The Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
I suspect that there may be some of us in the Cathedral this morning who have vivid memories of living through the Great Smog of London in December 1952
For others of us we perhaps know about it as history, through programmes like The Crown which dramatised the frightening events of 5 days in 1952. A combination of cold stagnant air mixed with smoke from fires in homes and factories and vehicle exhaust fumes produced a much more severe smog than the ‘pea-soupers’ that Londoners were used to. It brought about a political crisis which almost brought down the government of the day; caused 100,000 to be ill due to its effects on the respiratory tract, and killed around 10,000 people. These are staggering figures and eventually led to the Clean Air Act of 1956.
I met someone this week who had lived through that Great Smog and as a nurse knew well the effects it had on the human body. She told me how she had to walk two miles in that smog to get home, when you could not even see your hand in front of you. It meant literally feeling your way along walls and fences to navigate your journey. I was surprised to hear that she never felt frightened surrounded by that enveloping cloud of sulphur dioxide. She just kept walking home.
Entering the Cathedral this morning, I wonder what your initial reaction is to our Lent art installation, Doubt, by the renowned artist Susie MacMurray? Perhaps you haven’t yet noticed it hovering, and brooding over the Quire and Sanctuary. I have no doubt that it will stimulate conversation and discussion as we live under the cloud for the duration of Lent. It’s a piece to be experienced from different angles and from below, at differing times of the day and with varying degrees of light. Please do take away one of the leaflets which give a little background to the work. It was inspired by Susie’s conversation with a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who spoke about the pressure of extended periods of tension and anxiety on the front line and how he felt a dark weight pressing down on him.
In the Christian tradition we are quite familiar with the scriptural imagery of clouds as pointing to the presence of God and in two of our readings this morning we find such references. In the book of Genesis, we learn of the establishment of a covenant relationship between God and Noah, representing the whole human race, and God promising ‘never again to destroy the people of the earth.’ The rainbow in the midst of the clouds would be an everlasting reminder of this new relationship and promise. This all comes in marked contrast to the chaos of the flood which brings about the covenant. Rain falling from the clouds bearing down upon the world brought death and disaster to nearly all things living.
The chaos of the flood might be translated in the 21st century as climate change, pollution and terror; as world instability and political uncertainty across the globe; as relationship difficulties, mental ill-health, stress, illness and addictions. Perhaps as we look at this great dense cloud of Doubt in our midst it is some of these issues which rise to the surface of our minds? Or maybe it is something quite different? I know from speaking to people who regularly come to worship that some feel utterly inadequate in their life of faith and sometimes feel that their doubts are ready to overwhelm them; that everyone else has a much easier time of certainty and belief. I wonder how true that is and whether perhaps more of us than care to admit it, live their life of faith in the midst of struggle and doubt, under the cloud? Feeling our way in the smog of doubt and hanging on by our fingertips.
In the gospel reading we recall the baptism of Jesus when the clouds were literally torn apart and the heavens were opened as the Spirit descended on Jesus in the Jordan. It’s a powerful image of the presence of God breaking through the clouds of chaos and doubt. The baptism of Jesus enabled him to then go out into the wilderness. During that period in the desert Jesus underwent the often human experience of temptation, desertion and being alone.
As we begin our own Lenten observance I wonder what is your experience of being in the wilderness or feeling very close to it? For each of us it will be very different but none the less real and at times, perhaps most of the time, debilitating. Lent can be a stark reminder of our own fragility and mortality, ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’ are the words said to us as a cross in ashes is traced on our forehead on Ash Wednesday. This brooding, hovering cloud, as black as ash, as overwhelming as the Great Smog of 1952 can root us and ground us as it speaks to our own daily experience of doubt in the midst of faith, of the clouds of chaos which we fear may totally surround us and overcome us.
At Jesus’ baptism, as the heavens were torn apart, there comes a voice from heaven. Here is hope in the midst of our doubt and darkness, as light shines through the gloom and chaos. It might simply be a pinprick of light but it is a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom, giving us the strength and encouragement to edge a step forward just as my friend did on her tortuous journey as she made her way home during the Great Smog. Doubt will never be far from us on our journey through life, but in the midst of it I pray that we may each hear the words spoken to Jesus, ‘You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.’
I end with the Dean’s prayer written to accompany the art installation.
God of mystery,
when the cloud descends,
when you seem unknown,
when doubts assail me
and darkness surrounds me,
lift the mist, break into the darkness
and let your light shine in me
and through me. Amen.