29th January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to be able to greet you once more alongside delivering the weekly Newsletter to you. In doing so I trust that you are keeping well and safe in these days of Lockdown. It continues to be good news to hear of the growing number of parishioners who are receiving the vaccine provided to protect us from the ravages of Covid-19. With the light of that news may we continue to remain up-beat that it will be available for many more of us before too long, bringing the green shoots of refreshing normality to our lives. Until then we continue to respond to the invitation to behave appropriately to our circumstances.   

There is something rudimentary within our human condition that desires, craves, and if given vocal capacity would cry out from the very core of our being to be a part, unite ourselves with, and belong to the life journey of others. Perhaps the greatest deprivation and enforced divorce that the majority of us have felt over the last ten months has been our inability to share our lives with those of others as freely and randomly as we were once able and the absence of their physical presence as a part of our day to day life-experience. The longing to reconnect, be with and in reality re-engage with those who are so much a part of who we ourselves are as individuals and collectives is a motivating and driving force in the sheer determination of so many to get through these lonely and isolating times. 

Whilst the vast majority of us do actually belong to others, have a place in hearts and lives not our own, and are an intrinsic part of something greater than ourselves, there has and continues to be a minority who through choice or circumstance appear to belong to no one and live a solitary existence and die lonely deaths. In November I wrote of one such individual around whose open grave just the Funeral Director and myself stood in the bleakest of both emotional and climatic conditions. Hard to believe, but the anniversary of that experience – by far not my only one, not even within the year of 2020 – rapidly approaches. At the time I could thank the Funeral Director and her team with a handshake and a conversation not held with two metres distance between us nor with mouths shielded by facial coverings.  

From the moment of our arrival in time, place and a period of history we belong. Whether that concept is lived out in a family setting, community of education, faith, work or relaxation, it rarely leaves us. We are simply a part of the lives of others and socially of something greater than ourselves. It is an amazing gift, so good that we culture it and allow it to grow, even formalising our various forms and shapes of belonging through symbolic and significant gestures and words that include marriage and vocational living. All of our Sacraments contain a community dimension from the first we receive, Baptism, to, possibly the final, the Sacrament of the Sick. For some their sense of belonging will be more defined than for others. Educated alongside students from Northern Ireland in the 1980s I quickly learnt that the hospital in which a birth took place, a name given, a street lived on, the bank in which savings were deposited, even employers, can give definition and shape to the strata of society, culture and tradition to which some belong, through absolutely no choice of their own. At other times we opt into groups and communities, belonging to them through conscious choices, because of particular interests, peer-pressure, and other variants which influence the direction our life journey takes, sometimes fleetingly, decided on by a whim or passing phase, and others that are embarked upon for the long-term, following decisions arrived at after much thought and deliberation. 

One of my own choices about belonging and being a part of something greater than myself came about some thirty-three years ago. Shortly before Christmas, I found myself in Eason’s, a large stationary shop on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Thumbing through a selection of festive cassettes I came across one entitled “Mario Lanza Christmas Hymns and Carols.” It was a moment of sheer nostalgia, as this, in record form, was played each Christmas morning on our radiogram as Santa’s exciting delivery was unwrapped after my parents and I had arrived home from an early Mass.  

In and amongst the accompanying notes within the cassette case mention was made of the British Mario Lanza Society, an organisation culturing an interest in the man and his voice. With reason and motivation now long forgotten I sent off the required subscription and became a member, something that I have maintained to this day. During the last three decades I have never been to an annual meeting, gathering or organised event, but every few months I receive a magazine containing articles, memories, stories and news of other members. Its arrival is always welcome and has faithfully followed me around the various addresses that I have had in the many years since joining the Society. With each delivery I quietly admire the hard work that goes into its compilation, as well as the efforts made by the Society to support, encourage and promote young, contemporary classical singers. Although never having met or even knowingly spoken to any member of the Society, I felt a real sense of pride and delight when watching a TV programme entitled “Gary Lineker: My Grandad’s War” about eighteen months ago, which featured an Honorary President of the Society, Bill Earl, then aged an amazing 104 years young, and who had flown out to Italy to be interviewed by the football pundit about his experiences as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, serving with units that were crudely nicknamed at the time “D-Day Dodgers.” Not only did Bill’s dexterity of mind and clarity of memory captivate Gary Lineker’s thirst for information about his Grandfather’s experience of war, but a clear and palpable bond of affection was evident between the two men as well. The annual subscriptions paid across the decades brought me, in that moment, so much more than a quarterly magazine. Instead I was gifted with a real sense of belonging and pride of being a part of something greater than myself. Seeing the centenarian, Bill, was like connecting with a long-lost extended family member.  

This week the island nations to which we belong recorded a tragic landmark: 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, attempted to sum up the news in a spiritual context, when he described it as: “A day of great sadness all over the land. So many people, families, communities, remembering those who have died in these terrible months of the pandemic. Each one is mourned. Each one is to be prayed for. This is our instinct, our faith, our practice. Our prayer is rooted in the faith that, in death, life is changed, not ended, for the promise of eternal life opens the door of hope even in our darkest moment. I pray for each and everyone, those who have died, those who mourn, those who serve. Please, please, join me in prayer.” 

The figure of 100,000 is hard for me to comprehend. It is a vast number. My own attempt to grasp its magnitude is related to my Priestly ministrations. In twenty-seven years of celebrating Mass on a daily basis, I have offered no less than 14,295 Masses. This figure is derived from the celebration of at least one Mass each and every day for twenty-seven years. It is nowhere near the 100,000 mark. Another measurement is the length of time it would take to watch the “BBC news Coronavirus: Your tributes to those who have died,” which, despite its detail, does not include everyone who has lost their lives to this dreadful virus. However viewing this tableau of photographs and brief tributes, growing daily as additions are made, would currently take about 250 hours of time. This is more than ten days of uninterrupted viewing. Staggering !  

The figure of 100,000 is something which belongs to us, and we belong to it and indeed to the rising number that takes it higher with each passing day. The landmark number of 100,000 deserves to be recognized, acknowledged and appropriately brought to our attention. Belonging allows us to take and come to expect but is also about giving and contributing. This weekend I invite you to give both prayerful remembrance and thought to those who have lost their lives during this dreadful pandemic. This increasing number includes members of our faith family who gather day by day in our churches at Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike.  

A time of prayerful reflection also affords us the opportunity not just to speak words in conversation with God, but to carefully acknowledge their meaning. The prayer that Christ gave to His first followers and is said in virtually, if not all, of our collective Acts of Worship is known simply as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. One of the invocations that we make in its praying is “lead us not into temptation.” Each day and time brings its own temptations knocking on the door of our life. Here are a few from the time we are living through together: The Temptation … not to give others their space; to think that little things do not matter; to disregard the common good for individual satisfaction, disguised as need or want or a right; to take good health for granted; to be careless and expect others to pick up the pieces; to put off speaking words of love, kindness, reassurance, hope and joy to those who share our lives; seeking the loop-hole which salves an informed conscience of poor decision-making; for believing that unseen, careless, and defiant actions and attitudes do not cause hurt, pain or damage. 

The 100,000 lives lost includes names known to us, faces that we have been familiar with, voices that we have recognized. These remind us that such a huge and vast number are indeed a part of the community to which we belong. Known or unknown, our ability to name or not, each life is just that, a life, and one that at some point belonged to and was shared with others. Let us recommit ourselves to a form of behaviour that offers the witness of our Christian belief and heritage to others based on the greatest commandments spoken of by Christ Himself: to love God, and our neighbour as we love ourselves. The national call to protect ourselves and others by the distance we keep between one another, the use of appropriate facial coverings, and the frequent use of water or santisers to cleanse our hands is a gentle reminder to each of us that we belong and are a part of something greater than ourselves. Let us all play our part in this because this is what we are – family, community, society, a nation. Each is a significant other in the lives that we are a part of. And as such precious and cherished. 

In faithful remembrances in prayer and affection may we remain united. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

22nd January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

It is once more good to be able to greet you as a weekend dawns, doing so with a copy of the Newsletter and Readings for Holy Mass. I sincerely hope that you remain well and positive in these trying and testing, not to mention sometimes wearying and confusing times. There is strength in just knowing that we are making this journey together and I take great delight in hearing of the increasing numbers within our community of Faith who are receiving the vaccine arming them with a light of hope for a better, brighter and healthier future.  

In the sacristy at Cleckheaton there is an interesting artistic depiction of Christ. It is a pastel portrait of a broadly smiling Jesus. Whilst perhaps not to everyone’s taste (based on a few comments that I’ve heard from visiting clergy over the years!) it is one of those images that nearly always triggers a reaction from the first-time observer. Usually of the Marmite or cruising type: it is either beloved or disliked on initial encounter! Such division regarding the portrayal of Jesus dates from the very early days of the formalised Church. When the wonderful library that we know better as the Bible was being compiled from a much larger body of Sacred Scripture, the Gospel of Mark was almost left off the shelf. Many of those examining the writings of the evangelist found the image of Jesus contained in it to be heavily weighted on the fleshly, human side of the Word rather than the divine nature of the Son of God. Mark’s description of Jesus looking angrily around, being capable of offering a rebuke, and raising his voice, caused many putting shape and format within the covers of the now familiar Bible to feel uncomfortable and were concerned of the impact that such a portrayal would have on those that they were encouraging to live more godly lives. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit gifted those of that generation to generously include Mark’s account of the Good News about Jesus Christ, with its numerous references to his human attributes, into the Canon of Sacred Scripture. The three synoptic writers, each with their own artistic slant and talent, offer a differing image of the same person in their writings. For St. Matthew, Jesus is very much the fulfilment of the promises conveyed by the First Testament, of a Messiah sent by God. The Jesus of St. Luke’s gospel is one who uses the table as a place of teaching and learning, and with tongue in cheek could be thought of in the mind’s eye in terms of being slightly on the portly side physically bearing in mind all the meals he is invited to! 

The honest, realistic, human, and rather spartan portrayal by St. Mark gives all of us hope. We can relate to a Jesus who gets frustrated, raises his voice, and finds it difficult to cope with the short comings of his fellow pilgrims on life’s journey. Sometimes the call to be more godly and divine eludes the grasp of many of us. The reality of the humanity of St. Mark’s Jesus reassures us that whilst we may not always find a smooth and straight pathway on which to journey, neither did the Word made flesh who dwelt amongst us. Our shared nature with the Word as conveyed by the historically first of the evangelists has an appeal to all of us who stumble and lose our balance on the pilgrimage of life. We can relate to Jesus’ shortness of patience with the evil spirit that mocks Him (Mark 1:24ff), his disappointment when he is misunderstood by his family (Mark 3:20ff) and those amongst whom he has grown up (Mark 6:5ff), the pain when even Peter, the Rock, doesn’t accept his vision of a future involving suffering leading to glory (Mark 8:31), and frustration when those who wanted to be a part of the unfolding story of Good News were held back by his followers (Mark 10:13ff). Conversely most can also unite with the desire of the Marcan Jesus to find a calm environment in which to pray (Mark 1:35ff), the delight when He encountered people of great faith (Mark 1:40ff, 2:5ff, 5:21ff), as a people-watcher equipping Him with the ability to learn and teach from the simplest of observations or actions (Mark 12:41ff), a gesture that allows a new beginning to be had and old ways left behind (Mark 2:13ff), and a heart moved with compassion for the lost, lonely, confused and hungry (Mark 6: 34ff).  

An ability to relate to others is a primal element of our common bond as human beings. Our spiritual lives also call on us to be able to engage with Almighty God in a relational manner. The gift of His Son in human form reveals the extreme manner in which the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit and the utter open willingness of Jesus, desires to relate to us. Behind the authorship of our now long established and revered four books of Good News, with their differing insights into this divine Gift, is an invitation, which, if accepted, can enable us to further cultivate our relationship with God. In this is an opportunity to re-engage with something at the heart and core of our spiritual nature. 

Within all of us lies a hope perhaps even wrapped in a sense of apprehension too, that when, at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, a voice calls out to us to take our place in God’s Kingdom we will recognize it as coming from a friend rather than a stranger. If it is the latter we will do our best to run from it, hide ourselves away or attempt to ignore it. However, if we hear the voice of a friend calling, there will be a familiarity, a recognition, and generous openness to respond to it. Spiritually we are called upon to get to know the voice of God. This is done best through spending time together, we call it reflection, sharing in conversation, known as prayer, and listening, as relationships by definition involve more than just ourselves as a single entity ! As God’s people we are encouraged to get to know Him better. In our encounter with the One like us, in all things but sin, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within Jesus of Nazareth we come to hear the voice of the Father, see His face and gain a small insight into the vastness of His mindfulness towards us.  

A few weeks ago, Fr. Brian D’Arcy, pausing for thought, reflected on how good we are at shaping the Jesus of the Gospels for ourselves. He said:                 

The Italians are convinced that Jesus had to be Italian because He talked with His hands, made sure everyone got the best wine and he was constantly having meals with anyone, anywhere and at any time. But as with anything new the Californians have a strong claim that Jesus was from their part of the world. He looked like a Hippy, with long hair; He wore sandals all the time and he founded a new religion. Not to be outdone the Irish are convinced Jesus was from Ireland because He remained a bachelor all his life, lived with his mother until he was thirty, and He  was sure his mother was a saint, and she was sure He was God !  

 But the most compelling claim of all comes from people who are convinced Jesus was a good mother because He was called upon to feed a multitude at a moment’s notice, even though there was no food available. He kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who hadn’t a clue, and even when He was dead he had to rise again because there was still more work to be done

His words made me smile and when I next saw the picture of the smiling Christ whilst vesting for Mass I could not help but think that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit must also have been having a good chuckle amongst themselves, admiring amid the hilarity of the moment our audacious ability, as human beings, to attempt to create Them in our image and likeness, when in fact the reverse is true. 

Whatever our perception of Almighty God, may it never be so limited or narrow that it becomes too small to be a dwelling place for the divine Image and Likeness in which we have been shaped and crafted so lovingly, carefully and uniquely. The world needs to see the face of God. It will only do so in our replication of it.  

May we continue to remain faithful to each other in prayer and affection, united in bringing something of God’s nature into the lives of those we share our lives with. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

15th January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

As with each passing week it is a pleasure to be able to send the Newsletter to you, together with the Readings for the celebration of Holy Mass this weekend. Once again last weekend gremlins got into the e-mail system, and I have been made aware that some parishioners received a mid-week delivery, rather than a weekend one. Hopefully, whenever this email arrives it will find you and your loved ones well, safe, and relatively sane ! Each day I pray that we will all remain in this state, but as the weeks pass I am more and more aware that parishioners, friends and others known to me have caught Covid-19 and are battling for better health and a return to their normal surrounds, as a good number are ending up in the care of the NHS. Please remember these in your prayers and thoughts, together with their anxious families and loved ones.    

As a schoolboy of primary age a little job that I was entrusted with every Thursday and Friday during the holidays was to collect my great-aunt’s pension, purchase a part of her weekly ration of cigarettes, pay for and return with her weekly magazines which comprised a copy of the TV Times, People’s Friend and The Wharfedale and Airedale Observer, our local newspaper. The collection of the reading matter took place on a Friday, with each of the items clearly marked with the mysterious annotation of “N6” on their covers. A letter and number that I had to mention each Thursday when handing over a portion of my aunt’s pension money in payment. For a child with imagination, it was all very exciting stuff. 

In my absence at the sub-post office-cum-newsagents a coffee (always made with milk) would have been prepared for both of us to enjoy on my return, often accompanied by a ginger biscuit for me. Once settled in her chair and with a cigarette lit my aunt would disappear behind the broadsheet, emerging only to relieve her cigarette of its excess ash, and to take a quick sip of coffee. A period of near silence ensued whilst the events of our then relatively small town were digested, mulled over and occasionally tutted at. At home, after work, my mother would lay the same edition of the newspaper on the kitchen table, scanning its columns in preparation for a further read at various times of relaxation during the coming week. Dad picked up the newspaper not for its local news, but for the contents of the sports pages on a Saturday evening, usually as my mother and myself were putting our shoes on, smartly dressed and ready for our departure to the Vigil Mass. It was something of a stand-off each weekend between two people who judged travelling times in terms of covering a distance on foot, and the car driver of the household whose measurement of time and distance were most definitely his own ! A further feature of the local press was the need to wash your hands after reading it, as the ink was very transmissible; fingers became discoloured, and so did our kitchen table, thank goodness it was Formica and fully wipeable. As a Friday publication, a good ploy for sales in a market town, there was one week in the year when it appeared a day early: Holy Week, as everything round about stopped in its tracks to acknowledge the sacred nature of Good Friday.    

Perhaps because the local newspaper was so much a part of the fabric of my formative years it subsequently took on a personal significance when my own route through life separated me from my home town. Away from Otley it remained a constant through its personal delivery by my parents on their fortnightly visits to the junior seminary, when in Ireland back-copies were carefully put to one side awaiting my return for half-term and longer holidays, and in the year of my Ordination it was posted to me in the rather grand surrounds of Hawkstone Hall in Shropshire by a cousin of my Mum who also included a weekly letter secreted in its pages.                 

My affection for, and respect of, the local press still takes me on a weekly pilgrimage to purchase the Spenborough Guardian. Whilst not a born native of the area, I have an interest in what is taking place in and around the location that I find myself ministering and living in, and enjoy my weekly printed catch-up on events. All of us, for a span of time, belong to or are a part of a community or society that claims us as one of its own. With that in mind I find it worthwhile to try and keep abreast of events taking place locally. There are varying debates about the relevance of local newspapers, but I am very much an advocate for their presence despite a decreasing number and variety of items pertaining to a locality to be found within their pages. Wearing the hat of a researcher the time spent looking at local newspapers, both in this country and abroad, in the name of various projects that I have undertaken across the years would run into months if I were to attempt to quantify it. One of the surprising elements of delving into the local newspapers of previous times is the breadth of their content, there was literally something for everyone in and amongst their printed pages, and for the amateur historian they provide a tremendously rich, and often untapped, record of the social history of an area, an insight into a particular people’s public and private (until it got an airing in the press !) moral compass, and the lives of generations as viewed and written by their peers. It can easily be forgotten that the local newspaper was also a form of broad entertainment. Serialised stories would be read aloud by adults, whilst children very often were captivated by their own dedicated columns and corners. There were household, gardening and allotment tips, notes on fashions and clothing patterns, mention of stocks, shares and business activities, world events, court appearances, school inspections, localised medical reports, accounts of proceedings at council meetings, happenings taking place amongst local societies and clubs, sporting interests and a wide range of events unfolding in and around a particular locality. Many local newspapers were devoid of a feature that for most today can either attract or repel a readership – headline stories. Instead many front-pages contained a potpourri of businesses, entrepreneurs and a wide spectrum of others clammering for the attention of readers.  

Taking a look at a local paper from 1914 the front page contained notices pertaining to well-known businesses alongside building societies, the offer of loans by post, the lure of seaside hotels, hydros and holiday resorts, stocks and shares, cycles, motors and motoring, education, patent agents, Japanese fancy goods, cures for rheumatism, gout and lumbago, a Yorkshire corn cure, Antarctic souvenirs and professional services, which included dentistry, together with a large number of miscellaneous notifications. Amongst the latter was one which announced: “Old False Teeth bought,” offering payment of a shilling for each tooth on metal, one shilling and sixpence for any on vulcanite, three shillings for those on silver and an impressive six shillings for each tooth on gold, and ten shillings for those on platinum. However, before anyone disappears to take a rummage through their cupboards in search of a set of antique dentures, I doubt if the same good rates of payment would apply today !                       

Clearly the people of the Heavy Woollen district enjoyed their local press as the area boasted numerous newspapers all of which presumably must have retained a loyal readership given the fact that some co-existed for decades. Reporters were deployed to public gatherings, meetings, inquests, funerals, marriages, and vied to get an exclusive with witnesses, family members or those speaking with authority. Homework and background research was done, early mornings and late nights were had, and there was a proactive vigilance in order to make a scoop. At church doors the names of mourners were recorded, and lists of wedding presents together with details of their providers would be given by newly married notables for inclusion in an article about their special day. The belief that a name reported, for the right reason, in the press would ensure and maintain sales was an unspoken understanding amongst those who, turning out in all weathers and at all times, worked in the media at grassroots level. 

At a time when we are encouraged to separate genuine news from its fake counterpart, there may be a tendency to dismiss a traditional reporting in favour of its instant relative. However, newspapers of past times kept up to speed by capitalising on local knowledge. In Leeds and Bradford a century ago late afternoon editions of papers were produced primarily for sales to the myriad of homeward-bound shop workers, shoppers and those who had attended sporting events. These frequently contained reports of events that had not taken place at the time of the first printed edition. In May 1910 my own great-great grandfather, a well-known figure in the printing press industry, died suddenly around lunchtime at home in Otley. Notification of this event was in both the Bradford and Leeds newspapers later that day, thanks to the telegraphic communications of the period. 

It is said by some that headlines can make or break a newspaper, and good news makes little difference to sales and revenues. From experience I find the internal pages of a newspaper far more interesting than the front page. It is there that I read of events and people that are real, and for whose stories I have a natural inclination born out of both concern and interest. Amongst items reported I find those which shock, inspire, sadden and uplift, alongside the trite and almost sickeningly repetitive. 

As God’s people we are defined by news. We know it by a more formalized title, Gospel, but when St. Mark began his writing he spoke of the “beginning of the good news about Jesus.” Together with St. Matthew and St. Luke, his fellow roving reporters, St. Mark was a fabulous hunter-gatherer of stories, with an ear for first, second or even third hand accounts of those who had seen or heard Jesus speak, gaining a reputation for ‘exclusives’ with those whose life journey was forever changed by an encounter with Christ. The emphasis throughout their writings was on the good in the news they were compiling and leaving as a perpetual legacy written documentation for those who would follow them. Their writings tell of others who were evangelists – conveyors of God’s message to others – either by accident, such as members of the crowd of five thousand who were fed on five loaves and two fish, or others who called out directly to Jesus and received healing at His hands or by His word such as the woman who had suffered from a haemorrhage for a dozen years. Imagine the exclusive scoop of the reporter being the first to talk with Lazarus of Bethany ! Others too were specifically called upon to go and share good news with others, such as the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter Day and who were asked to return to the meeting place of the Apostles to share with them news of the resurrection. What an incredible piece of news to carry, and to be able to convey to others.  

When writing about the impact that this good news made on the lives of individuals and communities St. Luke travelled widely, interviewed broadly and had an ever open ear for stories of conversions, persecutions, miracles, and even managed to become a part of St. Paul’s entourage, journeying with him on several of his missionary adventures. It is thanks to St. Luke that the names of early Christians together with some insights into their lives, has been handed down to us. In the weeks following Easter, listening to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke’s second writing of good news, we hear extracts from the local news columns of Sacred Scripture; the stories of our ancestors in the Faith, the real life events of a people of unfolding Good News.  

Perhaps during this coming week despite the pervading negativity of many newspaper headlines a truer reflection of who we are, a collective eager to share their own good news – Gospel people – could be offered to those around us. It may not hit the headlines, or even be worthy of a mention in our local press, but whatever good news you receive it will most certainly make a difference to your day, and if shared bring much needed joy to others too. 

Be assured of my continuing remembrance of you and your loved ones in both prayer and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas

8th January 2021

Dear Parishioners, 

Once more it is good to be able to send you the Newsletter and also the Readings for Holy Mass this weekend. Hopefully this short word of greeting finds you well and safe. For some the weekend delivery arrived late despite being dispatched last Friday rather than the normal Saturday morning. If you do find yourself without the Newsletter (which is far more important than the ramblings that sometimes accompany it) do please look on either of our websites, as a copy of the Newsletter will always be accessible there. The addresses for these are given on the front of the Newsletter and worth keeping a note of.    

It has long been said that good things come to those who wait, and this week I was gifted with a sense of delight listening to several news reports stating that it is fine to leave some, if not all, Christmas decorations on display until February 2nd – the Feast of the Presentation of the child Jesus, or Candlemas, as it is often referred to. This is something that I have tried to encourage for a long number of years, often to the slight amusement of congregations, but also offering a little food for deeper thought. My reasoning comes from the fact that there is more often than not, if not always, at least one random decoration that manages to elude the tree removal exercise and general tidying up that accompanies the taking down of our Christmas trimmings. After the tree is disposed of, the tinsel boxed up together with other festive items, and the loft hatch finally closed for another year, a single decoration emerges from its hiding place, coming into view as the weekly dusting and cleaning takes place ! No one can ever remember who put it in its location or how it came to be there. It just is, and left in place offers a reminder of the true gift of Christmas that takes a lifetime rather than just twelve days to reflect on – the child of Bethlehem.

The articles of news about the taking down of decorations highlighted the fact that the Victorians were the orchestrators of the removal of decorations around the Feast of the Epiphany. Prior to which, especially amongst Recusants (those who remained true to the Catholic Faith in the post-Reformation period) at least a small token of the Christmas festivities remained on display until February. I advocate leaving the Crib scene on display until Candlemas, and with many of our families still not back at regular celebrations of Mass, the home – or at least a part of it – is being reclaimed as a holy space in which either individual prayer is being offered or where Holy Mass is being viewed on-line or participated in through Spiritual Communion. 

My own faux pas in the taking down of the Christmas decorations this year became apparent as I drove away from our home in Otley on Sunday. A quick glance in the rear mirror, and there it was still hanging regally in the side window of the living room: the Star ! Its size alone, about a foot across (30.48 centimetres for those who’ve graduated from Imperial measurements !), put me to shame, added to which I had actually had a conversation about it when some neighbours called to enquire about my Dad’s health. They had described it very meaningfully as the “star of hope” for all who turn into our cul-de-sac. Perhaps it was that faith-filled description that prevented me stopping the car and returning to take it down. So it remains; a symbol of guidance for the Magi, today a sign of hope for better times to come our way both personally and collectively. The Crib also remains in place, now enhanced by the presence of the visitors from afar, in their colourful clothing.  

For the keen-eyed at Christmas, Nature herself provided us with what was described with implicit religious understanding as the “Star of Wonder” by the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630). His theory continues to influence scientific thought that this alignment of planets may well have provided the great light that guided the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem. On 21st December Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in the Solar System, and some of the brightest objects visible in the night sky, were as close together as they have been in eight hundred years, and their next conjunction, although in no way as close, will not been seen until 2080. Images of the “Star of Wonder” adorn many Christmas greetings cards, and its symbolism reached a climax last Wednesday as we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, and our Cribs welcomed the gift-bearing representations of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Personally I delighted in the relatively recent decision of the Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales to reinstate the Feast on the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6th as it had been celebrated for so long. Its removal to the nearest Sunday I had felt somehow diminished its significance and importance. 

The gifts presented to the Christ-child by these rather exotic visitors were far from practical – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Instead they represent the very nature of the Word made flesh, as King, Priest and Prophet. These gifts also form an annual reminder to ourselves of our own Baptism, when after water is poured over our head, and a name is given, we are anointed with the sacred Oil of Chrism. At that moment, with the Chrism sanctified by the Bishop and Priests of the Diocese at the Mass of Chrism on Holy Thursday, these words are prayed by the celebrant: “He [God the Father] now anoints you with Chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of his body.” Our gift of sharing Christ’s Priestly nature is the invitation to participate in communal worship, to come together to share in the banquet of both Word and Eucharist, strengthening us and making us a people who truly witness to what we are a part of. The prophetic element of our share in Christ’s nature is to proclaim who we are, namely God’s people, by the witness of our lives. Just as poor pronunciation can lead the word prophetic to be confused with pathetic, so, a lack of enthusiasm to bear a tangible expression of who God is calling us to be will lead to a diluting of Gospel values and a near-quenching of the light of faith which seeks to bring illumination to the market place of everyday life. Our regal status, shared with Christ, is a constant reminder that God’s creative hands are incapable of crafting into being anyone or anything without worth, value or dignity. We are all precious in Their eyes, not just the face looking back at us from the bathroom mirror but also those that we do our best to ignore, turn a blind eye to or even pass by on the other side to avoid, often times supported by our own righteous and justifiable reasoning. 

Whilst in this country Epiphany is more widely understood as the day on which the trimmings of Christmas are swept away, in other cultures it is celebrated with as much significance as Christmas itself, with numerous countries marking it by a public holiday, whilst amongst families and friends gifts are exchanged. In Spain and Latin America the day is called “Dia de los Reyes” (Three Kings’ Day) the eve of which is marked by children leaving drinks and snacks for the Magi, and, in normal times, streets are packed as crowds observe extravagant parades and firework displays. In Russia, where following the Julian calendar the feast is celebrated on 19th January, many observing the Magi’s visit do so by swimming in icy water, seeing the day as an opportunity to renew and refresh themselves as on the day of their Baptism.  

However we mark the day, the intent and purpose of Epiphany remains the same: to reveal or make known. Through our Baptism we are called upon to make known and reveal the God in whose image and likeness we have been formed and shaped by the manner in which we live our lives. At the end of the story of the visit of the Magi gifted to us by St. Matthew we hear it said that they “returned to their own country by a different way.” Whilst fundamentally this will have been a geographical route, spiritually the pathways of their lives will have been different too, forever changed by what they found in the dwelling over which the star they had seen rising halted, as St. Matthew wrote: “they saw the child with his mother Mary.” The gift of Almighty God to the world. 

In the discovery of the rogue bauble or more obvious decoration as in my case may we not only recall a very different experience of Christmas to those of other years but beyond that may it remind us of the real gift – the abiding presence of Christ in our lives and world. Unsure of how to respond to such generosity on God’s behalf may we look to the obscure presents left by the Magi in Bethlehem – gold, frankincense and myrrh – for inspiration. Rather than packing these away for another twelve months to be brought out on high days and holy days, they call out to us to give them a home in our own lives each and every day. We do this best by rising to our own Baptism vocation to share Christ’s own on-going ministry as Priest, Prophet and King. To share in Word and Sacrament, to allow Gospel values to permeate attitude, word and deed, and to see the indelible impression of God in the work of Their hands who populate and share our life journey. With such a resolution for 2021, like the Magi, our journey of life will be truly guided by a star of both hope and wonder.    

Holding you in prayerful remembrance and affection. 

As ever, Fr. Nicholas                                                 

(On a personal note thank you for the on-going prayerful support being offered for Dad. After a rather worrying New Year’s Day, he is now improving slowing and remains in Leeds General Infirmary where he is receiving excellent care.)

1st January 2021

Dear Parishioners,

Along with another Newsletter and the Readings for Holy Mass this weekend comes my sincerest wish for us all that having crossed the threshold into the New Year of 2021 we may be able to live through it beneath better, brighter and healthier skies than the last twelve months. As a people of faith we are called upon to walk with a quiet confidence, acknowledging that we do not make this journey alone, as the words of Minnie Louise Haskins (1875 – 1957), made memorable by their use in the Christmas Broadcast of King George VI in 1939, remind us: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone east.” It is said that the words were drawn to the King’s attention by one of the two Elizabeths in his life, either his wife or daughter.

Many have taken the biblical image of shaking the dust of the old year from their feet quite literally, glad to be rid of 2020, with all its vulnerability, uncertainty, pain, sacrifice and the growing media negativity that seemed to accompany its latter weeks. For us all it has been a year that we shall never forget for a spectrum of reasons, and like each period of time that we live through, if we are open to it many lessons will have been learnt if we were open to being schooled. Perhaps the greatest lesson for most will have been that of appreciation. Appreciating what we have and also those many people and aspects of life which we have long taken for granted. There will be guilt too. For all the times in ‘normality’ when we were too busy, couldn’t be bothered or lured away from the ordinary and everyday experience by a more exciting and tempting offer.

When the pause button was pressed on the routine and regularity of lives parents suddenly realised something of the enormity of just what our schools provide for their children; the frail and vulnerable of whom the vulgar label of ‘bed-blockers’ had been applied by the media, were suddenly reclaimed as the treasured human beings that they are, rightly valued beyond price; criticism of NHS waiting lists was replaced by nationwide rapturous applause for their selfless endeavours on behalf of those holding high rank and the very ordinary individual, just like you and me; the almost invisible people who live next door evolved into good neighbours, willing and able to assist with the basics such as shopping and collecting medication; not to mention the hour of liberation and freedom when daily exercise not only made us fitter but allowed us to offer hearty greetings to the random stranger walking the same pathway – albeit often done from the opposite side of the road which we had crossed to avoid direct contact; the untold joy of writing the weekly shopping list, and for those of us able to shop, queuing outside the supermarket and journeying along a one-way system to fill our trolleys; discovering that it is still possible to speak to someone on the telephone, mobile or even a landline, allowing conversation to become a lifeline, acknowledging that content is somewhat immaterial, outweighed by the fact that just hearing a voice conveys kindness, understanding, and the simple fact that you are cared about; the random person who through work walks up our driveways with regularity, such as the Postie or Binperson, formerly without name or pedigree, whose arrival is now looked forward to, and who is hailed with familiarity and even seen as a valued friend, a contact with the outside world … to mention just a few aspects of life that have taken on new value in 2020.

The year has stretched us too with new skills being embraced, and the dawning of the reality that we really are never too old to learn something new, to do the familiar differently or even carry out that which is totally different. Practical gifts of a technological nature have replaced frivolous indulgences, and bus pass carriers have returned to the classroom through conversations had through an open window with beloved children or grandchildren fulfilling the role of IT gurus. Zoom became the new saviour and Facetime meant that you had to make yourself presentable before answering the phone. With our church doors closed we rediscovered the sanctity of the home as a place of worship, praying together as families and with friends over the phone. The tangible familiarity of our churches was replaced by a minds’ eye view of them and thanks to an App we discovered that participation in the celebration of Holy Mass could be done from a favourite armchair, connecting with nearby or far away communities of Faith.

We were gifted with time. For some wasted, never again to be reclaimed, for others the opportunity to tackle long put-off jobs, or even to offer it for the benefit of wider society through voluntary activities. Some of us were given a new name, Key-worker, which in reality meant that our working lives had to carry on as best they could living within the necessary restrictions that were common to all. Overnight, we learnt the skill of juggling, the realities of professional and personal lives being held in a fragile equilibrium. Our time was filled with a semblance of normality but not without risk or compromise, taken in stride.

A mixture of poignant and humourous moments have also coloured our departed year together with the inspired and inspiring. The name of centenarian Captain Sir Tom Moore springs to mind, together with eight-year-old local champion Zach Eagling from Liversedge who despite suffering from Cerebral Palsy set himself a goal of physical endurance for the benefit of a charitable cause. The serene confidence of our Monarch’s message that we would indeed all meet again, and more recently her unity of emotion in speech – as a wife, mother, and grandmother – with those deprived of a hug or a hand to hold, when she said on Christmas Day, you are not alone. Quirky too in the realisation that long before we entered defined relational bubbles some people were already living in a bubble of their own from which they haven’t yet emerged ! For the keen-eyed even my own car now has a 24/7 occupant who has her own story to tell: Barbara, the left-over Christmas Fayre monkey. Her occupancy began as a gesture of fun to cheer up a parishioner on a Sunday morning in April when the roads were deserted and Barbara was affixed to the outside of the car and observed immediately by the person I was attempting to bring cheer to the face of. She fulfilled her mission – a smile was observed through the window ! Months later she is a part of the fixtures and fittings, known (and asked about !) by parishioners, school children & Lee, the Postie, amongst others. There have been gifts given and donations made, all of which have passed through the channel of my hands as Random Acts of Kindness to others; flowers and chocolates given to surprised parishioners as they turned up for Mass, because persons unknown just wanted to cheer up fellow pilgrims on life’s journey.

Without doubt the majority of our lives will have been changed and altered by the old year of 2020. As we walk into a New Year may the small amount of baggage that we carry with us from last year contain only the best and finest, albeit in small amounts and quantities, not least a heightened appreciation and gratitude for those who populate our lives and for the gift of our own health.

Last Sunday, a little later than the traditional day for obvious reason, I placed the figure of the Christ-child in the crib at our home in Otley. The bright Christmas tree lights offered a colourful backdrop for my near liturgical action. Looking at the fragile, vulnerable and dependent infant in very different and unusual surroundings, an almost surreal environment and atmosphere, unimaginable the week before, I could have questioned or wondered, like so many, why Almighty God decided to send His Son in the wrapping paper of our human condition with all its seeming limitations. However, the mystery is less about our wonderment, than about God’s intense desire to look back at us through the eyes of a child who is able to feeleth for our sadness, and shareth in our gladness. Thanks to that awesome gift God is able to walk with us amid every twist and turn of life’s journey. We are never alone. He is with us, and continues to ensure that wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we are held in the palm of His hand. His most prized and cherished possession. Why ? Because put simply we are created in Their own image and likeness. At our best and finest we are capable of being a mirrored copy of Them.

In closing these few lines I do so with a further reflection from the pen of John O’Donohue, in response to a good number of very complimentary responses about A Christmas Blessing which I included last week.

At the End of the Year.

As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them

The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.

Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.

The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt

The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.

Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.

We bless this year for all we learned
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

May the bonds that have united us in one year continue into another, not least those of prayerful fidelity, faith-filled example, and underlying kindness and compassion. Be assured of my remembrance of you and our loved ones in the celebration of Holy Mass, and in my affection.

As always, Fr. Nicholas

(On a personal note I have been enormously touched by the large number of messages that I’ve received in relation to Dad; he too would be most appreciative of everyone’s kind wishes and when I am able to let him know I shall pass your thoughts on to him. He remains in Leeds General Infirmary and is receiving excellent care. I do speak to the staff each day and get a progress report, however, the phrase being used about his situation is that it is ‘early days yet.’ This leaves me inadequately able to answer questions about him, so all I ask for, on his behalf, is a continued remembrance in prayer for all the sick, those known to us or even the stranger, together with those into whose care we entrust their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.)