SERMON: The Dedication of the Altar Frontal & Vestments

The Dedication of the Altar Frontal & Vestments

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley

by Roger Wagner on 3 March 2019.

When I was an undergraduate 40 years ago, Michael Ramsay, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, came to speak in our little college chapel. And I can still remember him saying, ‘When we come to communion the veil that separates us from God’s presence is very thin’, and the reason I remember that is that as he said it his face lit up with a wonderful smile and you felt he was talking about his own experience.

Those who write about early Celtic Christianity often talk about ‘thin places’ like Iona or Lindisfarne where people were aware of the presence of God and I suppose we might think of St Mary’s as a thin place – worn thin by 900 years of prayer. The idea of a veil separating us from God’s presence comes in both of our first two readings, and in the story of Exodus it is a literal veil that Moses uses to hide his face that is shining from the presence of God. Strange as it may sound, people do sometimes experience the presence of God in an almost physical way. I remember hearing someone, who was witnessing a release of God’s healing in different places, describe how in airports complete strangers would come up and stand beside him, not taking any notice of him, but as though they were basking in something. And on one occasion he turned to one of them and said, ‘You’re enjoying that, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes’ they said, ‘but what is it?’ And he said, ‘It’s the presence of God.’

Sometimes it can be through places, sometimes it is almost physical, but mostly I think we experience it through other people, as is implied in our second reading where it says, ‘We all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord ……. are being transformed.’ The other day Nick Mynheer and I went to Sister Wendy Beckett’s funeral, and we were saying how it was that when you spent time with Sister Wendy you somehow just felt better. It was quite strange – she was an ordinary flawed person, but she spent most of her time with God – and somehow her life communicated this. In fact that’s not so unusual. I think many of us can think of people who have been in this congregation of whom that has been true. It’s probably true of most of us at least sometimes – of some people most of the time – but with Jesus it was true always and all of the time, and on the mountain for a moment the veil was taken away and it just shone from him. And you can feel the gospel writers struggling to find language to describe what happened. Luke literally say it was like lightning – Matthew says it was like the sun – Mark, who is more homely, says his garments were brighter than any laundry could make them. But this was not just light – it was not just brightness – it was the character, the being of God, that was shining through him. And the disciples see that he is talking with Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, all that the Scriptures had been pointing to – and what they are talking about is what he will accomplish in Jerusalem, when everything will be fulfilled. And Peter starts stuttering, he doesn’t know what to say, and there is a cloud and there is a voice – and Michael Ramsay said it’s as if they are saying, ‘God is here, God is here, God is here, stop talking, God is here.’

Well, coming down for a moment from the mountain – you might ask what any of this had got to do with roundels and chasubles and altar cloths – and there are many people, and many sincere Christians, who would say – nothing at all.

In 1860 there was a great row in the Church of England about a clergyman in Brighton. He came to public notice because he had heard the confession of a murderess and persuaded her to go to the police; and it quickly came to light that, not only had he been hearing confessions, but over the previous ten years he had quietly been introducing things like altar cloths and chasubles, which had not been seen in English parish churches since the Reformation. It was a huge national scandal – questions were asked in both houses of Parliament – there were five leading articles in the Times – there was a town meeting in Brighton in which clergy were jostled and the clergyman himself was attacked and even shot at in the street. Now the name of this clergyman was Arthur Wagner and he was a cousin of my grandfather. I wouldn’t want to suggest he was approved of by his family – Victoria society could be just as divided as ours is at the moment – and that division went through families. Arthur had a cousin, George Wagner, who was a devoted evangelical clergyman in Brighton and though Arthur’s own father, who was the Vicar of Brighton was more middle of the road – he didn’t approve of ‘gorgeous vestments’ – and when he was invited to preach in his son’s church is said to have taken as his text the verse, ‘Have mercy on my son, for he is lunatic and sore vexed.’

Well, you can imagine that when Andrew asked me to design chasubles and altar cloth, having this family background meant I had to think about it rather carefully. In the book of Exodus it tells us that Aaron wore sacred robes to go into the presence of God. But what purpose did they have? Well Exodus tells us that Aaron’s robes were made ‘for glory and for beauty.’ Everything has changed because of what Jesus accomplished at Jerusalem – we no longer have to present sacrifices. But what about glory and beauty – do they come through into the New Testament – are they still meant to be part of our worship? Well, when Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth he read from the passage in Isaiah which begins, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor’ – and goes on to say that ‘God will give beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.’ 

Does worship have to involve chasubles and altar cloths and beautiful buildings? Of course not – you can worship God in a prison cell. But are we allowed to bring beauty and glory into our worship? Of course we are. Is it part of our Christian calling to create beauty and glory wherever we can? I think it is – these things are a reflection of God’s own nature. Beauty and glory were not just decorations for the Israelites – they were to remind them of the truth. And the truth is that we are always in a sense on the mount of transfiguration, but often we forget and we need reminding. And of course the reason we forget is that life often doesn’t seem glorious. It seems mundane, or difficult, or even sometimes horrible. And we forget that, as Michael Ramsay used to say, ‘The message of the Transfiguration is this – that Jesus, on his way to death, is in glory.’

When I first met Tom Denny, who taught me to make stained glass and helped me to make the window here (and turned out to be another remote cousin), he was in the middle of making a window for Durham Cathedral in memory of Michael Ramsay, depicting the transfiguration. He was being helped by a stained-glass artist called Michael Lassen, who, as they were installing the window, fell from a ladder and died from his injuries. Tom, as you can imagine, was devastated, and when Nick Mynheer and I went up to the dedication of the window, it became both a memorial to the life and thought of Michael Ramsay, and to the work and art of Michael Lassen, as well as an act of worship through which the light of God could shine. One of Ramsay’s old chaplains described in his sermon how Ramsay used to earth the message of the transfiguration for his chaplains. ‘It went something like this’ he said. ‘You place the events and circumstances which daunt you and frighten you and damage you in the setting of the Eternal, just as Christ himself upon the mount, with his passion and death before him, was observed to be transfused with light, the Shekinah.’

There is a fresco of the transfiguration by Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco in Florence, which shows Christ standing in the middle of a circle of light with his arms outstretched as if crucified, and this is echoed in the circle of the halo behind his head which has a cross in the centre – exactly like the first dedication crosses on the walls in this church. Ever since I realised what they were they seemed to be the most amazing thing in the whole building. Originally there would have been 12 on the outside and 12 on the inside, and they mark the place where, 900 years ago, the bishop dedicated the building in exactly the same way that the sign of the cross is made on each of our foreheads at baptism, the same sign that was made on the forehead of every child baptised in our font. And that is the symbol that we’ve used again and again both on the chasubles and on the altar cloth. And I suppose you might ask why do we need so many? Even on the church they only had twelve – but isn’t one enough? Well, yes it is, but to say it again, we need reminding. I began by describing a memorable sermon and I’m going to end by describing another sermon that I remember because it was so short – just three words. The preacher read from the letter of John where it says that if we walk in the light as he is in the light we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. And the preacher pointed out that the verb that means cleanses refers to a continuing action so you translate it ‘and cleanses us, and cleanses us, and cleanses us, and cleanses us – and we thought he was going to stop but he just went on – and cleanses us, and cleanses us, and cleanses us – and people began to laugh rather nervously but he just continued – and cleanses us, and cleanses us, and cleanses us – and as he continued it slowly began to sink in that there is no end to God’s mercy and forgiveness and grace – and that’s what I will try and remember as I look at the crosses flowing over the chasubles or circling around the sun of God’s radiance at the centre of the altar cloth – that his grace is always sufficient for us, that nothing, neither death or life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.