Once more it is good to be able to greet you with a few words along with the Newsletter for the coming week. In doing so I trust that life is unfolding kindly around and before you in these latter days of Advent. It is a great Season and one that wherever we may be physically we journeying through together spiritually in a unity of prayer and affection.
Last Sunday I made a timely trip down memory lane. As ever I was a man on a mission. The purpose of my journeying was to deliver a Christmas gift to my younger Godchild and his brother. As all clergy do, I arrived at the most inconvenient of times, just as the family were about to sit down for their evening meal. Even from the driveway it smelt delicious, and I knew that in normal circumstances an extra chair would have been drawn to the table, and I would have been invited to share their roast. However, for the time being at least, things are different, and even though a chair had been placed in the porch and a tempting coffee was offered by way of luring me out of the dark, wet and cold to sit socially distanced from the family, I declined. Not only was it the right thing to do, but also with children, example is an incredibly important textbook from which they can learn. So I stood outside, beneath an umbrella in the pouring rain, bringing a little Christmas cheer and delighting in all that truly mattered: seeing the faces of loved ones, in that instant a couple I had been privileged to marry, and two children I had the pleasure of baptising. A fabulous and thrilling moment.
So where was I, and why the reference to memory lane, I can hear you ask. I was in north Leeds, in an area still as fresh and familiar to me as the streets and roads of Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton are currently. This was the soil of my first appointment as a priest. Ordained on the fourth Sunday of Advent twenty-seven years ago, I did not take up an appointment straight away, as it would have meant moving at least one other priest within the diocese to accommodate me at the busiest time of the year, so I remained in Garforth, where I had served as a deacon, until the end of January. Hence it was in February 1994 that I took up my role as curate at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Moortown, Leeds, from where I also served as Chaplain to Cardinal Heenan High School. Having served as a priest in the Catholic landscape of Kirklees for a quarter of a century next year, the fact that I have ministered elsewhere may actually come as a surprise to some ! My time in Leeds was brief, just two and a half years. It was an excellent grounding, working alongside one of the then Vicar-Generals, Monsignor Kieran Heskin – a very fine priest, scholar, and man, who provided me with an equally excellent example, wise counsel and a happy and homely presbytery-life. Unusually no second curacy followed instead I was appointed full-time Chaplain to Huddersfield University, bringing me to Kirklees, where I have stayed ever since.
Our parish in Leeds 17 boasted a number of synagogues, which when the difference was explained to me was done so in terms of strictness of observance, rather like the Methodists in days of old. Their Feasts and festivals were noticeably observable due not only to the movement of people, all smartly attired and often in family units, but practically too as businesses closed, and also in symbol. It was the latter that struck me so powerfully last weekend as I travelled along the lengthy and almost biblically straight roadway of the rather affluent Alwoodley and Wigton lanes. Many houses were illuminated bringing welcome light to a drab and dank evening. Noticeable amongst the illuminations was the presence of the Menorah (the symbolic candelabrum) both in the windows of houses and also in gardens. Undertaking my journey at the beginning of celebration of Hanukkah, the eight day Jewish wintertime festival of lights, I could not help but reflect on our own lighting of candles at this time of the year. Like our tradition in respect of the Advent lights, the oil, or candles, on the Menorah, are lit one by one, but over successive days rather than weeks.
Hanukkah celebrates the defeat of the occupying Greek forces by Judas Maccabees, and the reclamation of the great Temple in Jerusalem for the worship of Almighty God by his chosen people. Seeking to acknowledge the sacred nature of the Temple as the dwelling place of the Most High the first task of those who entered it was to light the Menorah. The symbolism and importance of which is akin to our Sanctuary Lamp. On their entry into the Temple they discovered just a single vessel containing olive oil that had not been sullied by secular use at the hands of the Greeks. Sadly such a limited supply was only enough to offer a single day’s light, not long enough for more oil to be prepared and ritually purified, allowing it to be suitable for use in the Temple. Day by day the Temple Attendants noticed that the oil was burning much more slowly than normal. In fact, the one day’s supply of oil lasted for the full eight days. Deemed miraculous, the festival of Hanukkah was instituted in the Jewish calendar.
The central symbol of Hanukkah is the Menorah candle stand, often capable of holding nine flames, the central light of which, called the Shamash (or Attendant), is a continuous flame used to kindle the other eight lights, which are lit amid seasonal prayers, blessings and songs. Unlike our Advent candles, which are mainly church-based, the Menorah is a feature of individual households, to be displayed in a doorway or window, visible for all to see, whilst they are also lit in synagogues and in public places. Unsurprisingly for a Jewish Feast, the festival is accompanied by table-fellowship, where it is customary to eat food fried in oil (a further reminder of origins of the Feast), play games including, for younger children, one involving a four-sided spinning top on which Hebrew lettering forms an acronym for “a Great Miracle Happened There,” and the giving of monetary (“Gelt”) gifts to children, based on their behaviour and spiritual learning, allowing them to donate what they have received to a good cause, culturing the virtue of charitable giving.
The placing of the Menorah, with its increasing array of light, culminating in eight lamps offering substantial illumination, in a place where it can be seen on a regular basis, and is never far from view, is done so with purpose and intent. Purposefully it reminds those looking on it of miraculous events long ago. Its intention is to encourage those who celebrate the Feast to live enlightened lives. Primarily to stand up for what is right, lead a good life in the public domain which is faith-based, and to constantly recall that a little light goes a long way, acknowledging that even the smallest of flames defeats the darkness that existed before its arrival.
Whether symbolised by the ostentatious outdoor Menorah with their vivid colours that I passed as I drove along the roads of north Leeds, or the simple, much used, and accident scarred Menorah that will have been lit in houses and homes across the world in recent days the message remains the same: light always overpowers darkness. Hanukkah is a Feast of eight days, rather like our own festivals of Christmas and Easter, which are celebrated over an Octave period. One of the reasons for which is to give us a longer opportunity to reflect on their significance and importance, the eternal concepts of which are far beyond our comprehension.
The lighting of the fourth Advent candle in our churches this weekend will remind me of my own Ordination day, celebrated in liturgical purple, and a Gospel reading depicting Our Lady striking the match of redemptive hope in the generous response she made to the invitation she received from Almighty God, through the ministrations of Gabriel, to become the Mother of the Word made flesh, the Light of the world. Despite the roughness of the road that Our Blessed Lady often journeyed along, both before and after Christ’s birth, her openness and willingness to embrace and live God’s will for her, gave the world an unquenchable Light that continues to overcome all things not least our anxieties, apprehensions and fears at this particular time in our human history. As I light that fourth candle this weekend my silent prayer will be that we shall truly live as a people of light. It is often said that the darkest hour of the night is that which precedes dawn. Whilst many may feel that we are journeying through that hour currently, let us not forget that the pathway we travel is illuminated with our Advent lights – hope, joy, gentleness and prayer – to reassure and sustain us until the Light that we are awaiting comes to birth in our hearts afresh and renewed in the celebration of Christmas.
In signing off this weekend I ask that you all continue to keep yourselves safe and well, thinking of others too, by observing the guidance being offered to us in the interest of our nation’s health and well-being, alongside that of ensuring our NHS can deal with all that is arriving at its doors day by day.
Be assured of my continuing remembrance of you and your loved ones in both prayer and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas