Homily for the Anniversary of the Dedication of St Mary’s Cathedral

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Today we keep the anniversary of the dedication of this Cathedral. It’s great to have Sunday for this. In the Gospel, Jesus clears the temple. He’s asked for a sign. He replies: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.’ He was speaking, says St John, of the temple of his body. The sign was his resurrection on the third day. The sign was his victory over death.

And, in Christ, that is what a cathedral is, and this Cathedral. It’s a sign in wood and stone that Christ is risen, that the temple of his body is always growing, and that we human beings can hope for a heavenly Jerusalem.

We probably all feel that this Cathedral, as a liturgical space, still has a way to go. But it also has much going for it. It is in the heart of the city. As a building, any architect will tell you, it was remarkable for its time, 1860. It has a dignity and spaciousness. It proves a good host to the larger liturgies. Its chapel to our Lady is a beautiful place. But beyond all that, it’s a sign that Christ is risen and the Church is alive with his life. The foundation stone was dedicated on 16 March 1859. 1859 was 30 years after the passage of the 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act, aka Catholic Emancipation. This lifted many of the restrictions Catholics had suffered for more than 200 years. It allowed Catholics to enter the professions and take full part in public life. It was a kind of resurrection of the Church after a long burial, as it were, in the tomb. The building of churches that followed signified a new public confidence. And this Cathedral too. The next year, 1860, this Cathedral was dedicated. 1860 was 300 years since the famous Reformation Parliament of 1560, which forbade the celebration of Mass and any connection with the Pope. There again, more resurrection embodied in this Cathedral. The Bishop who preached on that December day, James Kyle, took as his text: ‘The gates of hell shall not prevail.’ In our own time, it has fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.’ Isn’t this another sign of how the risen Christ is alive in his Church?

We recall with gratitude the people who conceived the idea of this Cathedral. We can remember the masons who built it, and its young Episcopalian architect, Alexander Ellis, responsible for many fine churches in the city and beyond. We remember all the worshippers here over 159 years: so many stories and prayers, ‘their holocausts and sacrifices accepted on my altar.’ The priests who’ve served here, the administrators and curates and canons and monsignors, who preached the word, celebrated the sacraments and built up the parish: ‘you are God’s building’, says St Paul. The assisting deacons in more recent years. The organists and singers, the sacristans and ushers and cleaners and flower-arrangers. Cathedrals draw artists and craftsmen too. So many have made their contributions: the firm of Conacher which built the organ, that of Wailes and Strang responsible for so much fine stained glass, Felix McCullough, Charles Blakeman, Gabriel Loire, David Gulland, Anne Davidson, Fiona Forsyth, Monika Walendziak. More to come surely. Dare I mention the bishops too? Their names are on the wall. In all of this, we can say: ‘Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.’

Three times in the year, says the Old Testament, Jewish men were meant to go up to Jerusalem. Jesus did too. Three great feasts, spring summer and autumn. Passover to commemorate the birth of the lambs and the Exodus. The feast of Weeks or Pentecost to commemorate the barley harvest and the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai. And then Tabernacles or Booths, to mark the grape and olive harvest and how God protected his people as they went through the desert and found shelter in tents or tabernacles. And so at Tabernacles, Jews build themselves shelters out of branches, in their gardens or on flat rooves, and live in them for the 8 days of the feast. By his death and resurrection, Christ has made Passover our Easter. The Jewish Pentecost has become ours through the giving of the Holy Spirit. But where is Tabernacles? I’d suggest it’s here – in the feasts of the Dedication of Churches, which almost always fall in our northern autumn, September or October. These feasts, and ours today, mark then the harvest of believers throughout the world, the gathering of the olives that grow on the olive tree which is Christ, the grapes that mature on the vine that is Christ. This is the feast when we thank God for the tents and tabernacles he provides for us as we go through the desert of this life to the Promised Land and heavenly Jerusalem. This is a feast of the Church. ‘He was speaking of the temple of his Body.’ And what is the Church? The place where we are gathered in, that home for the homeless, that building, that shelter, that protection from error and sin, that body and bride and life-giving mother. That hospital that heals us. That company which employs us. That foodbank which gives us the Bread of life. Beyond the most beautiful cathedral or basilica or chapel in the world, that’s what we are celebrating today. ‘Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her.’ Christ has set up this tabernacle for our journey. We thank him for such love. We want to make it our own.

So, let’s not let anyone, any negative experience, any lack of sympathy, any malfunctioning rob us of love for the Church. That is spiritual suicide. We don’t love the Church or stay in it because the clergy or our fellow-Christians are good or nice or competent. We need the Church. We need it because we are poor sinners, neither good nor nice. We need it because we need God’s mercy, God’s light, God’s help made tangible in signs. We need brothers and sisters. Let’s not rob ourselves of these things. And then the miracle – and the mission – can begin. ‘He was speaking of the temple of his body’ – his risen body. And in that Body, we too – like this cathedral – can be a sign of resurrection, living stones, living signs that Christ is risen from the dead and we with him.

(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 6 October 2019)