The boat in St. James’ Piccadilly and the kingdom of heaven
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Now of course heaven is not a mustard seed, nor yeast, nor a treasure, nor a pearl nor a magic net and nor is the lover a summer’s day. For as Shakespeare says:
“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
And often is is golden complexion dimmed
And every fair from fair sometimes declines.
Now, Jesus knew about heaven, he knows it in every detail but he does not tell us expressly what it is, or where it is; he does not define it but even with all his certainty and intimate perfect knowledge contents himself by saying what it is like. He is aware that heaven is so beyond our understanding, that we can only marginally approach it and then by signs, symbol and allusion. By looking and thinking of things we know and which we can see and do comprehend we can be helped to touch the ineffable. For this we need language - it may be the language of art, of music, of poetry, it may be traditional, abstract or modern and then more often, it seems to me , it is what is not depicted, not sung, not said, the mystery in cadence, in the spaces that speak to us of the ethereal. But our world is so noisily attuned to “faster”, “more” and “what’s next” that there is no room for spaces and we rush on. To think about heaven we need to go “slower” do “less” stay in the “now” - we have to wonder -
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
St. James Piccadilly is a big London church set in the bohemian world of Soho with artists of all sorts, creatives from all walks of life among the congregation. Last Christmas they strung from their roof a real, recovered, refugee dinghy - it was very large, mainly bright orange and it bore the scars of a Mediterranean crossing, a craft brought up from the Italian shore. In a church designed by Christopher Wren it stood out and at that season flavoured the story of Mary and Joseph without a bed, of Jesus being born in a stable and of the family fleeing to Egypt.
I thought this was great! [Pause to look at the roof] we could get something smaller perhaps?
But then I thought “but this is OK for St. James’ they are used to such things, these men and women of theatre land but we Streatley folk are of less gaudy cloth not given to large gestures. I tracked down the reverend Lucy Winkett and asked her
“How do I prepare my Christmas congregation who have come for carols and candles, how do I prepare them for a boat in the roof?”
She looked intently and penetratingly at me and said “You don’t - just let the image speak on its own!”
And so I am not going to unpack our Gospel, not give my explanations of the symbols but am going to ask each of you to choose the image that resonates most with you - think about it - savour it - give it space to speak to you.