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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Emptiness and Longing

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: emptiness, closed, remembrance, longing, mothering, laetare

John 6:35: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’”

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent—a Sunday that has happened many times before, and will happen many times again. But it is such an odd day for so many of us. All of us in the church in Europe have effectively been locked out of our churches. And we are just beginning to realize that we will be for a long time—not just through the rest of Lent, but even on Easter Day.

I grew up with English grandparents, and I learned from them from an early age that in the tradition of the English church, the fourth Sunday in Lent had two identities: “Refreshment Sunday” and “Mothering Sunday.” It was near the mid-point of the season of self-denial and fasting; on this day, the disciplines were lightened a little. You could get out the butter again, to use a little bit making a simnel cake;  if you had struck out on your own, you were expected to return home to visit your mother.

The church hinted a little about the joy to come in the name by which this day used to be known, “Lætare Sunday.” That label draws on the text of Isaiah 66, as found in the Vulgate bible, that was traditionally sung as the introit for this day; “Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam...” / “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and come together all who love her...”).

It is hard to imagine more poignant words on the very first Sunday of a season in which we are being denied the simple gift of being able to gather together. It is painful to feel distanced from each other, and from sharing together in the sacrament of “the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make”—the gathering of all disciples around the table of the Eucharistic feast.

I think my greatest sorrow today comes from thinking of all of our churches standing empty and wondering where we are. We have such a variety of worship spaces in the Episcopal church in Europe. We have what must surely be the oldest building dedicated for worship in the entire Episcopal Church, the austere space of Santa Maria in Ferrano. We have grand spaces and small spaces, ornate spaces and simple spaces, rural places and urban places. They are places designed to gather us together, places with a purpose of drawing us closer to a sense of God’s presence in our lives. They are places we set aside for holy things, that we do in prayerful ways. And when they are empty, something in us is empty, too.

For so many years people have brought their joys and their sorrows into these places. For so many years we have been gathering places for exiles and expatriates from all over the world. We have given shelter to the sacred moments in the lives of countless people, and kept our doors open to everyone.

We are still all of those things, no matter where we are. But it is hard to know we will not see the insides of these beloved spaces for a while. It is especially hard to know that Easter will find these places that we love so much empty and still.

I never thought I’d miss church meetings quite this much. We’re still having them, of course—with all of us alone, at our screens, looking at all the others, alone, looking at their screens. It’s just not the same.

This is, of course, our season of Lent. We are meant to be setting aside things in these weeks, in order more fully to make space for God in our lives—not just our thoughts, but in our actions, in our small and large choices, in our everyday lives.

That can be hard to do when the busyness of our lives keeps taking up all the time we have already. So just maybe, in this moment of isolation, as our churches stand empty, they are setting an example for us.

Maybe we should take this moment to empty out our lives of all the unnecessary things, all of the clutter. Maybe we should make our hearts a little like our churches are today: quiet, still, a little lonely, but ready to be filled anew.

We will get through this. We will be different on the other side of these weeks, if only because we will have come to appreciate more keenly how empty our lives can be when the church has to be empty.

But no place is empty of God’s love. No degree of isolation can empty the bonds of our fellowship with each other. And no fear can empty the power of the words that will come first to Mary on Easter morning, not in a church, but outside, in a garden: “Do not be afraid.”

Let us pray:

Help us, gracious God, to empty our lives of the cares of this world, that we may be filled with your renewing love; through Christ our Lord. Amen.