On Tuesday we celebrated the beautiful Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas as it is sometimes referred to, a name derived from the fact that traditionally candles for use in our churches throughout the coming year are blessed on this day, and having being hallowed the Liturgy also allows for a procession of the Faithful to take place carrying their candles. Not surprisingly this year there was no procession and no blessing of candles, at least in the public gaze. Whilst sat on the sanctuary during Mass a small object caught my eye on the carpet – a pine needle – a gentle reminder that the Season of Christmas was drawing to an end. Proving the point that despite a weekly run round with the vacuum cleaner there is always something that eludes the suction nozzle. I found it hard to suppress a smile, and thought it worthy of sharing the reason behind the smile with parishioners as Mass came to an end by mentioning the pine needle to them. At Otley on Monday I took the Star of Hope from the front window, its loss mentioned by a neighbour enquiring about Dad’s well-being, who went on to say that he and his wife had thought I’d forgotten to take it down when the Christmas tree and other obvious decorations disappeared from sight. It was an opportunity to say that Christmastide still had another twenty-four hours to run!
Christmas was a word that I heard spoken or saw written a lot more in November and December of 2020 than I had for a number of years. I recall just a few years ago speaking to a representative of a Local Authority on the telephone who kept referring to the forthcoming mid-winter holidays, a bland phrase being used alongside others at the time, so as not to offend those who do not celebrate Christmas. Rather weary of hearing the expression during our conversation, I did invite the individual to feel free to use the word Christmas into his handset, in part because the phrase was far from tripping lightly off his tongue. However, I was told that he could not utter the “C” word as his Line-Manager, on a neighbouring desk, may have overheard him. I did rather wonder what was happening to the world that I had once been familiar with !
In 2020 the word Christmas was back on, seemingly, everyone’s lips. Not altogether positively nor particularly out of a spiritual connection to the events in Bethlehem two millennia ago as most were lamenting the restrictions being placed on the number of guests able to gather around their festive tables. But it was certainly good to hear a descriptive word giving the true reason for our mid-winter holiday being spoken openly and with ease. “Imagine,” as I can still hear my Irish colleague say to his congregation, “if all you had to celebrate at Christmas was the birth of Christ !”
This week the Christian, or should that be Faith, tradition that has so shaped and formed our nation over the centuries was once more headline news. As at least two of our national newspapers carried on their front pages a plea for prayer. The intention of our pleading to Almighty God was for the well-being of the national legend and centenarian, Captain Sir Tom Moore who was battling Covid-19. I’m sure that the switchboard in heaven must have been jammed with callers asking that the Lord spare Captain Tom for just a little bit longer. However, the Lord had other plans, and, thankfully in the presence of his beloved family and, as subsequent printed pages have told us, amid laughter and tears, this wonderful old soldier answered the Divine call and followed the beat of the drum into his eternal reward.
For ninety-nine years Captain Tom’s life unfolded around and before him, and for the majority of us, as we to him, there was no connection, no recognition, no familiarity. He lived his life, we lived ours. Then suddenly he was catapulted into our lives by a short news article about a man raising additional funds for the NHS by walking lengths of his garden in Marston Mortaine in Bedfordshire about which there was nothing outstanding except that the man was almost a hundred. A length for each year of his life sponsored by those who knew him was his intention, with the hope that a £1,000 could be raised. Suddenly this stooping figure with his walking frame and a sparkle in his eyes had captured a place in the nation’s heart, and the world. The desired £1,000 ultimately topped thirty-two million, which will no doubt be added to by those wishing to pay him a posthumous tribute. Almost straight-away we all connected with him, not least those of us who recognized a Yorkshire twang when he spoke, he was instantly recognizable, so much so that artists created numerous likenesses of him using very different materials, and his name quickly became familiar in all of our homes to such a degree that as we clapped for him on Wednesday evening I’m sure many felt as though they had lost one of their own. As indeed we had. For a brief span of time, measured in months, our lives had been enriched by images of Captain Tom’s life brought into the familiar surrounds of our own homes through the media. And now someone who had become a welcome beacon of stabilizing hope has been removed from our midst.
The fundamental of Captain Sir Tom Moore’s entry into our lives was something that in the halcyon days of what we now call normal times would have been dismissed by the majority of those who saw him as simply an old man doing some exercise to keep himself going. With some even daring to suggest that it would have been easier for him to write a cheque for a thousand pounds than to get out of the comfort of an armchair to walk up and down his garden. There will have been days when he probably thought the same, yet he kept going on, day in and day out. And it was this, simply putting one foot in front of another that intrigued us and touched something at the core of a shared humanity. We were a people who had become disjointed, fractured, and were afraid of a new threat, a pandemic that brought our established way of life to a shuddering halt. Each of his steps, slow and determined, symbolised the nation’s move from one day of Lockdown into the next. In an unassuming, quiet, dogged and modest manner he gave us an extraordinary example.
As has been said of him many times over he was a man of a disappearing generation shaped and crafted by routine and discipline which fed a quiet determination to keep on going for as long as he could, physically, mentally and emotionally. As part of what is often called the Forgotten Army of the Second World War, fighting far away from home in a very different climate to the one familiar to him, he did battle with tropical diseases as well as a heavily armed, motivated and determined enemy, who from the outset seemed to be heading for victory. Captain Tom and his comrades knew what an up-hill slog was, daily losses amongst the ranks of the familiar faces, defeat and retreat. Yet eventually that which seemed unconquerable was finally beaten and halted in its tracks. A high price was paid by the likes of Captain Tom, but a remnant had survived and he amongst them was able to taste victory and success.
Privately, not as a young man had Captain Tom entered into a second marriage with Pamela, gifting him with his daughters, Lucy and Hannah, vowing to love and to cherish in sickness and in health. Health brought him shared happy times beneath the blue skies of the Costa del Sol, whilst sickness saw him making a daily pilgrimage to his beloved wife’s care home. Each and every day he visited. No money was being raised by this daily commitment. Instead it was a tangible expression of a love pledged in different times, observed by family, friends, the community of which his wife was a part, and the random stranger who could have set their watch by the time of his arrival at the home’s door each day. These are two small insights acknowledging that there was a lot more to Captain Tom’s long life than what will be recalled by many. A reminder that today’s older folks were all youngsters just a short while ago !
St. Paul writing to the infant Christian community in Rome spoke about the “life of each of us having its influence on others.” It is something worth recalling on a daily basis, offering us all, as it does, a gentle reminder that we are connected to one another through our capacity to make a positive difference to the life of someone known, or even unknown, to us. Whilst remembrance is a tremendous gift, its real worth is when we allow it to provide us with a currency that we can spend on our own life journey, acceptable in the lives of others and with the ability to enhance a shared pathway. Whilst we speak of Captain Tom and others, such as the Queen, as being part of a disappearing grouping of people, formed and crafted by a time long past, there is a need to focus on the present, and what our generation of which current day centenarians and the newest of arrivals amongst our global human family are all an integral part can continue to offer to one another, and leave as a worthy legacy to those who will come after us.
What we recognize as great qualities in others are potentially within ourselves too seeking an environment and constituents allowing them to be brought to birth and drawn out so that they too can bear light in their own time and place. Despite his great age, Captain Tom continued to look beyond himself or even his own lifespan, investing in charitable activities that would assist the bereaved and lonely in the present, seek to educate and encourage greater equality amongst a rising generation for the betterment of an unknown future, and beyond our shorelines to offer those with far less on their table, economically speaking and in so many other ways, a share in what we have, not least in the field of medicine and basic healthcare.
In a week when we have drawn a veil over the final vestige of Christmas, and a bright light reflecting some of the finest elements of our humanity has been dimmed I am reminded that as long as Christianity has been on our shores its fundamental hope in the face of adversity has been tangible. An ancient prayer from the Celtic communities of Faith reflects this:
“Bless me with Thy presence when I shall make an end of living.
Help me in the darkness to find the ford.
And in my going comfort me with Thy promise that
Where Thou art, there shall Thy servant be.”
So, here’s to Captain Sir Tom Moore, hopefully walking alongside the Lord, and as a legacy to us all, a reminder of his own lasting belief and hope that “Tomorrow will be a good day!”
Be assured of my continuing remembrance of you and your loved ones in both prayer and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas