PLEASE CLICK on the photo for slides – use Zenfolio’s full-screen button in the top right hand corner and have your volume turned on. Light and joy for you
FICKLE, THOSE CROWDS. Fickle. I can perfectly believe that a Palm Sunday event happened around Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem, even if the evangelists did later engage in a smidgeon of poetic licence. Easy enough to believe, because all that palm-waving and racket can be seen in towns and cities all across the world, most days, to this very day. Fickle crowds on the look-out for some poor soul who can be commissioned to sort life out for us. Some poor soul who’ll be clobbered – maybe crucified – if it turns out they’re not all they’re cracked up to be – a condition, an imminent state of affairs, for crowd-acclaimed messiahs, for scapegoats appointed by malcontents, that’s guaranteed certainty. Fickle crowds, religious capitals, fickle (some might say dim-witted) churches are not always very nice places to be. (To a new parish priest in this Diocese, a few years ago: “Well, be warned, you won’t be at all popular if you give a sermon. On Easter Sunday you’re supposed to read out the names of everyone who’s given a lily!”) …
Christmas – Holy Week – Easter, year-in, year-out, another round of Church busy. Bishops, priests, you and me, what are we all hoping to see? Will we cheer? Will we mean it when we “sing Hosanna” – and if so, what for? Will we welcome this odd-looking “King” one minute and then in the next bolt the door? Who’s being crucified this week? What’s our “Holy Week” going to be for? Will it turn out to have been a challenge to our own fickleness? Will we blush and protest too much that we waved no palm, we were never hoodwinked, carried away, never, ever, meant anyone, anywhere, any harm?
I’m more than a little interested in these questions because I both love and – at times – hate the Church with great passion. Even after a lifetime’s close involvement I’ve been shocked and sickened by some of the responses to the truly Christ-like Archbishop Rowan’s appointment to what must surely be a dream job for him. Soon it’ll be someone else’s turn to sit in Augustine’s Chair:
Next time, could we please have an Archbishop of Canterbury who believes and articulates both privately and publicly, confessional Anglican faith and morals? …
wrote one correspondent to the Church Times of 23rd March – inducing stomach-ache in me from that day to this. May the Lord God come to the aid of Rowan’s successor, and that right early, but I give notice that I think my heart might break if such a person starts glibly bleating about “Bible-believing Christians” because they’d almost certainly count me – a “let’s take the Bible seriously” kind of a Christian – out of their respectable “Bible-believing” society – and many thousands more of us would be all lined-up to see another enormous exodus out of the pews, to heaven knows where, anywhere would do, “just so long as it’s not a church”. Goodness there’d be a lot of palm-waving on enthronement day though, and plenty of Make way, make way …
More than a little interested in what Holy Week’s going to be for, because, being a parish priest, there’s no avoiding the dark side of Christian communities, my own included. One of the sadder aspects of the life of a vicar concerns the number of awful stories – all clerical ears must quickly get used to hearing – about the disloyalty, cruelty and vain-glorious fantasy engaged in by some who would count themselves “pillars” and numbered amongst “the great and the good”. One of our ‘treasures’ recently announced, spittingly, “I hate baptisms!”. One of the guests at said Baptism asked me “aren’t Christians supposed to model The Good Life – life in all its abundance? God help me. If that guy’s the model I’ll stick to the golf course, but thanks very much anyway. Even I can see that you’re really trying. Such a shame that a few half-wits spoil the whole.”
Holy Week will have rendered Christ’s Church very great service indeed if, come Easter Sunday, the “half-wits” among us, myself included amongst these, had spent a little time examining our dim-wittedness, examining the words we sing and say and pray, blushing a little at the ridiculousness of our fickle palm-waving and bureaucratic busy-bodied-ness, and asking what Jesus of Nazareth could possibly have been modelling, could possibly have been getting at if it turned out to be true that he said “you will do greater works than these” and “I am the Way”.
Church Times preview in my email Inbox promises an interview in tomorrow’s paper with ‘after-religionist’ Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh. Thank God and hooray. That’s the first piece I’ll turn to. The title alone of his Doubts and Loves tells me that this man, at least, knows something about the road to Calvary, and quite a bit about Resurrection – along the pathways of “a more excellent way”.
STOP THE CLOCK! Where does time go to? Surely Christmas was only half an hour ago and Ash Wednesday’s already just around the corner. God grant me the grace when Lent arrives to spend a bit of time alone in the “Wilderness” (gorgeously described by many commentators as a place undisturbed by the “works” of humankind). We understand that Jesus was led out into the wilderness alone. He wasn’t facing down demons in a Lent Group.
One of the demons I shall have a go at facing down is the one that’s constantly telling us all to run faster. It might as well be “jump down from this Temple and I’ll catch you”. Will anyone “catch” me? You know, I don’t believe that any more than Jesus did. It’s my own responsibility to slow down a bit – and I know that that involves a bit more effort than just shouting “stop the clock”. But let no-one pretend that it’s easy, that’s all. Because it ain’t.
And let no-one be persuaded by the voices that encourage us to abrogate our personal responsibilities to them or to the institutions they represent – especially the “religious” voices. Because a) they don’t mean it, and b) God made us capable of recognising that if we’re to have a share of responsibility for all life we must first learn to be responsible for our own.
I KNOW THAT OTHERS share the slight sense of shock that I’m feeling today. The image of my standing on a beach, 20 years or more ago, on the isle of Anglesey, near RAF Valley, came back to me this morning. A thunderous low flying military jet flew over my head, and gasping, albeit that it wasn’t a new experience, I can hear myself saying “Wow! What was that?”. For many years I’ve felt that way about Christmas. Maybe that’s why this is “Boxing Day”? My head feels slightly puddled today, and stunned in a similar sort of a way.
And actually, it’s been a Happy Christmas. I’ve shaken hands and exchanged greetings with hundreds and hundreds of people. I’ve been the grateful recipient of a great deal of kindness and warm generosity. And I hope that I’ve been kind and generous. But deep down I’m still left with an uneasy feeling about the enormity of a UK Christmas – for it’s really the celebration, for Christians, of a particular kind of littleness that had absolutely nothing to do with any form of self-interest or acquisition.
Deep down the “still small voice” encourages me not to worry too much about the overwhelming sense of relief I feel when high festival gives way to “ordinary time”. There’s an underwhelming sense of rightness, quietness, human-sized and human-shaped littleness in the stable of Bethlehem. Natural straw instead of wrapping paper. And lying in that straw is the Word that shows us the way back to our senses – whether we pay any attention, or not …
HAPPY CHRISTMAS to you … and thank you so much to those who shared in the full-to-capacity Carol Services at Bramall Hall today, and to the just short of 500 people who were present at our annual Christingle Service at 4pm on Christmas Eve – in aid of the Children’s Society. The baskets were full to overflowing with your generous gifts. The singing was amazing, the crib scene one of the warmest places on earth, the “welcoming home” of this year’s crop of brand new mums, dads and their own little nativity scenes, together with family members all, an absolute joy.
As I write this, for publication at midnight, I’m fortifying myself with a good supper before celebrating the Christmas Midnight Mass at 11pm – and meeting two more large eucharistic gatherings on Christmas Day in the morning. You’re all blessing. May you be blessed, richly, together with all you love, and care about, and pray for, this Christmas-tide and always.
WITH HEARTFELT THANKS AT CHRISTMAS …
Loved ones - some now on active service, and their loved ones at home – wives, husbands, children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends; and those safely returned; and the sadly bereaved; and those now in the eternally loving embrace of the God who made us all: you are not forgotten. Thank you.
WE’RE LOOKING FORWARD to welcoming all who gather to worship with us in the coming days at Bramall Hall Chapel and at St Michael & All Angels Bramhall. Please see the parish website for details of all our Christmas services and / or click the photo above for a moment or two’s happy reflection …
CHRISTMAS worship at Bramhall Parish Church is a joy, and you’re invited to be a part of it. Please be assured of a warm welcome wherever you’re from, whether you’re a day old or 100 years old, whether you’ve been before or not. St Michael & All Angels Bramhall is a home beside the road for any of God’s children who wish to make it so. Bring yourself. Bring friends and family. Bring openness and peace with you. And you’ll find all those gifts surrounding you.