Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2019 - Choral Evensong

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Song of Solomon 2.1-7; Acts 1.6-14

What do you do when you have time to kill?

Do you, like so many of us nowadays, reach for your phone to see what’s happening, on Facebook, on Twitter, out there?  Do you pick up a book, a magazine, a paper and flick through it?  Do you stare out of the window, unsure what to do?  Or do you, perhaps, just lie back, close your eyes and have forty winks – a bit like Jacob Rees-Mogg?

John Donne’s divine sonnet ‘Ascension’ ends with these words

And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,                             

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.                    

The apostles head back into the city of Jerusalem.  They’ve been with Jesus on the Mount of Olives but he’s no longer with them – they’ve watched as he’s been taken from them into heaven.  But before he left them he instructed them to stay in the city waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  So they have time to kill.

They make their way back across the Kidron Valley and to the city and the room, the Upper Room, which has become their base.  And there they wait.  But they don’t sit on their hands whilst they’re waiting and our Second Lesson was very clear about that.  They’re not in the business of killing time.  Instead what they do when they get back into the room is to crown the experience on the Mount with ‘prayer and praise’ to use Donne’s words.

Mary, whose birthday we celebrate today, Mary who has been patron of this church, convent, priory, cathedral since the first place in which God was worshipped was founded here in the 7th century, is not mentioned again after this reference to her in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.  What we are told is that she was part of this praying community, this first church, in that Upper Room.

Today on Mount Sion close to the Cenacle, the traditional site of the Upper Room, is the beautiful Dormition Abbey.  It stands on the summit of the mount and can be seen from all over the city.  Go in and down into the crypt and there’s a statue of Mary but lying asleep.  She’s under a dome, the inside of which depicts in mosaic her Old Testament sisters in the faith, Eve, Miriam, Jael, Ruth, Esther and Judith. But at the other end of the crypt there’s another wonderful mosaic of Mary at prayer with the apostles, surrounded by them – Mary, the praying heart of the church.

The passion of which our First Lesson spoke, the passion of the Song of Songs, the seeking and the loving, becomes in Mary the passion for prayer.  She prays in the Upper Room at the heart of the infant church, she prays at the heart of eternity for all eternity. 

It has been great to celebrate our musicians today, those who sing, those who direct, those who play.  Music and singing are at the heart of what we do as a cathedral.  I was taking a group on a tour of the cathedral last week and we came into the chancel.  ‘This’ I said to them, ‘is the heart of the cathedral, this is the engine room, this is what it is all about.’

Just as our patron, Mary, doesn’t stop praying, neither do we and the music carries our prayers in a beautiful way.  Those who stand up here in the choir make it possible for the rest of us to worship, they carry our praying into song,

One of the evening hymns that we often sing, ‘The day thou gavest’ contains these lines

The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.

That is the church living her vocation, that is the church living the vocation of Mary, that is the apostolic life of the church, that is the crown of prayer and praise that flows from the ascension of the Lord, where he takes his seat at the right hand of God, ever to make intercession for us. That is how we use the time we have, not killing it, but filling it with prayer.

Whatever part you play in enabling this ministry of prayer and praise, chorister, Lay Clerk, organist, Director of Music, thank you.  Mary prays at the heart of the church, and at the heart of this cathedral church you enable our song to echo that of heaven.