Sunday, 31 December 2006

The gate of the year

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."

Darkness has fallen on this New Year’s Eve, and shortly I shall be walking across the road and down the gravel path to take the Watchnight Compline in St. Margaret’s church. The candles will be lit, and we shall sit in their warm glow and sing “Here we come a-wassailing” and “Deck the halls” – perhaps a bit secular, but these traditional songs speak of the New Year and so are fitting for the occasion.

And what of my New Year resolutions? Well, my main one is to regain my fitness. When I was in post in the large Midlands Potteries city I had access to all sorts of sporting facilities. I swam once and often twice a week, and played badminton weekly, but since moving down here to this rural location the opportunities are limited. The nearby town has a swimming pool, which local wags consistently rename on the direction signs “Swim_in Poo_”, which is quite descriptive. When I’ve been there on the late night public swimming times the pool has always been full of corpulent ladies of the female sex resting after their hour-long “aqua-robics” session, and standing around in the Shallow End nattering, thus preventing anyone from doing decent lengths. I haven’t been for ages.

But, surrounded as I am by glorious countryside, there’s no real excuse. All I have to do is put on my walking boots and stride out of the door. There’s a straight-forward road walk of a mile to the Brewery and pub at St. Peter’s, but then I’d have to buy a mug of their ale for the return journey, which wouldn’t do me any good at all.

Or there’s a circular route that takes me across several fields and back towards the village at the rear of the Old Vicarage. It’s a good circuit, but not that long. I shall need to study the footpath map a bit more and find an extension.

Maybe the resolution should be, rather than regain my fitness, to get out and do a walk, anywhere. Having tramped over 360 miles through France a decade or so ago, I know how well regular walking takes the weight off, and how it tones the muscles. I just need to get up and do it.


“So, I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night, And He led me toward the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”

From “The Desert” 1908
Minnie Louise Haskins 1876 - 1957

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Three French Hens

With Christmas Day now past, the 12 days of the Feast roll onward. Today there are three French Hens perched outside my study window as I draw together the prayers for the Feast of Holy Innocents tomorrow, and our opportunity to commemorate lost children whose days on earth were short-lived. In these small communities I know of about 12 families who have undergone such a loss, but I do not impose this remembrance upon then by including the names of their children without their knowledge or consent. As it is, I so far have two names to read out, one being that of my mother’s infant sister who only lived a few days. Up until about five years ago, when I did some research at the Family History Centre in London, my mother never knew why her sister died, but when I located and obtained a copy of the death certificate, it was revealed. No major surprises as it was due to illness, but to a certain extent it provided closure on that episode of her past. And this is the purpose of all remembrance – not so much to hear the names again, though this is valuable, but to complete the circle - to recognise the loss and thereby to rob it of its power.

In a way, the remembrance of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem closes a circle, and begins it again. The annual cycle of Christian Feasts and Festivals take us from before the birth, through the life, death and resurrection, and onward into the operations of the Holy Spirit, who has been there from the beginning, and who therefore was there with the Word that is made flesh, and so on ….

In this yearly celebration of light in darkness, the remembrance is strongest for those who see beyond the commercialism and secularisation and look to the manger throne. For those of us who can see the significance of this birth, Christmas is more than just remembrance. It’s part of the cycle of faith in our own lives that gives meaning to who and what we are. We are more than mere fireflies, here for a span and then extinguished in the dark. We have a significance that is greater than the sum of our parts. Our existence is bound up with the Word that is the light and life of all people, and which the darkness cannot overwhelm, no matter what human losses are suffered along the way.

Three French Hens sing their Trinitarian song for this season of festivities. Tomorrow the Four Calling Birds will invite us to the Eucharist, and along with the Innocents and other lost children we shall remember and celebrate the gift of God’s only-begotten Son.

Saturday, 23 December 2006

The fog has lifted ....

... and with just a light mist it's definitely warmer!
No need to light the fire in the study today, and tonight the outside lights will be visible to passers-by!

Friday, 22 December 2006

Frost on my baubles

Wonderful wintry weather these last few days. Freezing fog, which although it's brought chaos to the airports and domestic flights, has created some wonderful natural effects on the trees and bushes. The outside lanterns in the garden are all covered in rime and although it means that I have to "spot-heat" the rooms I'm using in the house (it's down to 9 degrees C in the kitchen at present!) it's seasonal and pretty. With another Carol service tonight (and the last one tomorrow), the atmosphere of Christmas is growing. A glass of mulled wine, a mince pie and warm clothing, and not a humbug in sight.

Monday, 18 December 2006

A great and mighty wonder

The Christmas Feast is thundering upon us, and life seems to be one long preparation at present. I have managed to get my Christmas sermons written today (Midnight Mass and Christmas morning) as well as one for this coming Sunday morning (Advent 4). Plus I've put together a short address for a funeral on Wednesday. Past compilations and resources have helped, but they still have to be edited and adjusted to make them relevant to the setting and time.

The Feast itself may be timeless, but our understanding and appreciation of it changes with every year. At times it's the theme of the Logos that seems to be central - this year it's the reality of the stable birth that is coming to the fore - the general ordinariness of the shepherds, their language and sheepy aroma - that is on my mind. God incarnate in the ordinary, in the unprepared, in the temporary. And still we are not ready to receive Him.

I have a child's poetry book that I remember from my early years, entitled "If Jesus came to my house". It goes through how we would welcome him, and what we would offer as hospitality. It could be quite an effective reading at a Carol service, and I may use it next year.

The weather has turned cold today, and since I was going to be in my study most of the day writing the sermons, I lit the fire. I very rarely use that fireplace, but it's been lovely and cosy, and visually it has made it look like Christmas. As a cleric I find it hard to capture the feeling of the season, being caught up in preparing worship so that others may encounter the holy amidst the secular merriment. But that's all part of the calling, and so long as I keep in mind the reason for it all, then I do manage to enjoy it on a personal level as well.

So three more Carol services to lead - more mince pies to consume, and hopefully more mulled wine to warm the cockles. That was one of the benefits of my recent retreat to the English Convent in Brugge, the availability of the warm wine in the bars of the city. The first one I had was incredibly potent, and kept me nicely heated on the walk back to the Convent with a tray of chips and mayonnaise. It's a great city to visit in all seasons, but pre-Christmas it's really rather special.

Now with darkness falling the fog is rising off the Waveney valley and the temperature is dropping fast. Time to put a couple of baked potatoes into the oven for tonight's supper.

Friday, 1 December 2006

Pinch, punch ...

... another tradition is to yell "White Rabbits" at the top of your voice as soon as you wake up! Neither practice is particularly neighbourly.

I see that the first big winter storm is heading across the northern US as we prepare for a bit of a blow tomorrow and Sunday. Chicago was forecast 6-10 inches of snow! We're just wet and windy. It can't be anything I've eaten either. I had lunch out today with someone, and they had French onion soup, so I don't give much for their chances this weekend!

I host the regular monthly Benefice Coffee Morning tomorrow. Marmalade is all made and labelled. Parmesan and sun-dried tomato rolls have just been baked, and the house smells wonderful. I have more pots of preserves to put out on the Sales table, along with lots of other items, and with 15 prizes in the Raffle (and quite good ones as well since it's the Christmas "do") we should get a respectable result. The weather doesn't put off the "punters", and like bees round a honey pot, they'll be scrabbling at the table looking for bargains.

I blame my parents. I was brought up helping out at church Jumble Sales, so the whole ethos of collecting stuff to sell and then selling it is deeply ingrained into my understanding of what it means to be an Anglican church. I was clothed from those jumble sales for several years, until I began to have some money of my own. I was never allowed a pair of jeans, and I was probably 16 before I had any. I have a slightly blurred photo of myself climbing up a hillside in the Campsie Fells near Milngavie in Scotland around that time, and I'm wearing denims, with turn-ups that must be 9 inches or more! What style!

The promised wind will probably bring down most of the remaining apples. I have a dozen fruit trays full of them standing in the garage at the moment. I shall have to see if I can shift some of them tomorrow, or else make tons of chutney.

Somehow I don't think that Advent preparation means preparing fruit.