Westminster Abbey, First Sunday of Lent, Evensong

In the Name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Brothers and Sisters,

This year, Easter falls very early: only five more Sundays separate us from it. Usually, Easter marks the beginning of Spring, when days become longer, when birds get ready to sing again and when flowers and blossoms start adorning the earth.

Today, however, if we look outside, we can hardly imagine that nature is about to awaken from its winter sleep. Yes, we might even not believe it, if it were not for the fact that our memory strongly reminds us of it: not only do we remember how it happened in other years, but, as solemn promises, tiny but clear signs in nature are there to confirm our memory.

Church life has its own way to deal with memory and to remind us of what is approaching. Thus, Christmas and Easter are preceded by a series of weeks, Advent and Lent, in which all is in view of the approaching feast. The lessons we just heard, about Jonah and about the Pharisee and the Publican, train our memory, as it were, so that we may recall not only the time of the year we are in – Lent, in our case, the spiritual preparation to Easter – but also what it should mean to us and how we must live it.

In Lent we celebrate a lot of memories: this morning, for example, we heard about the temptation of Jesus in the desert; next Sunday we will hear Jesus saying to Nicodemus that we must be born from above and he will teach us how we can become his disciples, by taking up our cross. At the end of Lent, we will celebrate – that is: solemnly remember – Christ’s Entrance into Jerusalem, his Last Supper, his Passion, his Crucifixion and Burial and, of course his Resurrection and the fact that, through the gift of his Holy Spirit, He is and remains among and with us here and now, everywhere and forever. Thus it must be clear that remembering does not mean to recall to our mind something past and absent, but, on the contrary: memory is a very specific but immensely strong kind of presence, far beyond the bounderies of time and space, but ever so real, just as our being gathered in this Abbey and our praying together this afternoon.

In the services we celebrate in Church every day, some memories directly regard our own life: Sin and forgiveness, humility and pride, death and life, sorrow and joy, Baptism and how we live it. All these themes are closely linked to events, to memories from the lives of each of us: events we are proud of, but also events we are less proud of, or even ashamed of. These memories are within us, deep in the bottom of our heart. They are not always manifest at the same time but, if we permit it, they come out of our heart to the surface by the word of a psalm or a lesson, by a gesture or a melody. At that very moment, we are not just living ‘clockwise’, minute after minute, but our life, here and now, proves to be a living link between all these memories that constitute who and what we are. These memories form a bridge towards those persons that share with us the same memories.

Our heart is the sacred throne of memory. This is true for each one of us, for those who are our friends as for those who are not. Our heart is the place in which resides the memory of our life, who we are, what we think, what we have done and what has been done to us, our joys and our sorrows, our hope and our despair, our love and all those numerous moments of our life when love seemed so far away. That is why, holding a beloved person tight in our arms, we clasp him to our bosom, communicating, as it ware, not only our warmth but also our deepest feelings, the richness of our memory, the essence of what we are.

Memory and the truth of the heart are central themes in the parable of the Pharisee and Publican as in the story of Jonah. All three figures represent attitudes of each one of us. The Pharisee is digging in his memory, and he is very satisfied with himself. He reminds God – as if He would be ignorant of it – all the good things he has done and still does. But his memory is not complete: what lacks is exactly what he is, a truth that only his heart could tell him but which he is not willing to listen to. The Publican also has something in common with parts of ourselves. He beats his breast, the place of his heart, the place of memory, the place where he is confronted with all that he is and all that he has done, the place of deep honesty and, therefore, of shame. He does not dare to look up to heaven, but says: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Who of the two was in closer connection to heaven, the Pharisee who looked up to heaven or the Publican who looked down in his heart? The Publican “went home justified before God”, like Jesus says, because he encountered God in his heart, the place where God already was, waiting for the Publican to descend. Jesus says: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mt. 6, 21). Jonah, in one way, is like the Publican: at first he did not want to go to Nineveh, but at the end he converts, he turns the other way round, and obeys the Lord. But his conversion is superficial, and here he has much in common with the Pharisee: he does not turn inside himself. To his great irritation, the Ninevites do convert, they beat their breast and, in their heart, they encounter a forgiving and loving God. Poor Jonah who was so much looking forward to seeing the destruction of the city! But that is because he did not know the heart of God, since he was not willing to see his own heart. However, as a Prophet, should not he, as no one else, have been a specialist of divine and human memory and of the ways in which God is merciful even when humans always return to sin and unholy life?

This harmonious joining together of God’s and human’s memory is exactly what takes place in our heart and which is a lifelong labour of listening, converting, receiving love and giving it. It is not something difficult if at least we open our eyes to see, our ears to listen and our noses to smell to what extent divine and human memory is all around us in our life. In this Abbey, is not everything memory of the past, which is present among us with a purpose that profoundly regards the meaning of our life: the tombs, the altar, the shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor, the choir stalls in which so many generations of boys and lay vicars have praised the Glory of God and implored the Salvation of Mankind, the melodies and the texts through which this was done? Also, in the celebrations of Eucharist, Matins, Evensong and so many special services, is not everything full of memory? Do you ever consider how many people all over the world, think at 5 o’clock on week days, while still at their work: now, in Westminster Abbey, they begin celebrating Evensong and, in their thoughts, in their heart, by the force of memory, they are present here with you, and you with them, and a common evening prayer rises up to God?

Memory is what delivers us from the tyranism and loneliness of individualism and egoism, if only we train ourselves to listen to our heart, to sense the heart of our fellow men and women, to dig into the heart of God and to be testimonies and bridges of his life-giving love to the world that surrounds us. Memory is also what consoles us when we are in sorrow and what helps us to overcome suffering and difficult times, when through fog and dark smoke we get a glimpse of that bridge that will relink us to the love, force and life of others, ready to help us, if only we permit it. Memory, finally, is what surpasses the boundaries of life and death, when through bread and wine we remember Jesus Christ, not dead, but living in our midst, and when by the faith in our heart we not only hope but know that his life beyond death is already ours and that it is our duty to spread it throughout the world.

During this Lent leading to Easter, let us firmly decide to convert ourselves, to live with and in our heart, that place where God lives within each of us and where he converses with us, where every true encounter between human beings takes place and wherein all the truth of our life resides. And therein, let us, in meek humility, remember Jesus Christ and ask him to remember us when He comes into his Kingdom; to remember us till we shall be with him in our heart.