their Temple. In fact it had been destroyed by King Nebuchanezzar II in 587BC, and the people of Israel taken into a second exile. “By the rivers of Babylon, we hung up our harps. And there we wept as we remembered Zion” (Psalm 91). But today we hear that the exile is over. A new Temple has been built. The doors are open for worship. The people are gathered in celebration. The prophet Nehemiah describes the liturgy, the reading of the Law (the Covenant) by the priest Ezra. And the people wept.
“Do not weep” said Nehemiah. “This day in sacred to the Lord. Do not be mournful”. For the people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law. I imagine some wept with joy at what they were seeing – the building and the opening of the new Temple. Others,I am sure, were weeping with sadness at what they had lost and what they suffered for their unfaithfulness. And I imagine the tears of joy and those of sadness were undistinguishable. Not unlike many of our experiences today.
The late Cardinal Basil Hume often used to say churches are not just places in which we worship God but with which we worship God. That is why we fill them with signs and symbols, candles, holy water, oil, incense, statues, Stations of the Cross, and so much else. All of these raise our minds and hearts to God. But the greatest sign and symbol and the ultimate sacrament is, of course, the bread and wine which is changed into the body and blood of Jesus himself. We receive Him in Holy Communion,certainly. But we are also received by Him into Holy Communion, received into the very life of God himself.
Jesus said “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem …. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21). One of the loveliest descriptions of each one of us is that we are a Temple of the Holy Spirit. The worship we offer God consists of the whole of our person, the whole of our life. Even though we are separated from each other at this painful time, yet we are not apart united as we are in faith and baptism. The celebration of this anniversary Mass for the intentions and well being of the whole diocese is for your well being and mine also.
Let the final word go to our great Welsh poet, R.S.Thomas in a poem entitled “In Church”.
Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is there where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing. Testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.