1 Kings 8. 22 – 30

Matthew 21. 12 – 16

Dedication Festival

Fr Alex


Today’s celebrations put me in mind of my trip to Rome back in January, where I saw an enormous number of churches.  They’re pretty much impossible to avoid – even if you’re just aiming for one of the big ones, you’ll stumble over a load more on your way.

And if you’re like me, you can’t resist nipping inside.  Because you’re invariably confronted with masterpieces of painting, sculpture, and decoration.  (Though I have to say, very little stained glass – and certainly nothing anywhere near as good as ours!)

You get overwhelmed by the glory of it, after a while – “oh, there’s another Raphael, how nice.”  You take little notice of the shrine of a great saint, having already seen the remains of two of the apostles earlier that morning.

The more important churches are crammed full of tourists, and for the most part they seem to function simply as tourist attractions.  If you want to see the ancient mosaics above the altar, you put your 1 Euro coin in the slot, and the lights pop on for a couple of minutes.  If you want to light a candle, stick another Euro in a different slot, and an electronic candle will light up for you.

Most of them do have at least one Mass a day, but when it’s time for worship the crowds are very efficiently ejected from the building, and a few faithful creep in for the service.

On one occasion I had to argue with one steward in broken English and worse Italian, and convince him that I did actually want to stay and worship.  They just assume you’re there for the pretty building.

I attended Mass on my first afternoon in a beautiful basilica, tucked away down a side street.  And almost at the same time, back here in Ilkley, someone was lighting a fire at the back of our own beautiful church.

Today when we celebrate the 144th anniversary of the dedication of our church, it’s horrifying to contemplate what we might’ve lost – were it not for the actions of firefighters, and indeed quick-thinking organists.

But we’re not giving thanks today just for the preservation of a pretty building, or even an important part of our heritage. 

“This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.  How awesome is this place.”

When Jacob woke from his dream and said those words at Bethel, it wasn’t a beautiful place or anything special at all: it was a stone in the middle of the desert.  He said it because he had experienced the presence of God.  The Lord had chosen to make himself known to Jacob, and promised not to leave him, or forsake him.

And even at the dedication of the glorious temple of Solomon, which we heard about in our first reading, it’s not the grandeur of the building that counts: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” he says.

It’s because God can be found there; because he chooses to make himself known to those who seek him.  He has said, “My name shall be there.”

And though Solomon’s temple is long destroyed, as is the second temple that followed it; even though Christ showed us that God abides no longer in a temple made with hands, but makes himself known through Christ, the living temple: even so, through his love and mercy, God gives us a place where we may seek him, and find him. 

God is everywhere, God cannot be contained, yes: but in this church he says again, “My name shall be there.”  And we see that promise all around us, when we come to a place like this.

We see the goodness of creation in the beauty of craftsmanship; we see the sacramental grace in the rich adornment of the font and the altar.  We see the work of the Spirit in stone and wood, metal and textile: the glass tells us the story of our faith, and the promise for our future.  We hear earthly music that takes us out of the realm of the ordinary, and into the divine.

We come together from different lives as one people, united with each other, with all who have hallowed these walls with their prayers over the years; united with all the company of heaven.

And in a morsel of bread and a sip of wine, two humble bits of creation, we meet with Jesus, the human face of God’s love and mercy, really present to us.  God chooses to make himself known to us, and through this sacrament, renews that promise he made to Jacob: that he will never leave us, or forsake us.

As T S Eliot put it in ‘Little Gidding,’ this is a place where “prayer is valid.”  This wonderful building “prays of itself,” as the great church architect Ninian Comper said about the best church buildings.  Whether we are here or not, in some way this church continues to hold our hopes and fears before the divine presence.  The walls themselves drip with the prayers of generations.

And when we are here to see it, this wonderful building preaches us the most powerful sermon about the faithfulness of God towards his creation.

But we must remember, of course, that this sermon is not really for us.  It is for those who don’t come here, to this house of God and gate of heaven; those who haven’t come to know the transforming presence of God in their lives.

This temple holds and forms us, brings us closer to God, so that we might go forth into the world and make his glory known to others.  We come to this temple so that we may become temples of that glory ourselves: living temples, living stones, telling of what God has done for us.

Inspired by this building, may we continue to pray, as we did in our collect, that having sought the Lord in this place and found him, we may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become a living temple acceptable to him; and a sign of his love and mercy in the world.  Amen.