The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Song of Solomon 2.1-7; Acts 1.6-14
You put the key in the lock and turn it. You walk into the house. It smells like home, but home that’s been closed up for two weeks. There’s a pile of post on the mat. The flowers you left on the hall table have died. You throw the cases down and head for the kitchen. You fill the kettle and put it on. A nice cup of tea and you’ll know you’re back – except that you forgot to get some milk on your way home.
Arriving back home after a holiday is a bitter-sweet experience. It’s lovely to be home, where things taste and smell as they should, where bed feels like bed and you can kick off your shoes and sit down just as you want to. But the fun, relaxing days are over, with someone else looking after you and nothing to do apart from nothing to do. Stepping back across the threshold is stepping back into reality.
Jesus had told his friends to meet him on the Mount of Olives. The last time they’d been together on the mountain was when he’d been arrested. Since then just over 40 days had passed. Jesus had died, he had risen and they’d seen him and touched him and talked with him. But now he’d summoned them back to this place of agony and betrayal.
That fateful night they’d left the room where they’d shared supper for the last time, the room in which he’d startled them by washing their feet and startled them by speaking of bread as his body and wine as his blood. Since then that Upper Room had become their base, their home, their safe place, their refuge. They’d spent all their time there. It felt like a good place to be even though it held such mixed memories for them.
So they left the room, the Upper Room, as they’d done before on that evening and went off to the Mount of Olives and, as we heard in the Second Lesson, it was there that they witnessed Jesus ascending into heaven. And then, we’re told, they went back into the city, back to the room.
In the First Lesson from the Song of Songs it says
He brought me to the banqueting house.
This room for them was this banqueting house, where they’d had a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in that familiar yet unfamiliar meal that Jesus shared with them. They were brought to the banqueting house
‘and his intention … was love.’
The writer of the Acts of the Apostles names all the men who were in the room, the eleven apostles, because of course at this stage they were no longer twelve in number. But there were women as well who he didn’t bother to name, who could remain nameless, apart from one. For at the heart of it all was Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Mary whose birth we’ve been celebrating today, Mary the named woman, under whose patronage we live in this banqueting house, this Southwark Cathedral, where the intention is love.
The first Christians, like those in that Upper Room, were not gathering in churches. There were no churches and there wouldn’t be for a long time, in the sense that we might understand them. Instead people gathered in what is called a domus ecclesia, a house church, a room, in a dwelling, in which a Christian family lived and where the extended family gathered and they met, as that reading from Acts reminded us, ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’
Today, as you know is the first Sunday back after the choir holiday and this afternoon we’ve said farewell to some choristers and welcomed and promoted others. It’s always a lovely moment. The holiday is over and we’re back in the familiar, the family place, doing what we do. We’ve kicked off our metaphorical shoes and we’re back with the recognisable smells and tastes and sounds of home.
And the purpose of being here is just the same as the purpose of that early gathering in the Upper Room, that early gathering around Mary, the Mother of the Church and that purpose is prayer. The posh word for it is the opus dei, the work of God, the primary duty that humankind has towards God. It doesn’t matter if we say it or sing it, or sit in silence, ‘the voice of prayer is never silent’ as one hymn describes it. And that is what cathedrals are for.
We may house the bishop’s chair but we are above all a domus ecclesia, a house church in which the family gathers, the diocesan family and the family that calls this the familiar place.
This banqueting house where we gather is where we fulfil the apostolic duty of the church, to devote ourselves to prayer. That is why this place was built and that is why we are here, choristers, Lay Clerks, clergy, congregation, day in, day out. There is nothing more important than this - and Mary sits with us and prays.