February 25, 2024


This sermon was preached at Liverpool Cathedral for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent, 2024
Instead of the word ‘alleluia’ the choir sang ‘ἐλέησον’ in accordance with western tradition.

Prayers from the Church of England and the Book of Common Prayer

Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you. Ἐλέησον, ἐλέησον, ἐλέησον.

May I speak in the name of the Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The eagle-eyed and eared among you will have noticed something of a switcheroo afoot in this evening’s service. There is a certain word repeated in the original version of our anthem as printed in your orders of service that we do not say in Lent: the Hebrew imperative meaning ‘praise the Lord.’ Instead, the choir sang the Greek imperative ‘ἐλέησον’ meaning ‘have mercy.’

Our anthem this evening was the Song for Athene by John Taverner. It was written as an elegy for his friend, the actor and teacher Athene Hariades, and gained its famous status after being performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Taverner left Athene’s funeral with the music already written in his mind, and phoned his friend Mother Thekla to request some words from the Orthodox funeral rite and from Shakespeare, which she posted to him the same day. Thus the piece in honour of his beloved, Orthodox, Shakespearean friend came to be.

It surprised me to learn that the repeated Hebrew refrain of this piece is in fact perfectly at home both in a funeral and in Lent according to the Orthodox tradition. In the west, both of these are marked by a solemnity in which such a word seems inappropriate, but in the east the tradition is of sober joy when fasting, and of praise in the face of death. In such contexts, the Hebrew imperative to “Praise the Lord” seems too important to be banned, and particularly at the beginning of this third year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Dean’s exhortation to hope this morning caused me to think of how many times that word has been sung over the dead in the last two years.

A week and a half ago, as may have happened to many of you, a priest marked my head with ashes and told me to remember that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. When I looked up at his face as he pronounced the words, I saw that he was grinning. This was so out of place with my own mood of solemn penitence, bordering on the grumpy, that it really surprised me. I wonder if he had a more Orthodox approach to Ash Wednesday than I did. Perhaps he, like Abraham in the letter to the Hebrews, was focussing less on the country of ashes we leave behind and more on the heavenly country we desire. While I was remembering well that I am dust, perhaps my grumpy penitence was a failure to turn from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you, writes Mother Thekla. In the Orthodox tradition, a funeral service is often known as a “crowning,” and the liturgy often involves a crown or a band of cloth being placed on the head of the deceased to mark that they have completed the course of life. This helps us to remember that the deceased are, in a way, better off than us. That they have found the wellspring of life and the door of paradise.

But let us not be swept away by these glorious images to downplay the tragedy. The invitation to enjoy rewards and crowns comes from a king who wore a crown only once on this earth, and wore it as torture: a king whose coronation was his submission to death, and who in that submission could conquer it.
The rewards and crowns that are offered come not as a compensation for death or a prize for running life well, but as the very joining in with Christ’s death. It is not from death that we are saved, but through it. That is our coronation.

Herein lies the tension: death is the completion of the course; death is when flights of angels sing us to our rest; death is our coronation. And yet death is an enemy that requires defeat, a ubiquity that covers all our lives, a tragedy that blights Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, and countless other places.
This tension should be familiar to us as Christians. It is the very same now and not yet tension that permeates our faith as we await the Kingdom of God that arrives both with that deathly coronation 2000 years ago and with the coming day when Christ returns on the clouds.
Death has both been defeated, and retains its power over us. This is why in this time of war and penitence we both mourn and sing praise. As Mother Thekla writes: Weeping at the grave creates the song. ἐλέησον.

So as we continue our Lenten journey, let us not too hastily ban exhortations to praise the Lord. Let us not too easily fall into a grumpy sin obsession. Let us rather look ahead with Abraham to the rewards and crowns prepared for us, and sing praise to our God with all our siblings who mourn.

Let us pray.

O God, we pray for all the children of Abraham in Israel and Palestine and in every country of the world.
We pray for Muslims, Jews and Christians that we will draw on the best of our traditions to guide us away from words and acts of division and discrimination so that everyone may be free to live in safety.
Protect the vulnerable, strengthen the fearful and comfort the grieving.
In Jesus Christ, our Lord.

God of peace and justice,
we pray for the people of Ukraine today.
We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons.
We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow, that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them.
We pray for those with power over war or peace,
for wisdom, discernment and compassion to guide their decisions.
Above all, we pray for all your precious children, at risk and in fear, that you would hold and protect them.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all evermore.

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