In the midst of our Christmas celebrations there is, of course, some sadness, frustration and fear. We reflect on what it has meant to be able to create a safe and sacred space at St Mary’s, and how our Christmas celebrations, wherever we are, can bring us closer to Jesus, a safe harbour.
Some prayers fit like a glove or feel like a comfortable jumper or an old pair of shoes shaped to your feet. They are prayers which feel just right, prayers which express what you wanted to say but had no words of your own, or which bring you back to the things you had forgotten, pinning the eternal to a moment of yourself.
They are ‘well prayed’ prayers which we just can’t let go or which won’t let us go, like a stubborn tune in your head, or the feeling you had when you first fell in love, reigniting something from the ordinariness which our life has become.
“I place myself into the presence of him in whose Incarnate presence I already am before I place myself there.” This is the first line of a prayer before the Blessed Sacrament written by St John Henry Newman, a beautiful prayer to which I return often.
‘Whether willingly still or stuck in the mud’
There may be an anomaly when we suggest that we can place ourselves into God’s presence when we believe that God is always with us, that we are always in his presence, that he is ‘Emmanuel’, God with us, and when we hear afresh the promise of Jesus in his parting words, ‘I shall be with you always until the end of time.’ And yet, Newman’s prayer reminds us that there is also that need for us to willingly place ourselves into his presence, to be armed with a motive that moves us, knowingly, lovingly, closer to him, acknowledging that he is there, here. To abandon ourselves to him.
It could be a tentative moving closer, or a rushed and hasty, panicked and desperate attempt to cast ourselves upon him in our need for something, bringing even to him our own sense of unworthiness, like Peter who clutches the feet of Jesus in the boat upon the stilled sea, uttering those words, ‘Lord leave me, for I am a sinner.’ Yes, Peter asks Jesus to leave him whilst at the very same time holding tightly onto him.
Wherever we are, at home or in sacred buildings, whilst willingly still or stuck in the mud, we need to be alert to God’s presence, and place ourselves into the presence of him whose Incarnate presence we already are before we place ourselves there.
Of course, Newman’s prayer was written for use before the Blessed Sacrament, a sacred sign, a sacramental presence, a free gift from the Lord, a Mystery unable to be explained to any great deal of satisfaction. It is the means through which we are nurtured and nourished, and through which we draw close and closer to the saving death of Jesus upon the cross, and through which we receive all the benefits of his loving sacrifice.
The power of Love
During these times when we have been allowed to return to St Mary’s for worship, we have focussed on the phrase, ‘A safe and sacred place.’
In one sense, of course, it is God who makes places and people sacred, by his presence, through his grace – and so everywhere is sacred. And yet, God requires that we cooperate with him. St Paul calls us ‘co-workers’ a beautiful phrase which suggests that God uses us, wants us, to participate in his transforming of the world.
We have never taken the bold assumption that because a place is sacred that no harm can come to people there. The scourged body of Jesus and his outstretched arms upon the cross is a calling back to the reality of life, and the continued presence in the world of sickness and pain, and the sacrificial, painful, nature of love.
What Jesus teaches us is the power of Love to transform, and so in seeking sacredness, we value the sacredness of each person, and so their safety too, a responsibility towards one another which outweighs the difficulties of all that we have to do.
We give thanks that we have been able to open the doors of St Mary’s each day, to gather at the Lord’s Table, to break bread, to hear his Sacred words, ‘to place ourselves into the presence of him in whose Incarnate presence we already are before we place ourselves there.’
We are grateful, too, that despite the new period of lockdown, places of worship are able to continue to open if they feel able to do so, and this is what we are doing, although we understand why so many places, sadly, simply cannot do this.
Over the last few months, after visiting many different places from shops and hotels to cafes and restaurants, I believe that St Mary’s is as safe, if not safer, than any other place I have visited. We have taken all the precautions we have needed to take, and more, and been careful to create a space that felt familiar. We have shyed away from harsh boundaries and hazard warning tape and too many prescriptive signs, to create a space, we hope, that is safe and sacred.
A Safe Harbour
One of the blessed things about having a retired priest in the parish is to share in their quiet and continued faithfulness, and their experience and knowledge too, and we are blessed at St Mary’s to have someone who is far more well-read than the parish priest! A hand written quotation from a book Fr Martyn had been reading was commended to me by him – a beautiful ‘Intention before Prayer’ from the theologian Dietrich von Hilderbrand (Transformation in Christ, 1962):
“I will forget everything that was, and is to come; nor think of what lies ahead of me. Whatever I am wont to carry and to hold in my arms I will let fall before Jesus.
It will not fall into the void. Standing before Jesus, I deliver it all up to him: all burdening worries and all great concerns, both mine and those of the souls I love.
I am not abandoning them as I would abandon them in seeking diversion. I know that in Jesus they are truly in a safe harbour. When at his call I relinquish and abandon all things, I am not casting them away; on the contrary, I am assigning everything to its proper place.”
Whatever concerns and worries we have, whatever pains and sickness we may experience, however the future will unfold for so many of us, whether ‘home’ is the safest and only place to be or we feel able to Break Bread with others, we can and do place all these concerns and all that is dear to us into the arms of Jesus, a safe harbour.
For so many people, Christmas will mean separation from loved ones. It is temporary. This will pass. There may be a space or two at the table, but there is no void and no abandonment apart from that abandoning of everything, including ourselves and all our struggles and fears to the Lord.
Be gentle and, if you can, just let Christmas be Christmas, whatever shape or form that may take. Abandon all to him who, through Christ, has abandoned himself to us. He who laid down his life for us, and who bids all of us who are weary to come to him, for he is gentle and humble of heart. In him we find our rest.