I am quite sure that during our period of Lockdown many of our priorities have shifted and changed. A new habit that I’ve developed is to ensure that the birdbath in the garden has water in it. In the absence of people to watch, nature has provided me with an abundance of feathered guests to observe. Amongst the bird population of a relatively small area I note a pecking order (the pun couldn’t be resisted!). Heading the Presbytery colony is a dominant Magpie who reminds me of my daily duty towards himself and his feathered friends by standing boldly on the lawn in front of the office and giving me the hard stare. If the look fails, his harsh ascending chatter begins, only ceasing when the door opens and I appear with a jug of water. Unsurprisingly no hint of gratitude comes from this beautifully iridescently clad Corvidae, but with his ablutions complete, the water attracts many other friends of flight during the course of the day of all shapes, size and colour, all of whom seem to appreciate my efforts at keeping them watered, and on occasion fed too.
Returning to the Magpie, at whose mention most of you will have a Marmite style reaction (either love or hate!); whilst writing these lines, he appeared with a very large foraging prize in his beak, which resembled toast. Quite how he’d managed to carry it this far, I’m not sure. Having deposited it on the lawn, as it was clearly too heavy to be carried up to the family home in a very tall tree, he made several frustrating (and noisy) attempts to divide it in to manageable pieces. Having flown off, apparently defeated, I felt compelled to go and help … Having returned I can report that the discarded bird banquet was in fact the pastry crust from half a pork pie. And having located some gloves, I broke it into what I felt might be Magpie bite-size delicacies. The episode has left me wondering just who is in charge here: man or bird!
Due to my current inability to engage with our school children in an accustomed fashion, and, oftentimes, about which experiences I’m known to regale a story, I’m delighted to be able to share a snippet with you highlighting changed priorities in the life of at least one of our younger parishioners. At the 11.30 Mass we’re blessed to have a group of very young parishioners who take the collection. Having carried the boxes to the front, bowed to the altar their synchronized assault on pockets, wallets and purses begins, working their way to the back of church. Not having altogether grasped the fact that a Standing Order means some parishioners will not voluntarily contribute to the collections either by envelope or cash, our little ministers just hover at the end of the pew displaying a stand-off pose … in the hope that their determination (or even cuteness – don’t tell them I used that expression!) might be rewarded by some kind of an offering! Their ministry is taken very seriously and they are admirable in their willing dedication to assist in church at such an early age.
The closure of our churches has clearly played on the mind of at least one of our young collectors. So much so that he began to ask his mother about my well-being in the absence of his financially sustaining ministry. It didn’t take too long before he asked the question: “Have you paid Father Nicholas?” No doubt the question was repeated, as is the way with children, because a couple of Sundays ago I had a lovely encounter on the driveway with the little chap’s Mum. She’d been dispatched to pay me! Ranked alongside shopping and exercise, the visit was clearly deemed an essential journey by the youngster. In the regularity of life earlier in the year, such thoughts, if they were ever in the mind of a child, would have been rapidly erased by far more exciting priorities such as fun, school, sport, food and play. On the priority list of the supposed adult writing these lines, the actual collection envelopes were much lower than the near-celebratory moment of the opportunity their delivery gave me of engaging in face-to-face conversation with the young mother.
Priorities are made clear in the midst of the dramatic Good Friday Liturgy when we hear the expression: It was Preparation Day (John 19:31). Words that we can be forgiven for failing to give too much thought to. Yet they are words which resonate with all the wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ members of our faith family across the world who are engaged in the work of preparation that is done to ensure that the annual Holy Week and Easter Liturgies are celebrated well. Here I think of musicians, singers, florists, church cleaners, Ministers of the Word, and those cajoled into baring their feet to be washed on Holy Thursday, and others. An aspect of my own preparatory work is to procure palms and Paschal Candles. When Lockdown began the odour of recently released palms from their polythene prisons was present in both sacristies, however we were devoid of Paschal Candles. Within days I received a phone call saying that it was doubtful these would be with me before Easter due to production and delivery issues. Changed priorities: pre-Lockdown, I would have panicked, wondering how to explain the absence of Paschal Candles, so central to the Easter Vigil, to our communities! In Lockdown contingency plans were afoot: to clean up and use last years’ candles and, when our suppliers could deliver, to welcome this years’ Paschal Candles. I long ago learnt that there should always be a Plan B!
With the candles of 2019 somewhat spruced up, it was a wonderful surprise to have this years’ candles delivered on Holy Thursday afternoon. Well done Hayes and Finch (other suppliers are available!). Unfortunately when I opened the boxes, one of the candles was broken, the sturdier of the two, wrapped well in an abundance of plastic and acres of cardboard. With only one Easter Vigil, I had all I needed; Plan B was a phone call to the supplier, and a subsequent promise of a new candle after Easter.
This week the second candle arrived, complete, intact, and, I hope, at no extra charge! It stands proud and decorated in church, and I greeted it as though it was the Prodigal Son; although the fatted calf is still grazing and the dancing and merrymaking remain on hold due to social distancing!
Whilst preparing it, which for practical reasons took place on the Presbytery kitchen table, I took the opportunity to pray again the words I’d offered on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil. It was an enriching moment. Pausing and reflecting on the beautiful, almost poetic, words of the Exsultet, with which we begin the solemn Liturgy at dusk. These include the imagery of our offering a symbolic gift (the candle) to God. A token crafted through the cooperation of humans and nature: “On this, your night of grace, O Holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.” Prior to this, the candle is marked with the numerals of the year (2020); a reminder of the timeless nature of the Risen Lord: “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega All time belongs to Him and all the ages to Him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen.”
For obvious reason there would have been poignancy and significance in using last years’ candle. Easter 2019 was, after all, the last well of Liturgical expression from which we were called upon to drink as a whole, complete and representative congregation. It was from these sacred days that we were invited to draw strength, as a people of faith, to face each and every twist and turn on life’s unfolding journey. Understanding this encourages us to prepare well for Easter, and engage with the time of getting ready, Lent. It is to the incredibly special Liturgies of Holy Week and Easter that we bring the events of our life-journey throughout the previous twelve months, or thereabouts due to the flexible nature of the timing of Easter, as our personal ‘gift’ to Almighty God. In return those sacred days feed us for the year which lies ahead. Hence preparatory work can never be underestimated, with its exposure being evidenced in the quality of the celebrations that take place.
This year it was different. We began our preparation together, and for very necessary and understandable reasons, the involvement of the majority in those great Liturgies was through very different means, and in the very familiar surroundings, not of our churches, but of your own homes, the domestic church. Priorities are present in this weekends’ Gospel as the Jesus of St. John’s Gospel prepares his nearest and dearest for a time when the world will no longer see Him (John 14:19). He speaks of that which binds Himself to his followers. It is a relationship of oneness of mission and shared vison. Put simply it is to do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21). For three years He lived this out in a sensitive and compassionate ministry, which was not always understood or welcomed. But wherever He went He was the centre of everyone’s attention. He was the one everyone wanted to see, hear and be in the presence of. He calls on those who are travelling with Him, seeing what He does and listening to His message, to step-up. Now He invites us, His followers in this moment of time, writing our own chapter of history, to do the same. We can shy away from His vocabulary: commandment (John 14:15) causes unease as it sounds demanding, legalistic and authoritarian. Jesus’ understanding is that it is the foundation stone on which everything else will be built. In this way the new commandment (John 13:34) is a welcome guest in any life. From it can come anything, the possibilities are endless!
Our Jewish brethren use the word Mitzvah to describe a deed, usually charitable, compassionate, and always expressive of love, which is performed out of religious duty. Jesus reminds us that our religious duty, desirable not burdensome, is to reach out to others in love. He asks us to do this not because we have to, but because we want to display, tangibly, to others the relationship we enjoy with Him.
On Thursday we will celebrate the beautiful Feast of the Ascension, marking the return of the Risen Christ to His, and our, Father in heaven. It also acknowledges that forty days have passed since Easter, observed by so many of you this year in Spiritual Communion rather than in person. As a Holyday of Obligation, I shall celebrate Holy Mass in both of our churches on Thursday. In that wonderful gift of Spiritual Communion you will all be with me. The Paschal Candles (both appropriate to this year!) will be lit, burning as a symbol of our faith. Without our doors opening their flames are strong, defined and vibrant. As I gaze at unpopulated pews, the size, radiance and strength of the flame almost allows me to believe that wherever the members of our communities are the gift of this symbolic light can be seen by them. In the darkness, mist and shadow of uncertainty the brilliance of that light is so necessary. Conversely, at a time when we can all gather together again, the candle flame is more likely to flicker, splutter and waver, reflecting much more than the reality of drafts coming from the opening of some doors and the closing of others. Its involuntary movement reflects our individual pilgrimage at times beset with problems, worries and anxieties. The very things that impact on the strength of our faith. The flame of the Paschal Candle is the great reminder that it is into those same situations that we’re called to take the gift of our faith allowing something far greater than ourselves to transform them and give them new worth and value.
Outside of the Easter Season our Paschal Candles reside out of view, making appearances, appropriately, at two liturgical celebrations, baptisms and funerals. At the former the question of the congregation is: “What will this child turn out to be?” (Luke 1:66). At the latter we turn to God in prayer, asking that He finds the content of a pilgrim’s life journey an acceptable gift. It would be good to acknowledge that in and amongst the work of your servants’ hands during their life were many Mitzvahs bearing the hallmark of Christ: love of neighbour.
Let us continue to be united as a community of faith in both prayer and affection,
PS. The Magpie, clearly exhausted by his earlier foraging didn’t return until lunchtime for his pastry feast. I’m sure he threw me a nonplussed glance as he viewed the reduced portions on offer!