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Blessing of Oils_03 Bishop Christopher

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The Rt Revd Christopher Herbert, Lord Bishop of St Albans

Maundy Thursday, 2003

St Albans Cathedral, 17th April 2003

Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God: when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

My tears have been my meat day and night: while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?

Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself: for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God;

In the voice of praise and thanksgiving: among such as keep holy-day.

Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted within me?

Put thy trust in God: for I will yet give him thanks for the help of his countenance.

My God, my soul is vexed within me: therefore will I remember thee concerning the land of Jordan, and the little hill of Hermon.

One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water-pipes: all thy waves and storms are gone over me.

The Lord hath granted his loving-kindness in the day-time: and in the night-season did I sing of him, and made my prayer unto the God of my life.

I will say unto the God of my strength, Why hast thou forgotten me: why go I thus heavily, while the enemy oppresseth me?

My bones are smitten asunder as with a sword: while mine enemies that trouble me cast me in the teeth;

Namely, while they say daily unto me: Where is now thy God?

Why art thou so vexed, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted within me?

O put thy trust in God: for I will yet thank him, which is the help of my countenance, and my God.             [Psalm 42]

It is late on a fine summer's evening.  You are standing on a stone-built jetty on the edge of a great sweeping river estuary.  Across the river you can see, in the distance, a faint smudge of blue - the hills that mark the beginning of the upland.  Downstream, the river broadens out and glides like silk towards the open sea.  And it's the quality of the light over the river, a pearly, opalescent light, smoothed with the pastel yellows, greys and blues of a summer evening sky, that tugs at your heart.  Meanwhile the river, quietly eddying around the jetty, moves on.

And now, as you gaze, listen; listen as the river, the sky, the pale blue hills – listen as the very place begins to dissolve its physical shape and transform into music.  If you listen very deeply, you may hear - as though the soft warm air itself has become a sound - you may hear the opening of Herbert Howell's anthem, Like as the hart, desireth the water-brooks.

The picture I have conjured up is not entirely fanciful; I have been describing the Severn estuary near Howell's birthplace.  And why do I do so?  Because there is something in the longing of the opening of Psalm 42 which meets the longing in the heart of the composer – which, in turn, reveals our own longing:

Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

All of us here, on this day, will know that sense of longing: an ache which is almost physical in its intensity – a yearning for God, like a lover yearning for his beloved, a sense of profound spiritual incompleteness which no amount of prayer or stillness can ever satisfy.  The spiritual force which moves our soul to long with such intensity for God, is like the silken power of the river.  Emily Dickinson, a curious and spare-with-her-words poet, catches the mood:

Exultation is the going

of an inland soul to sea,

past the houses,

past the headlands,

into deep eternity.

Holy Week, and this day in particular, when we draw aside just for a moment, is a time simply to rest in, and acknowledge, the force of that longing:

Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

That is how it is; that is how we are – and sometimes ['we are conscious of' ?] the absence of longing, which then, paradoxically, becomes a deepening of longing, for God.  And then, in Holy Week, the cry is wrung sometimes, for every priest, from a tired and wounded heart:

My tears have been my meat day and night: while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?

You will hear the same question asked of you a thousand times: at the bed of someone dying of cancer; by the bereaved; by the alcoholic; by the mentally ill; by your own family: 'Where is now your God?'  The anguished, anvil-beating prayer of Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to mind:

No worst, there is none.  Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Comforter, where, where is your comforting?

Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

And you will stand sometimes in your church alone, looking up at the altar, and hear those haunting voices whispering, 'Where is now your God?'

Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself: for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God.

On Maundy Thursday, the longing, the absence, the questions about purpose, the beauty, the grief, the brokenness, the emptiness – all of these things, deep within our hearts – are brought to Christ.  This is not a day of victory and triumph, it's a day for honesty and courage; and that unflinching willingness to face God as we truly, truly, are – and then wait in patience and faith until He comes towards us, with a bowl of water and a towel, and offers to bathe our feet.

Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted within me?

And then the footsteps of the Christ draw near; you are so close that you can feel His breath, smell the dry desert sand and dry desert heat on His clothes, see the dirt beneath the fingernails.  And so, this day, it's not us who take the action; we are not driving on, we are not drawing up rotas and juggling the diary, planning the future – on this day, just for a moment, we are asked to wait.  That's all: to wait, fearful, ashamed, excited, hopeful, worn out – whatever our state – each of us, quite simply, has to wait.  Until, with tender mercy, He kneels, kneels in front of us, and begins to bathe our cracked and ugly feet, and dry them.

Put thy trust in God: for I will yet give him thanks for the help of his countenance.

Our response to His act of service and love is not to avert our eyes, but to look steadily at Him – and allow Him to make and remake us as priests, as Readers, as the people of God.  That's all we have to do: look at Him and wait for our souls to be shaped by Him; and then comes our act of faith and commitment:

O put thy trust in God: for I will yet thank him, which is the help of my countenance, and my God.

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