Evensong Worcester College, Oxford 10th May 2015
Song of Songs 4:16-5:2, 8:6-7; Revelation 3:14-end
The college chapels of Oxford and Cambridge are among the great treasures of the Church of England. They vary in scale, prominence and grandeur, but, whatever their size, spiritually they are all places of depth and breadth. The chapel of King’s College, Cambridge must be among the most widely-recognised buildings in the world. But even the smaller, less celebrated chapels are a delight: this beautiful place, for instance, with its profusion of imagery in mosaic, paint, glass, alabaster and wood; or the chapel of my undergraduate years, Lincoln, largely unchanged since it was built in the seventeenth century. Its most famous Fellow, John Wesley, would recognise almost every detail. And then there are the modern college chapels: Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, has as its chapel a beautiful elevated space. Behind the altar is a vast transparent window which opens onto the foliage of a two-hundred year old plane tree in the court outside: at this time of year it is a marvellous place to worship.
Or the chapel at Churchill College, Cambridge. Here the preposition is all-important: not the chapel of Churchill College, but the chapel at Churchill College. Passions rose when the chapel was first mooted as part of the fledgling college: Frances Crick, an atheist, resigned his fellowship at the proposal to build a chapel, but Christian voices were equally strong and the college found itself in deadlock. Finally, a deal was reached. At the far corner of its 40 acre site, the college leased a small piece of land to a Chapel Trust, consisting of those fellows who wanted a chapel. And so, in 1967, a chapel was built. The Churchill chapel is a gem, a modern interpretation, in concrete, glass and timber, of a Byzantine basilica. The chapel may have been pushed to the fringes of the Churchill site, but it is a triumph of modern church architecture, once entered, never forgotten.
Architecturally and artistically the chapels of Oxford and Cambridge are treasures; but they are also treasures liturgically: for their musical and spiritual life. Again and again I meet Christians, lay and ordained, who, like me, identified their vocations amidst the liturgical life of an Oxbridge chapel, and had them tested and stretched there: not just clergy, but teachers, lawyers, civil servants, scientists and businesspeople. And the same can be said of the musicians whose careers began in these buildings and their round of worship: singers and organists, obviously, but instrumentalists too, conductors, composers and academics. These chapels are powerhouses of art, architecture, worship, music with a continuing ability to refine and nurture the gifts of those who pass through them.
I offer this paean to college chapels partly because of the splendour of this place, its life and worship, but also because of the readings that we have heard this evening. On first encounter tonight’s second reading is not the most inspiring passage of scripture. The last of the seven churches of Asia, that of Laodicaea has, uniquely, become proverbial. The Revelation to Saint John begins with letters to each of the seven churches and the writer’s judgement on the Christian community at Laodicaea is searing:
15 ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
We who lead our lives amidst the relative comfort of west European culture must stand under the judgement of those words. How far removed is our experience is from that of our fellow Christians in other parts of the world? Loko, for instance, the Ethiopian woman who describes her daily life on the Christian Aid website. ‘I pray to God as I walk’, she writes, ‘asking him to change my life and lead us out of this’. How many of us feel the need to offer that prayer?
17For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
But that harsh assessment is tempered by the words that follow it:
19I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
Those words are attributed by Saint John to the risen and ascended Christ. They encompass in miniature the grace of the gospel, which shows us that with God righteousness and mercy go hand in hand: we are judged with justice, but we are also judged with compassion.
‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’. Once, in this country at least, those words were among the best-known in the Bible. The verse was so well-known because it was the text of which William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World was the illustration.
The Light of the World, of course, is one of the most celebrated of all English paintings. It exists in three versions, one of which is here in Oxford, in the side-chapel at Keble. The versions vary in size and colouring, but they all show the same image: the figure of Christ standing beside a door in an overgrown garden. In his left hand he bears a lantern, whose light shines out in to the dusk of evening; and his right hand is raised, poised to knock on the weed-infested door. When it was first shown in 1851, The Light of the World was more or less universally acclaimed as a masterpiece. And a few years later, when it went on a tour of the Empire it was viewed by tens of thousands of people, often queuing for hours. Many were deeply moved. An insurance clerk from New Zealand wrote this after seeing it: ‘the vast crowd stood gazing in silent wonderment at the picture… many [of them] in adoration, as though held by some irresistible magnet. And I, on viewing the wondrous face, was impelled to uncover my head in reverence thereto’. The phrasing is Victorian, but the sense of awe is palpable.
For many people that painting was and still is the definitive image of Jesus. But there are other ways of picturing Christ as the Light of the World. One of them is in another Oxbridge Chapel: Robinson College, Cambridge. The great window of the college chapel, stretching behind the altar, was made by the artist John Piper. The contrast between this Light of the World and Holman Hunt’s painting could hardly be greater. In the window there is no figure of Christ, instead there is a glorious explosion of colour. From out of the dark blue depths at the base of the window a great sun arises, drenching foliage and flowers with its brightness. Instead of the dimly glowing lamp of the painting, here we have an image of the radiance of God illuminating the whole of creation. The darkness covering the face of the deep gradually dispersed by the bright and manifold variety of God’s blessing.
Two great works of art, two depictions of the Light of the World. The first subtle, personal and intimate – the original is surprisingly small – and the second bold, colourful and direct. By their very contrast these two artworks remind us of the two ways in which Christ makes himself known to us. He comes to us personally – as in Holman Hunt’s painting – knocking at the door of my heart (and your heart) and asking to be let in. But Christ comes to us, is present with us, universally as well as personally, and that is what John Piper’s stained glass window in Robinson, Cambridge seeks to show. Christ is the light of the world in both senses: the lamp that gently illuminates the dark and hidden places of our hearts and souls, bathing them with his glow; but also the glorious light of the sun, revealing God’s glory in the world.
The risen Christ promises to come in and eat with those who hear his voice and open to him. This is the sense in which we should hear the words of tonight’s first lesson, from the ancient love lyric that is the Song of Songs: ‘Eat, friends, drink, / and be drunk with love’. Surprising words to hear in church – or are they?
The quickening of the soul and spirit and body that comes from falling in love is not perhaps that far removed from the quickening of the soul and spirit and body that come at the moments when one’s faith is illuminated – set on fire – in a place like this one. I cannot point to a particular moment of conversion during my time as an undergraduate at Lincoln. But I do know that the hours I spent in the chapel transformed me – and that they are transforming me still.
Worship is the primary meeting place between God and God’s people: worship is the time and place where we learn to abide in God as God abides in us. It is not merely an aesthetic or intellectual experience, but an encounter of body, soul and spirit with God, in whom we live and move and have our being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.