On bright winter mornings the priest becomes a silhouette; the sun coming through the window behind the Communion table sometimes bright enough to prompt an averting of the eyes. The Communion table on a Wednesday morning is placed at the crossing of the nave and the transepts, so the tiny congregation sit in the south transept looking northwards.
The sun was especially bright this morning; shining through the three lights of a stained glass window inspired by Saint Paul’s words about faith, hope and love; three female figures represent the three qualities, faith to the left, hope to the right and love in the middle. In the quietness of the place, before the service began, hope seemed especially illuminated; the rays from the sun above the Dublin mountains picked out the colours of her garments.
Only on the short days approaching and following the winter solstice is the sun low enough for hope to shine as she did this morning. A tempting thought arose that it might be a suitable sermon illustration; light shining in the dark days; hope being filled with light when all around was grey.
But such thoughts tend to make for simplistic slogans. Too often preachers confront congregations with sets of propositions. Perhaps they are effective in jollying along the faithful, like the anthems of sporting fans in a stadium, but if people listening do not accept the premise on which the proposition is based, then the proposition sounds no more than a slogan.
To stand and say, “God is a light shining in the darkness” is meaningful only to those who subscribe to the idea of there being a God in the first place. To others, it might sound as silly as supporters of a lower division football team singing that their side is, “by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen”.
The more striking thing about the morning sunlight was that it shone in through the north window; hope was being lit from a quarter where the sun does not shine. As any schoolchild will tell you, the sun does not shine in the north, it shines in the south.
The church lies east-west, but for some reason, in 1835, was built the wrong way round. The end at which the altar stands is always referred to as the “east” because medieval churches were built to face eastwards towards Jerusalem, the place of resurrection, but it is at the geographical west end of the church. If west becomes east, then north becomes south; so a congregation facing liturgically northwards are met by the rays of a geographically southwards sun.
Perhaps the inversion of the cardinal points of the compass provides the grounds for a sermon much more telling than propositions regarding light and darkness. Perhaps a conversation with those who do not subscribe to the church’s set of beliefs begins much more usefully with the church saying that it does not subscribe to the conventional wisdom of a secular, materialist culture; by the church saying that we do not accept the cardinal points reflected in contemporary attitudes, in the way that most people under 40 do not accept the cardinal points that define the faith of the church.
Perhaps a building where east is west and north is south provides a parable with which to approach a post-modern society, where right is wrong and wrong is right – depending on where you are standing and from where you have started.