Sermon preached on
29th November 2020
In the Cathedral Church of Saint Fin Barre Cork
on the eve of the sesquicentenary of the Consecration of the Cathedral,
by the Bishop of Cork, The Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton
In the year 1870 – 150 years ago – 30th November, Saint Andrew’s Day was a Wednesday. This year Saint Andrew’s Day is tomorrow: a Monday. Like that year150 years ago, the Sunday before – today – was Advent Sunday: the start of the season when we look forward to celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world; and when we look forward also to that day when he will come again.
This day in 1870 would’ve been a hive of activity here; making sure all was in order for the great day tomorrow when the great and good would gather from all over Ireland, from the city and county of Cork, and even some from abroad, for the consecration, for the setting aside for holy use, by my predecessor, Bishop John Gregg, of this place, where the bishop’s chair is placed, a place dedicated to Saint Fin Barre.
In the previous nine years, big decisions had been taken. Money had been raised by subscription. (We still have the first list of subscribers). There had been a competition to find an architect: William Burges.
The year John Gregg became bishop – 1862 – plans for a new cathedral were exhibited at the Athenaeum in London. Preparations were made. Human remains were respectfully exhumed and reinterred. The old Cathedral was taken down in 1865 after the last Service was held there in October 1864. The remains of various bishops were placed in the new crypt. With many ups and downs, including a change in contractor mid-project, the big day had come.
As we think of all those people we might well use the opening words of today’s first appointed reading ‘I give thanks to my God always for you …’ The grace of God in them, the testimony of Christ in them, their spiritual gifts, and their faith is still borne witness to in this place today.
But, the full plans had not yet been delivered within budget. That was obvious to everyone: no spires for starters, and no carvings or statues on the west front as we know it today. It was a work to be completed; it still is. But it was ready for worship; for the proclamation of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments, as has happened faithfully in this building for 150 years, and in this place since the 7th Century, around which our city grew; a place which Saint Fin Barre called his ‘place of resurrection’.
That day of celebration and consecration in 1870, was described as ‘long-expected’. The weather, we are told ‘was singularly favourable’. Dr Richard Caulfield records that
‘At an early hour, every approach to the Cathedral presented a continuous stream of people, and long before the time for opening the gates, the precincts were crowded. At half-past Ten, those who were favoured with tickets, were admitted through the different entrances,…’
Then followed the formal processions: from the city, the Corporation and mace bearers, from the Bishop’s Palace across the road: the archbishops and bishops. As the procession moved into the new cathedral the choir sang the psalm we sang this morning:
‘Lift up your heads, O gates;
be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory?’
‘The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’ (Psalm 24.9 and 10)
These words were written to be sung in procession, as part of the liturgy, when the Ark of the Covenant, symbolising the presence of God, was carried into their midst.
However, those processions, coming here that day in 1870 would not have seen what we see coming through the great west door today and every day for, as I say, it was unfinished. What we see, and what they did not see in that doorway and over it is representations in two forms of the call, of the warning, of the challenge in today’s Gospel. ‘Therefore, keep awake …’ (Mark 13.35)
Over the doorway are the events of the end times- the apocalypse – the day of judgment – on one side the faithful, those who have stayed awake and kept watch, are welcomed with open arms into the heavenly kingdom; on the other side, harshly, with weeping and heartbreak, all others are turned away.
Lower down in the doorway is the same message, shown this time in a story Jesus told about ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25.1-13). They went out in the evening light to meet the bridegroom who was very late coming. He was delayed. Five of the bridesmaids were wise. They came prepared with extra oil for their lamps; but the other five came unprepared and their lamps burnt out and, when they nipped away to buy some oil, they missed the bridegroom. Come and see it in stone for yourself some time in this Cathedral’s west door. At the base of the statues of those bridesmaids who were alert and prepared, the doors to the wedding banquet are wide open and welcoming; but to the others who were not prepared, the doors are firmly shut. The message is stern and sobering and reflects that carved more harshly above the doors.
Advent is the season of watching and waiting. Not the sort of watching and waiting that stares aimlessly and blankly into the future longing for the day when something better and more sorted shows up. It’s about being alert to things here and now; to bring the light of Christ – now – in the words of Advent collect, – ’now in the time of this mortal life’ to wherever there is darkness – and that’s a lot of places and situations, This God’s call to us as Christians here and now, to be awake, to have that extra oil in readiness.
Those people in 1870 were certainly alert to that call of God. In our life as disciples, in our work and witness, in our response to that same call, we are invited to be faithful in our own time. And we have the assurance, again from our first reading today, that in these times, difficult as they are, and in all things, our Lord
‘…will also strengthen you to the end … God is faithful.’ (1 Corinthians 1.8 and 9)
What more can we ask as we watch and wait?