King Richard III: Service of Reveal of the Tomb

Sermon: The Very Revd David Monteith
Dean of Leicester 

Service of Reveal of the Tomb and Celebration for King Richard III
Friday 27 March 2015

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes….for the former things are passed away.
(Revelation 21:4)

Quite often near the top of the spire of Leicester Cathedral you will see a winged creature.  Neither a stone gargoyle, nor even seraphim like we saw on King Richard’s coffin pall, but a peregrine falcon.  They see the city and far beyond as the county spreads out into the heart of rural England.  Their vision of this kingdom is expansive.

A peregrino is a pilgrim – one who seeks a broader and deeper vision of the world and one who follows The Way of faith.  We know from research into cathedrals that it is impossible to really distinguish between tourists and pilgrims – we are all searching and learning to walk God’s way.  As King Richard’s story moves from the king in the car park to the king in the Cathedral, what vision might we be offered as his tomb is revealed?

Christian tombs tell of our brief life story; this one from 1452 -1485 but cast again in 2015.  Christian tombs also point to another story.  On Easter Day the stone at Jesus’ tomb was rolled away, riven apart by God’s power to enable a new vision to come into our world.  This new light signaled hope and hope is simply loved stretched out into the future.  The deeply incised cross characterizes King Richard’s grave and echoes the tomb of Jesus.  It points east, for in the Christian tradition our tombs face east to greet the rising sun, the daily sign of Easter for us.

The Wars of the Roses are also known as the Cousins’ War.  This period saw enormous numbers of casualties for the Houses of Lancaster and York.  It was a time of great instability and the greatest impact was felt by the ordinary person whilst those in power jostled for precedence.  Wounds persist from that time in our community, even if often played out with a degree of humour as red roses and white roses are used in banter.  But there are families and communities who still remember the pain.  Our bringing together of the Bosworth Peers yesterday was seen to be controversial by some – old painful narratives beset us in all kinds of ways when our vision is shrouded, too constrained or scarred by sin and shame.  Richard, like many in Leicester, was wounded by war and then lost his life bravely in the thick of battle.  I grew up living with division.  1970s and 80s Northern Ireland defined me by the colour badge I happened to be born into.  It was not white or red but orange and green.  It was bloody and bitter and sad.

An epitaph closely associated with King Richard’s alabaster tomb, built in the Greyfriars by Henry VII, begins: ‘Here I am, whom the earth encloses beneath various marbles’ (Hic ego quem vario tellus sub marmore claudit).  Now his bones lie in a tomb made with Kilkenny limestone, Cumbrian sandstone, Duke’s red from Derbyshire and Swaledale Fossil from North Yorkshire, highlighted with Chalcedony from Italy and blue Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan.  His remains are enclosed by a world of diverse stones crafted into a new place of shelter and sanctuary.  These stones from these islands, Europe and the Middle East are like Leicester and indeed every place in contemporary Britain.  They are diverse, yet when honed together offer an arresting beauty which points forward, igniting new vision.

The words the choir have just sung from the Revelation of St John may well have arisen from a time of great violence, when Christian people were being persecuted by the Roman authorities.  Jesus the innocent rejected one has triumphed not by might but by love.  The madness of forgiveness has taken root and been given such form that mere words cannot contain it.  This falcon like vision is so compelling that tears are no longer needed.  Even swords have become tools for the garden.  God lives with his people – there is a reign of mercy, hope and peace.  

God’s Kingly reign gives us vision to imagine how things might be very different, and that strengthens us to be so compelled by such a vision to make sure it actually becomes real.  We’ve seen signs of it this week.  Our Christian community has attempted to serve others, to welcome others, and throughout to pray faithfully, as the ribbons on the railings witness.  All kinds of partnerships have been found to be life giving – the sacred and the secular, Anglicans and Catholics, scientists and people of faith, Yorkists and Lancastrians, locals and strangers, Ricardians and those more skeptical of Richard’s reputation.  Barriers have come down and as the book of Revelation says we have seen that ‘the former things are passed away’.

One of Richard’s III’s prayers, possibly written by his confessor John Roby, longs for reconciliation: ‘Even as you extinguished the hatred and anger that Esau had for his brother Jacob… stretch out your arm to me and spread your grace over me’.  We heard about Cain and Abel earlier in this service.  They prefigure Esau and Jacob’s conflict also from the book of Genesis.  We meet a family feud, a cousins’ war, the human fracture which leads to the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’  ‘Am I my sister’s keeper?’

Charles Taylor, the contemporary philosopher describes our society as made up of people who can be described as the ‘punctual self’ (Sources of the Self, the making of the modern identity).  We have become little packages of full stops.  We are punctuation rather than poetry.  We are not one another’s keepers.  Richard and his contemporaries would not have understood this.  They were not defined by themselves but rather by being a part of something bigger, a joined up narrative even a cosmic order.  Contrast our narrow sense of self with words from a great Christian saint of the third century, Anthony of Egypt, and the inspiration for St Martin, the patron of this Cathedral.  He said ‘our life and our death is with our neighbour’.  

Over the last days dignity and honour have been plain to see.  But the real challenge to every one of us is to ensure that such dignity and honour might describe all that we are and all that we do as this city and county, even as this nation.  A space is made here for the last of the Plantagenet Kings.  But a space is also made anew for our city, church, community and nation – can we stretch love and so turn it into hope to give new vision?  Here is a space in which to answer whether or not we are our brother and sister’s keeper.  Here is a space for respect and reflection where through daily prayer our souls might be renewed.  Here is new space, a tomb with a dramatic cross which demands the kind of loyalty that will truly bind us to one another and to God.

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes….for the former things are passed away.
(Revelation 21:4)

© The Very Revd David Monteith