Preached at All Saint’s Cuddesdon on 22nd March by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington.
Last week I went to hear Jonathan sing Christus in the first part of Arvo Pärt’s St John Passion cycle. It took place in Queen’s college and was the first in a series of free concerts which take place every Lent as a devotional act. The second part is this coming week but the section I heard ended with the crowds baying for Barrabas the robber to be released whilst a silent Jesus stands by and makes no effort to justify himself or answer Pilate’s search for truth. Knowing little of Pärt or the thinking behind his composition, it seemed to me on simply listening to his work that this silence by Jesus was the central motif around which he formed his musical narrative. Unlike the more famous St John Passion by J.S. Bach, there are no beautiful arias or even memorable chorales, instead the music is what you would call minimal, with very few notes and long silences between words. I wondered whether such a modern style would hold the attention of the children, but somehow the few the notes and more sonorous the sound drew one into the words of scripture more powerfully than I could have imagined and the piece ended with the most profound silence from all of us who were there.
I don’t often reread programme notes from plays or concerts that I attend except for the ones created by Jan Spurlock for these series of very special concerts. As always there was one extract that struck me and I would like to share with you:
In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.
It was not so much the content of these words which made me stop and think but the person who said them, for they were written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a person who is famous not for silence but for action.
For many Mother Teresa’s life and her work amongst the outcast of India epitomises what it means to be a disciple. ‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also’ says Jesus in our gospel reading from John. Often this call to discipleship is understood as emulating our Lord, to be like him in his actions to other people, to heal the sick, to comfort the bereaved, to feed the hungry and to preach the gospel in what we do as much as what we say or believe. He is the pattern of all those who follow him and from this missionary call to love others has come our welfare system, the National Health and all our church schools. Today many of our churches are rediscovering this missionary call to reveal God’s love to all and in very practical ways are following Christ through setting up coffee mornings, visiting networks, volunteer driving schemes, creating community hubs to name but a few ways in our local area.
Mother Teresa reminds us that there is another dimension to this call to discipleship, the call to silence, the call to nothingness. The path of discipleship leads us also down a route where we are willing to lose our life, to be like a grain of wheat which only by falling into the earth and losing its very nature is able to bear any fruit whatsoever. Today Jesus calls once more to follow him on the road to Calvery. For the early Christians, of course, this call had very tangible implications, as their faith lead them to persecution and to death, just as it did for Jesus himself. But in our age and in our country, none of us will be call to literally die as a result of following Jesus. But that does not mean that we are not called to enter into that the silence of our own nothingness, to die to ourselves and be open to his filling presence. For us, it is as hard, this road of emptiness and seeming failure. We can too easily fall back on our doings and find in them the satisfaction of success or even immerse ourselves in times of prayer and quietness which are shaped and controlled by us through techniques and strategies of prayer that will enable us to avoid the empty void and feel we have succeeded in some way. But this in the end is only to play tricks with ourselves and to prefer to plough our field or bury our mother rather than come to the feast he has prepared for us. For the silence of which Mother Teresa speaks is not just the times of stillness in chapel or in our own private space, these are important but it is the inner silence that we carry around in the depths of our being every moment of the day. It is the silence of the heart out of which all our actions find their source. It is the silence of discipleship to which we are all called to follow.
I decided that this Lent I wouldn’t give up anything that I liked or indulged in particularly. Instead, aware of how often I simply filled my life with extraneous noise to cut out the inner voices which plagued me during any moment of stillness, I would desist from any more avoidance tactics. My hand still invariably goes to turn on the radio but then, only with an act of intention, will I turn it off. I am only beginning to realise that this is not simply a Lenten discipline which can be dispensed with as the bells ring out on Easter morning but it is the call to discipleship in all its fullness. Amen.