Good Friday Sermon 2007

Good Friday Sermon 2007
preached at
St Dunstan-in-the-West

You know the scene in the play and film, Amadeus, where the Emperor hears a piano concerto performed by Mozart. It has been a scintillating performance; Mozart has given of his best. The Emperor is a significant patron of the arts, and a notable amateur composer. He can perceive the greatness of Mozart’s talent, but is puzzled as to how to convey his response to the piece. He volunteers, “it was marvellous, but perhaps there are too many notes.”


I am not a musician. I rely on people humming me notes to get through the liturgical singing I have to do! Thank goodness we have in James, a deacon who can sing.


The part of Christ in today’s passion is short, in John he only speaks five times in chapter 19, once in the preatorium before Pilate and four times, from the cross. But for a few lines there are a lot of notes.


The pulse of the enduring melody, the cantus firmus, is something that has been very beautifully pondered upon in a book entitled just that, The Enduring Melody by Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster and one time head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.


It is a staggering book, which I had to read in stages, not because it is dense, but because it is so vivid. Fr Michael begins his story after a major operation to remove a cancerous tumour in the jaw. Although a major operation, and he a man in his 70s, initial signs are that all should be well. As the book concludes his diary entries become more insistent. He knows he is dying and there is still more he must needs convey.


Our wonderful, BBC laureate Choir of year Chantage, under James’s constantly expert direction, will know better than me about the power of the cantus firmus. Fr Michael begins by quoting William Byrd, who in the Preface to Gradualia of 1607 wrote of the power of harmony as it enwraps and develops counterpoint:


There is a certain hidden power in thoughts underlying the words themselves, so that one mediates and constantly seriously considers them, the right notes in some inexplicable fashion suggest themselves spontaneously.


This may be true for proper singers, not necessarily for people like me.


The cantus firmus holds together this anthology of the sagest reflections of a sick and ultimately dying man. His book is deeply personal. I hope you will forgive me if inspired by his example I speak from my recent experiences of the nature of suffering and living somewhere not far from the shadow of death.



My son was born on Christmas Day 2005, thankfully all my Christmas services were over and we were home in time for supper. For three months until 25 March last year, he was a model baby, who slept and fed well, and did not cry much. On the Feast of the Annunciation he had a small fit in the afternoon and then another later the same evening. Nothing seemed to have prompted the fits, and immediately after the second we took him to UCH and there he stayed with day trips to Great Ormond Street for 2 months. It became apparent very early that he had a rare and very serious malformation of the brain, which was incurable and whose early symptoms were a degenerative form of epilepsy, which could only be controlled by a combination of heavy duty anti-epilepsy drugs. After the brain scan we were given a list of other potential complications, most of which seemed remote, as he was so well before all this began. Those months were utterly horrendous. Our lives were turned completely upside down. I was left at home with two young daughters, while Beatrice, still breast feeding was boarding at UCH. Before our eyes, our little boy seemed to disappear behind a veil of drugs and exhaustion – he had somewhere in the region of 30 fits a day, some of which were too devastating to watch. At some point about then, we can’t remember when, he stopped smiling until November. That was one of the worst aspects of the story.


Gradually the symptoms of secondary complications became apparent, almost from the moment he was discharged. At the outset we were given no prognosis, although something of the way we always got to see the most senior doctors, and something about their tone hinted at what would come in July. It was then the Professor said “I need to tell you the outlook is bleak.” A new regime of drugs improved Theodore’s alertness, without bringing the old him back. But we were able to go away on holiday with him and he grew and fed well. In September, just as things were finding the autumnal rhythm, he went from having a runny nose one Sunday night, to having pneumonia the next day. By this time we had been transferred to a palliative care team in the community, a sort of hospice at home. On the Thursday we thought he was on the mend, the next day the doctors from the team came and started briefing us on what to do if he died at home over the weekend. There were a few hours when we thought we were losing him.


Since then the focus of Theodore’s care has been primarily respiratory related, with the complex neurology left to be what it is.


Good Friday means something it did not mean two years ago, and I had no means of guessing last year, when this had all just happened.


So many things and people have helped in ways that are not obvious.


Suffering is not always in the big things. The worst of it is things like drinking hospital tea out of polystyrene cups, two hours after you arrived for a nine o’clock hospital appointment, to discover the specialist may be another hour and a half. Or getting two little girls ready for school and still not being able to comb their hair like their mummy does, not to mention getting their slides in just so. The big things, like what it all means, or what is going to happen next are rather too big most of the time to get one down. Sleep or the lack of it does however take its toll on humour, energy and perspective.


Theodore was poorly for most of January and February. After a particularly bad bout of bronchialitis in early January, our doctor booked him into the Richard House in Beckton for a few days respite care, so we could have some unbroken nights at home. The handover to competent and experienced nurses took five hours. It dawned on me how much is done for him at home that is now so much a part of our lives that we take for granted.


This is not meant as a sob story. It is my own attempt to illustrate a personal perspective on Good Friday that is new.


There are two things that I have learnt that have been sustaining and while they cannot explain this mysterious turn of events, they can help to make it bearable.


The first we knew, believed and trusted before it happened: life, all life is a gift. Theodore’s name means gift of God. He was always going to be Theodore, named after Theodore of Tarsus, the only Greek Archbishop of Canterbury. He came from the East to Rome, through France and thence to Canterbury in the ninth century. The Archbishop was a gift from the Eastern Church to the Western Church. Theodore was our Christmas gift from God. Some gifts are not everything we think they are going to be, but in learning how to receive this gift and perceive in it the fullness of God’s purposes, we find joy.


The second thing, I have shared in emails, but was a profound revelation and the grace of it, I continue to draw strength from. At an early point I felt myself sinking into despair.


I realised that despair uses huge reserves of energy and is as much an act of the will as hope. You have to use a lot of energy to despair. This must sound obvious to any Christian soul in Holy Week, but it was not to me. Deep in the still-to-be-converted part of my psyche there was a recalcitrant corner which said that when things were really awful, it was alright to give in to despair, it was allowed as there was no option. It was a devastating period, only countered by reading the section in Deuteronomy which presents the choice of blessing or curse to the people of Israel. I realised I had to choose blessing and life, even in a situation of despair in the shadow of death. I am still living in the grace of that extraordinary discovery. Hope is not blind. I do not hope that Theodore will get better or that he will die, I just live hopefully, rather than live despairingly.


We have been surrounded by such constant and amazing love. I cannot tell you what comfort there is in people’s, often wordless comfort. There is nothing that can be said, but that does not matter. We were visited of her own initiative by Sister Frances Dominica of Helen House in Oxford. You may have seen the recent programmes about the twin hospices she runs for children and young adults. She has worked in children’s palliative care for well over 25 years and has made a contribution comparable to Dame Cicely Saunders in the realm of palliative care. She came and just listened to us, I don’t think she had any specific advice or simple answers which I think I thought she might come with; quite the opposite she outlined the extent to which care of the young and fragile is fraught with finely balanced ethical choices. Somehow her visit strengthened our resolve to manage Theodore’s care with greater confidence in our own judgement.


The rhythm and dignity of the liturgy in both churches, which I am so fortunate to serve has been a remarkable solace, even if always having the words to preach is hard.


Jean Vanier says in Befriending the Stranger, his book about the L’Arche Community:


Jesus did not come into the world to explain suffering nor to justify its existence. He came to reveal that we can all alleviate pain through our competence and our compassion. He came to show that every hurt we experience can become an offering, and thus a source of life for others in and through Jesus’s offering of love to the Father. Humanly speaking all this seems impossible and incomprehensible. It is only through the grace of the Holy Spirit that we can learn to make it an offering and so begin to discover in this humble gift a mystery of love and communion, a mystery which gives life to the world. (Befriending the Stranger p. 89).


Towards the end of his book, Fr Michael Mayne says “having once discovered what I’ve called the cantus firmus, the fixed ground of a lifelong melody which has so far proved enduring, my desire must now be to see how to play new improvisations which are faithful to that melody, one which can embrace the darkness and not find it destructive.”


What an inspirational cry of joy and faith!


Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes of his experience as a prisoner in a Soviet labour camp. He tells how everything that normally gives meaning was taken from him. He was robbed of his name, and was known only by a number. Close to starving, he was made to work as a slave. He was forbidden books or letters. He was stripped of that lends a human being dignity and hope. Solzhenitsyn tells how he was brought, as it were, to the bottom of an abyss. Then he adds: “l felt it firm under my feet.”


“If I make my bed in hell” says the Psalmist, “behold, thou art there” (Ps 139.8). That was Christ’s journey, his inner crucifixion. So he finds, as have countless of his crucified disciples across the centuries since, that the ground of being is firm beneath him; that “underneath are the everlasting arms.”


William Gulliford