St Thomas Cantilupe,
2nd October 2016
It's not usual to have a sermon at Vespers. At Belmont on Sundays, Vespers is followed by Adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The office for sermons is Vigils, the night office, when we always listen to a homily of the Fathers explaining the Scripture reading we've just heard. Yet all the offices are privileged moments for listening, listening to the word of God. The Divine Office is one of the many forms of Lectio Divina. If an office is sung, then the music, the melodies and the chant enhance the words and bring them to life. While it's true that one of the principle purposes of the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, is to praise God, the "laus perennis", for there are hymns, canticles and doxologies, and another purpose is prayer, especially that of intercession, for there are litanies and collects and, at Lauds and Vespers, the Lord's Prayer, essentially the Divine Office is communal or shared listening to the word of God, indeed a most powerful way of evangelization.
In Anglican cathedrals and churches, which, like Benedictine monasteries, carry on the laudable tradition of the Middle Ages, choirs divide into two sections that face each other, each side proclaiming the word of God to the other. So at Vespers, as at the other offices, we are either proclaiming the word of God or receiving it, preaching or listening, evangelising or being evangelised. As the Angel Gabriel announced the word of God to Our Lady at the Annunciation, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so may Christ be born in our hearts when we announce the word of God to one another in choir. As Mary gave herself wholly to God's plan for salvation, may we too echo her "FIAT", "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word."
The word of God is ever new and always life-giving. As the offices are repeated day in day out, year after year, we discover fresh layers to God's word that nourish our souls and strengthen our faith. We grow in wisdom and become ever more deeply united to Christ. So we thank Dean Michael for kindly inviting us to celebrate Vespers at the Cathedral on the Feast of St Thomas Cantilupe, Thomas of Hereford, the saint we all venerate and love and on whose generous intercession we call as we share this moment of prayer and praise, of proclaiming and listening to the word of God.
Of course, St Thomas prayed in Latin and in his day the offices, i.e. the seven-day offices as well as vigils, would have been sung by the cathedral chapter, as Hereford was not a monastic foundation, unlike Worcester, for example. He would have known and sung on many occasions the hymn that follows the homily this afternoon, Iste Confessor. Written in the 8th Century and used on the feasts of confessors, it was originally composed for the feast of St Martin of Tours, monk and bishop, one of the first non-martyr saints in the Western Church. The hymn speaks of his tomb and the many miracles wrought there through contact with his bones, on account of the faith of those seeking the grace of healing and forgiveness. So it applies perfectly to St Thomas, whose tomb, tragically despoiled at the Reformation, became one of the most popular and miraculous shrines in medieval England. This was a church where countless miracles took place.
Tonight, let us pray for the unity of the Church, that, through the intercession of St Thomas, her wounded limbs might be healed and made whole again. Let us pray for the unity of society in our land, that all our citizens may learn to live in respect, harmony and love. And let us pray for the unity of God's world, that justice and peace, so close to the heart of St Thomas, might be restored wherever there is hatred, division, terrorism and war.
St Thomas Cantilupe, most powerful healer and intercessor, pray for us once more today. Amen.