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.)