St Matthews Logo

Return to homepage

St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

13th July 2003

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity 4

Each Sunday we come to Church and take part in the Eucharist with its ancient trappings and rituals. Hopefully we take the scriptures to heart and seek to apply them in our daily lives. No doubt we draw great strength from our receiving of Holy Communion. However I suspect we don't give much thought to the externals because they are so familiar to us. Yet to an outsider a lot of what we do must seem very alien and strange.

Last week Maureen asked if I could talk about some of these aspects, the why and wherefore of church customs and rituals, so this morning I thought we could explore this a little.

A few weeks ago I came across an article by the writer and one time ordinand, A.N. Wilson, about David Jones, a Welsh poet who died in 1974. Like many of his generation he was deeply affected by his experiences as a soldier during the First World War. More unusually he was converted to Catholicism. He first saw a French priest say mass through a crack in a barn, distributing H.C. to doomed men in uniform. He drew on the ritual of the Mass in his poetry, referring to the rubrics as well as its words. A.N. Wilson says this of his work. 'As you read, you find layers of memory and reference peeping through one another.' That is also not a bad description of the Eucharist. It too is full of layers of meaning and reference.

Originally the Eucharist was celebrated simply, a continuation of the Jewish Passover, a reflection of the special meals Jesus shared with his disciples. Much of the ceremony we associate with it developed much later. It has its roots in the C4th world of classical antiquity.

Thus Eucharistic vestments worn to identify the presiding priest were originally no more than the smart clothes of a Roman gentleman, a chasuble worn over an alb drawn in with a girdle, with a stole for decoration. As time went by they continued to be worn in the conservative setting of Church services. The Middle Ages invested them with the symbolic meanings that were to be rejected by the reformers along with the mass.

The wearing vestments as revived in the Church of England in the C19th can remind us of the catholicity of the church in time and space and helps to identify who does what. They hide the personality of the wearer. They can uphold a false clericalism that checks the ministry of the laity.

Other customs also date from the same time. Roman civil officials processed with lights and incense, to give honour to the emperor in whose name they carried out their role. Incense also served to lessen the smell of the masses!

When Christianity was made the state religion by Constantine such customs were adopted by the Church to give honour to the Gospel of Jesus Christ moving in the midst of his people and reminding us that the Church is a pilgrim people on the move. Ever more elaborate rituals were accrued to the mass in the Middle Ages, each given its special meaning. Most of it was thrown out by the reformers and simplified by Rome at the Second Vatican Council, both influencing what we do today.

We have thought a little bit about what we wear and why we move about, now to end a little bit about colours. For much of history most people lived drab lives. Only in church did they find a rich decorative interior of coloured glass, gaudy wall paintings, embroidered hangings and elaborate carvings. The colours we see around us are a Victorian revival of such mediaeval practice.

The colours of the altar frontal &c. change with the seasons. White or gold is used for the high points of the year Easter, Christmas and Epiphany as well as for the feasts of Saints who were not martyred. Red used at Whitsun suggests the Spirit coming in tongues of fire at Pentecost, as well as the red blood of the martyrs, the seeds of the Church. Purple is for the sombre, penitential seasons of Advent and Lent and as symbol of mortality at requiems for the dead. Green is for the ordinary time, the interminable Sundays after Trinity, time in which nevertheless we continue to grow as Christians like green plants. On Good Friday all is stripped bare, suggesting the starkness of the cross.

To make the most of these layers of meaning and reference requires an exercise of the imagination to make the faith come alive for our generation. It is akin to the task of poets, as described by A.N. Wilson, 'to encapsulate emotions, stories and myths as they fade from consciousness.' Save that ours is a living faith in a living Lord Jesus, based on events in history, expressed in the present, with a future hope.


Return to homepage

Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at
Last updated 12/07/2003 23:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd