Sermon preached at Evensong on the First Sunday of Lent (10 March 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the First Sunday of Lent (10 March 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

The Chaplain gives the first sermon in the Lent Sermon Series: "In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem", focusing on the anthem of the day, O Lord look down from heaven by Battishill. 

This evening we begin a series of reflections on the anthems chosen at Evensong for the Sundays in Lent. 

Music is one half of the very particular experience of worship here at St Paul’s, the other being the extraordinary space that we worship in. 

Both together conspiring to create an atmosphere in which God speaks. For some, reaching into the forgotten corners of ourselves and, in an often surprising way, recalling us to the purpose and meaning of our lives and the source of our hope; and for others, bringing order, shape and frame to the otherwise seemingly chaotic series of events within which our lives are lived. 

Of course we believe that God is continually reaching out to us, but St Paul’s is a place (and it is not alone) in which time can appear to be suspended through the astonishing beauty of what is seen and heard. Like pieces of a jigsaw that have become muddled up; bit by bit our desires (and our fears) surface and take shape in this space. 

And it is often, for me at least, during the anthem, when the ritual ‘duties’ of the recitation of the psalter and canticles, and the reading of scripture have been completed; that the singing of the anthem affords us an opportunity to freewheel, and to ponder the connections between all that has been offered in prayer and praise and our own lives, and then we take that into prayer for ourselves, for the church and for the world. Our anthem this evening drawing together the faith of the psalmist, the hope of the people of Nineveh and the pleas of the penitent in the Gospel reading.

And so to this evening’s anthem. Music is such an important element of worship in general, and of our worship here in particular, because it dismantles what might otherwise be the considerable barriers of language and theology. No-one hearing this anthem can fail to understand that what Battishill composed is a lament, particularly appropriate to this season of Lent. What is rather odd then, is that he apparently composed it on an early summer’s day (5th June 1765), a few short months before his wedding. 

Jonathan Battishill’s life appears to have been one of two halves. A very promising start as a chorister here at St Paul’s, going on to become an accomplished organist, much admired for his skill in improvisation, and appointed by William Boyce as his deputy at the Chapel Royal. He drifted somewhat, from the sacred to the secular, and was well known in London society for his fabulous memory, and agreeable company. He returned his focus to church music, and (in what order or to what degree they are connected I’ve no idea) his marriage failed, as did his health and his reputation, as he became increasingly difficult and unreliable through his excessive consumption of alcohol. Battishill died in 1801 at the age of 63 and is buried, as he wished to be, here in the crypt of St Paul’s.

It’s rather hard to draw comparisons between the experience of the author of the original text from Isaiah 63 and a privileged 18th century English composer and yet the verses from Isaiah clearly touched Battishill’s experience, for him to be able to compose such a compelling piece, which in turn continues to touch hearers and singers alike today. 

The prevalence of lament in the Hebrew scriptures is significant and these verses, and other passages from Isaiah, together with large portions of the psalter and other prophetic oracles (and indeed the book of Lamentations from which we will hear during Lent) focus on the fundamental fault line of faith that God is apparently unconscious or indifferent to our suffering, or worse still, instrumental in it. 

O Lord look down from heaven and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and thy glory; pleads the supplicant.

These verses form part of a communal lament, a people calling upon God in recognition of their need of God’s grace, and evidently trusting in God’s concern (calling upon him in the following verse as Father, which was development in Jewish thought and theology at the time); calling upon God in faith, whilst nevertheless confused and disorientated by their sense of isolation and vulnerability. 

Where is thy zeal and thy strength, and thy mercies towards me? Are they restrained? 

In this verse we get the sense of someone in a really dark place, without any light at the end of the tunnel. The question mark at the end of the final phrase in this translation is omitted from some earlier and arguably more authoritative texts. Turning that question into a statement. They are restrained! Bleak indeed.

The musicologists amongst us might be aware of a hiccup in the score in this edited version of the original anthem, through the omission of the rather clumsily rendered in the King James, ‘the sounding of thy bowels’ perhaps lest the choristers giggle, but the omission of ‘the yearning of your heart’ as it is translated in the NRSV is omission indeed because zeal and strength and mercy are, one could argue, simply virtues; whereas the yearning of the heart reveals God to be necessarily inter-relational. 

Where is thy zeal and thy strength, the yearning of thy heart and thy mercies towards me? Are they restrained? 

It doesn’t solve the conundrum for us, of why God is apparently unmoved by our suffering, but it reminds and reassures me that we are not alone in the universe but rather lost for a while in a maze, through which we are yet to find our way back to the heart of God which yearns for us. 

In this way Lent can become for us a time in which we dare to retrieve from wherever we have secretly stowed them, the disappointments and even the disgraces of our lives and allow the scrutiny of unconditional love to lead us through this maze of repentance, enabling us finally to re-orientate our lives towards a renewed trust in God’s loving purposes for us.

Let us pray

O God,
you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers, 
that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright:
grant to us such strength and protection 
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations; 
through you Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen