A response to recent sadness

following the sad death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan, and all that has happened since.

At St Mary’s we have a ministry of daily prayer.  It’s a subtle, often unseen, maybe overlooked ministry – but quietly, day by day, we pray.

We pray for the world and the local community, for those who are sick and in need, the poor and underprivileged, and for the powerful too.  For leaders and politicians, for families and individuals.  Some are prayed for by name.  Others are unknown to us, but we pray for them all the same.

Within these prayers are those who have died, and in praying for them, we pray too for their family and loved ones, for all who feel the pain of grief.  Each life and death has an affect on others, like ripples in a pond, and this pain can affect so many people.

Some deaths have a wider effect, especially deaths that are sudden or unexpected, violent or suspicious, confusing or unexplained, or those who are young.

The death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan is one such death that has caused ripples throughout the community and beyond. The ripples though do not just come from his sad death. The ripples emerge too from the past, from wounds that lie open, from concerns which are raised not just here in Cardiff but across the world, as we seek just and loving ways of living together rather than with inequality and injustice. With any death there are always questions: How? Why? Mohamud’s death has raised these questions in very obvious ways.

With death will come anger.  This is a natural emotion.  We can be angry for so many reasons when someone dies.  Many people are angry.

Mohamud is in our prayers, each day, and so are his family and friends who are so filled with grief.  But prayer does not come with instant, magical results.  Our prayer is always patient.  Whilst anger and frustration and sadness and confusion can and do often fill our prayer to God, so too must love, and patience, trust and hope.  Sometimes, we are just silent – as strong and eloquent a prayer as any.

We are committed, though, not just to prayer but to action too.  The community of which we are a part is a vibrant community, characterised by differences in which we rejoice.  We find no problem living alongside people of other faiths and cultures, colour and history.  In fact, these differences are a blessing to us.  It is something we boast about, and want to share with the wider world, how it’s possible to live together.  Different but much the same.

We are committed to building friendships, to strengthening community life, drawing close to one another in respect and love, and working with organisations, leaders, authorities, groups and institutions, churches and mosques and other communities of faith.

We want the best for our community, our city, our world, and for all people to be treated as equal, for all to have equal opportunities and valued lives. We want a community that is strong yet peaceful, confident yet calm. The circumstances of Mohamud’s death have moved some people to the streets, to express their grief and anger, to ask questions, to demand answers. This is understandable. It can be difficult to be patient under such circumstances. It can be almost impossible to be calm.

On Tuesday, I watched from a distance, as people gathered, and then passed St Mary’s Church.  I wanted to see, to feel, the anger and emotions, perhaps to let some know that I was alongside them but not able to take to the streets with them at this time.  I am moved when people seek justice.  It is a basic human right.

In the search for justice and truth, an independent investigation has begun.  Within that process we trust that the community will receive an open ear.  This has been a promise of the IOPC. At this stage we can only trust in the process, and look forward to the IOPC referring to those whose lives are affected by everything that has happened, as we seek peaceful ways in which hurt and anger can be expressed, and questions asked.

Within the anger and open wounds, we pray for peace and calm so that, in time, all of us, no matter our position or standing within the community, will be able to learn lessons, move forward, make change, and together, make our bit of the world a bit better through strong relationships, firm friendships, and growth in love.

Our ministry of prayer at St Mary’s may be subtle, often unseen, maybe overlooked – but quietly, day by day, we pray.  For Mohamud, his family, his friends, all involved and affected by his sad death, and for you.

Fr Dean Atkins

Day by Day

As we launch a new online Bible and Prayer resource, we reflect on an image from the life of St Anthony of Padua whose own prayer was attentive to Christ.

On one of his many journeys, St Anthony of Padua took lodging with a man who kindly allowed him the use of a room in which he could pray.  The man, curious about his lodger, peeked through the door whilst Anthony was at prayer.  As he sneaked a peek there, in the arms of his lodger, appeared a small child, the infant Jesus. Today, images of St Anthony show him holding Christ.

The image is a simple yet beautiful one and reminds us of an important and central Christian belief: that in becoming human, God has placed himself completely at our disposal—and, like any child, he demands our attention.

Perhaps this picture also promotes an important aspect of prayer.   When we pray, we seek God’s presence and attend to him.  Like Mary before Anthony, and like Anthony before us, we are called to attend to Jesus in prayer.

Prayer is not simply something done within the walls of a church building. We are called to attend to Jesus throughout our daily life. This is particularly important at this present time when some church buildings remain closed and, even if some churches like St Mary’s remain open, some people still feel unable to leave their home or they feel safer shielding themselves from possible pandemic dangers.

Day by Day

Our most recent project has prayer at its heart. We have launched a new sister website which brings a daily bible reading, reflection and prayer, along with other resources which are gradually being added. Each daily post is deliberately brief so that is can either be used ‘on the go’ or as a starting point to more thought and reflection, wherever you are.

The bible reading is taken from one of the readings at the daily Mass celebrated here at St Mary’s, and so offers an important connection with the daily round of prayer and worship offered in this place.

We are using a temporary domain name until we decide if the resource has any use and longevity – we’ll review this over the next few weeks.

In addition to the daily post (which is shared on our social media platforms – Twitter and Facebook – as well as direct into the inbox of those who subscribe) we’ve added some Holy Words: ‘well-prayed’ prayers, as well as additional resources for prayer through the day called ‘Holy Hours’. Whilst we wish to keep the site as simple as possible, we’ll be trialling other resources too so, if you’re interested, please do keep revisiting!

To check out the website, click here

Grateful to have a glass

“The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse” is a beautifully illustrated and written book by Charles Mackesy, described by the author as a book for “everyone, whether you are eighty or eight.”

His work describes the wanderings of a boy who is lonely and a mole who loves cake. They meet a mainly silent fox, scarred as he is by life, and a horse who is “the biggest creature they have ever encountered, and also the gentlest.”

“I can see myself in all four of them,” says the author. “Perhaps you can too.”

The pages turn with questions, and answers too, as the characters find friendship and learn lessons from life. One of my favourite lines is the one quoted above. “Is your glass half empty or half full?” asked the mole. “I think I’m grateful to have a glass,” said the boy.

In the poetic and powerful prologue to John’s gospel which gathers together all the Christmas Nativity stories to declare “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” the author uses the Greek word, “pleroma” meaning fullness. “From his fullness we have all received,” he says of Christ and of us.

In Jesus, we are not just given a glimpse of God’s presence in the flesh or simply hear the sound of his words in his teaching but we receive a sharing in what he was and is, his divine nature in all its fullness.

“Hail Mary, full of grace,” we read and pray from Scripture. We too, like Mary, receive “grace upon grace” according to John’s poetic prologue. Half empty? Half Full? Full of grace?

Back to the book. Is our glass half empty or half full? Do we look at what we haven’t got rather than what we have? Perhaps we waver between both at times, depending on our personality and perspective. The difficulties we are dealt, the struggles we make, our mood and mental health. The pain, and the pleasure which evades us – or the pleasure which transports us away from what is really important. The ways we have been hurt in the past, the simple fragility of life. Perhaps we can just be grateful to have a glass.

The last year has affected so many people in so many different ways. Some people have struggled so much and, for them, it can be frustrating to listen to others talk incessantly about how they have grown through this time, and the marvellous lessons they have learned when their own lives have lingered in lockdown. We need to be sensitive to the fragility of life and the pains that people carry, as we try to propagate a ‘positive message!’

It’s a time time when many people are still dealing with anxieties about the future, struggling with mental health, working hard and harder than ever before in both their personal life and in the life of the church, working hard to keep community together.

Some have struggled with working at home. Family and friends have been separated. People have died alone. Funerals have been celebrated at the graveside with a fistful of mourners. Financial difficulties have festered away. Jobs have been jeopardised.

Some parishes have not been able to open their church buildings at all and so haven’t gathered together for worship in person since March. Others have closed during the latest lockdown. Thankfully, we have been able to open every day, and celebrate Mass every day. But it comes at a cost, as we carry the pain of pandemic. Are we half empty, half full? Or just grateful to have a glass?

“We have this treasure in clay jars,” says St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

A clay jar is a precarious way to carry a treasure. It is fragile and easily cracked. St Paul expresses the real difficulties and dangers of life with Christ. He doesn’t brush aside the bare realities of life, and how fragile we are, how fragile life is. And yet within the fragility we discover great riches. But gentleness is needed.

Perhaps we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much with full or empty glasses but, like the lonely boy in the book who befriends a mole, a fox and a horse, just be grateful for having a glass. Or maybe there is more to this than meets the eye.

To take St Paul’s image, we are the crack-able clay jar, the chipped glass, the fragile receptacle in which is found a great treasure. For Christians, it is the grace of God, the immense treasure of sharing in who Jesus is and who fills our lives.

Like the horse in Mackesy’s book, we can be both the “biggest creature ever encountered and the gentlest.” Perhaps now is the time to be gentle both with others and ourselves and to be just “grateful to have (or be?) a glass.” For whether we feel half empty or half full we can discover great treasure within. So let’s raise a glass. Cheers.

Readings from the Second Sunday of Christmas: Ecclesiasticus 24:1-2,8-12; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-18; John 1:1-18

Graham Francis, priest

On January 4, we commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Fr Graham Francis, a beloved former parish priest of St Mary’s. In memory of him, here’s the homily preached at his funeral by Fr Dean Atkins

Let me take you away, for a while at least, from the hill country of Judah where those two women share an intimate moment of joy, amazed at what God is doing in their lives and for the world, away from the hills where an unborn child leaps at the presence of another and where the air is filled with a song of Magnificat proportions, to another hill country of the Rhondda to that mountaintop Shrine of Our Lady of Penrhys, and a childhood memory.

It was after lunch, as people gathered for the afternoon devotions, that he enters the church, walking swiftly, at speed, down the north aisle, one step ahead of others muttering prayers aloud. I didn’t know who he was, although in my childhood mind and memory, he must have been quite important. As I knew him later in life, he was then likely muttering the rosary on the go or slipping in an office of the day, a quick Afternoon Prayer. Many people’s first or significant contact with Fr Graham was through pilgrimage, particularly pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham where he was a member of the Order of Our Lady of Walsingham and where he led pilgrimage for generations of people.

It was in another aisle, this time on a coach to Walsingham, as he made one of his many routine journeys up and down, from seat to seat, chatting to people, that he hinted aloud several times, that he should be training up another priest to help him. I was just a curate then. I laughed and thought no more of it, until a year or so later, he said ‘When are we meeting up so I can go through the Walsingham stuff with you?’ I soon discovered this was how he worked.

In 2010, Fr Graham celebrated his Golden Jubilee year as a pilgrim, making pilgrimage more than once every year without fail, arriving in Walsingham for the first time at the age of fourteen, a year after the death of Alfred Hope Paten, restorer of the Shrine.  This year would have been his sixtieth.

I remember him being visibly moved when the image of Our Lady of Walsingham first made pilgrimage around the country, emerging from her wooden travelling box in Llandaff Cathedral.  He held back the tears.

I saw him similarly moved last year, in perhaps a more private moment, praying alone at the grave of Fr Paten, perhaps wondering himself if this was to be his last visit to England’s Nazareth.

With Fr Graham at the helm of our pilgrimage, and in its midst, it made it almost impossible for his enthusiasm and love of the Shrine and of Our Lady, not to inspire and move us.

Pilgrimage to Walsingham has always been a massive part of the Francis family life, shared by their children and grandchildren who read and serve and sing there and consume amazing amounts of lemon drizzle cake in the Norton Room.”

Graham’s own pilgrimage through life began in Port Talbot. And, for so many of us who didn’t know him then, a memory or two from his sister, Linda:

“Graham was born into a household that comprised his parents and his paternal grandfather, who had been born in 1872 and maintained the dress and bearing of a Victorian until his death in 1953.  In his early childhood, Graham spent many hours in the company of his Grandpa Francis. They’d walk to Taibach Memorial Park where they’d meet some of Grandpa’s contemporaries and sit with them on a bench while the older gentleman talked over old times and Graham, one imagines, enjoyed their company.  Graham recalled being taken to the Darby and Joan Club, and to funerals.  It would seem that he was an exceptionally well-behaved small child as no snacks or inducements would’ve been used in those days.

Maybe this was an early manifestation of the skills he used so well in his ministry.”

Joking at himself which he could so easily do, he claimed to be ‘a weird teenager,’ travelling around South Wales, visiting churches immersed in the catholic faith, his path to priesthood assured perhaps, his vocation mapped out and firm, one of the many priests to emerge from St Theodore’s at the time.

In fact he always spoke of having two vocations, one to the priesthood and one to the married life.  Both were intertwined so beautifully, knit together so naturally that, for so many people, his family became our family, their door always open, the welcome always warm.  There was no border or boundary between home and church between priesthood and private life.

Graham and Eleri met in 1969.  Graham was in his final year in St Michael’s College, and Eleri came to Cardiff to work as Field Secretary for Wales for the Student Christian Movement.  They married on the last day of 1971by which time Graham had been priested and was Curate of Cowbridge. Here, Illtyd and Catrin were born and in 1976 the family moved to Penrhiwceiber with Ynysboeth.

Here Graham came into his own as he put into practice many of the things he’d planned and dreamt of during his formation training, with an array of feasts and festivals and fireworks.  Oh, and Bingo too.  Graham didn’t simply start the bingo, he called the numbers too. As Canon Arthur of Aberdare said, “He was a trailblazer for Bingo!’

Penrhiwceiber was the place where his family grew up, a home filled with love and happiness, and so much fun and humour, and where many friendships were nurtured. It was where he officiated at the marriage of Kate and Pete.

‘Although he wasn’t technical,’ said Kate, ‘he loved gadgets. Whenever we visited, there would always be something new he’d bought which he’d want help to set up, from a digital camera and photo-frame to electronic weighing scales.  These devices would remain largely unused, but by far the most useful item was the new, fangled microwave oven he bought in 1981, which survived until just a few weeks ago breaking down on Christmas Day at the grand old age of 38.  Not being able to drive, he was known for walking everywhere, and always set a brisk pace.’

‘Our family holidays’ says Kate, ‘consisted of staying in cities and towns and walking great distances to visit churches and church bookshops; unsurprisingly, Rome 1985 was probably where we hit ‘peak church!.’

Graham’s name and memory runs through Penrhiwceiber not so much like the fine wine running through the mountains of Isaiah’s prophecy, but perhaps more, for him, like good beer, real ale.

When Fr Graham was told he could receive no treatment for his illness, he quickly set to work – after all there was a funeral to organise, and in typically Graham style he wanted things done properly, not just the readings, the hymns, the celebrant, who would sit where, or wanting to proof read the Order of service,

or choose the photograph for the front cover but also a reminder to check such things as the microphones,

the speaker system, and the bells. And he also gave Fr Ben and I a list of who we should contact when he died: the Shrine at Walsingham, the Guild of All Souls, The Society of the Holy Cross, the Bishop, Diocesan Office, the RB and others and last but not least – CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale!

Yes, he loved Real Ale, and would return to the bar to get his pint topped up if he was unimpressed by a beer head that was too large – working out how much pence a pint he was being overcharged as a result.

His need for preciseness perhaps influenced his liturgical skill.  For decades he served as a member of the Church in Wales Liturgical Commission, and never missed a meeting, with a knowledge of liturgy which he put into practice.  He loved a rubric.

The last few moments of someone’s life is, of course, such an intimate, fragile, private moment but I hope Eleri and the family won’t mind me sharing one thing.  Called to Graham’s bedside that night, we said the rosary, pronounced absolution, celebrated The Laying on of Hands and Anointing and, unsure how long it would be before he breathed his last, wondered when we should say the Prayers of Commendation, and we decided to do it then.  Fr Graham’s liturgical timing and efficiency worked to the last.  As we took to our lips the Litany of Saints and I uttered those words of Commendation his breath became more shallow, and within moments of the prayer, he had gone from this world, he had breathed his last.  His timing perfect.

On his desk, he’d left a folder, useful documents and bits of paper to help with arrangements after his death. Amongst details of the grave, legal documents and newspaper clippings was a leaflet entitled, ‘Children and Bereavement.’  He thought of everything.

Perhaps I can say that he both hated and loved being ill, and could gain a great deal of attention and sympathy from even a common cold.  One day, when he heard of someone diagnosed with a particular illness, with a great sense of disappointment, he said. “Hmm, I never get anything serious.’

Of course, this is a homily and not a eulogy, and one must preach the gospel, one must preach the faith, but Graham would have been disappointed if he ever thought that I wouldn’t say anything or enough about him. He was the kind of person who loved having his photograph taken, was confident in his own abilities, knew what he was good at, could boast of it affectionately, but could also defer to others if he thought they could do some things better.

Last year, as he told me some anecdote about himself, I laughed and said, ‘That’s something for the funeral homily.’  ‘Oh, I thought you would have written it by now,’ he said.  I think he would have liked that, to have read it first –  maybe even proof read it for mistakes and inaccuracies, corrected my grammar.

Some time ago, now, we left the hill country of Judah, and Mary’s Magnificat song, as she proclaims the greatness of the Lord, as her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour.

The Magnificat song was more than familiar to Fr Graham.  His life moved to the rhythm of the Church’s Prayer: the Daily Offices, the Angelus, the Rosary, and Mass every day.  In his retirement, he took a GP referral to his local gym, and was asked by the Instructor what he’d like to achieve.  ‘I want to be able to genuflect at Mass again,” he said.

The Daily Mass had been central to Graham’s life, beginning in the Cowbridge Days when he said Mass at home with Eleri later sustained in Penrhiwceiber with the help of a few parishioners who ensured there was always a congregation.

In that gospel reading, as Mary makes her way to the hill country, she is the first Christian pilgrim, moving with Jesus, feeling his growing presence, physically moving in her life, stirring her heart, changing the way she sees the world, changing the way she sees herself, changing the way she sees God.

Talking one day about how the city of Cardiff was growing, in typical Graham morose style he said, ‘Hmmm, I’ll never get to see Cardiff finished,’ as though there’d be a time when developers would stand back and say, ‘There, all done.’

The world continues to change.  We continue to change. What’s important is how we change the world around us.  Graham, by being in this world, by faithfully ministering as a priest, by celebrating the sacraments, preaching the Kingdom, building community, caring for others, giving people such an experience of worship, accompanying them on their pilgrimage, being a faithful and loving husband, Dad and Taid, has changed the world.

He could laugh until he cried.  walk at a pace often difficult to keep up with, was energetic and busy, had many, many colourful phrases, and colourful language, especially in a crisis. He was an excellent teacher, too, able to explain Christian doctrine in a way that was easily understood. And for so many questions, there was often a simple answer, ‘Well, that’s what the Church teaches.’

There was no room for an individualistic faith – he believed what he believed because it was what the church believed and what had been handed on to him, and which he himself passed on to others.

He loved being a priest here in Butetown and Grangetown.  It was like a homecoming, his time with St Mary’s beginning in his student days. And it was whilst he was priest here that Illtud and Nia were married, and his four grandchildren born, and so this place will remain firm in their memory and love of their Taid.

Here, Graham took his place in the catholic narrative which has clung to this parish for almost 150 years but his life as a priest in the catholic tradition had ripples of influence well beyond it.  His friendships cut through difference.  He was equally at home with both catholic music and rousing chapel hymns, loved an evangelical chorus and, at the Youth Pilgrimage, could dance at the disco and the Mass.

When his retirement ‘eventually’ came he and Eleri moved to join the ‘Splott Lot’ which was a great joy for them and where there has been so much love and laughter which is sure to continue in their support of Eleri.

And so his work is over, his job done, as he makes his journey heavenward.

As Mary said ‘Yes’ to God’s plan for her, a yes which changed her life and changed the world so we are called to change the world, to see and be the transformation, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord, to let his kingdom come.  It comes, of course, through blood and sweat, and the outstretched arms of our Lord upon the cross, through swords of sorrow and suffering which pierce the soul. Although we feel the pain of death, we believe that death is not the end.

‘We are already the children of God,’ says St John, ‘but what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed.  All we know is that when it is revealed we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is.’

The Magnificat song of Mary lingers still. It echoes through the ages. It is a stubborn song that never goes away.  A song which speaks of change, of a new way, of God’s way, a way that Graham loved and laboured,

and to which he remained faithful.  If we truly believe the words of St John, both Graham and we have much to look forward to, and many changes ahead.

It’s time to stop talking now for fear that this Mass will take longer than an hour to celebrate, and that would never do, not in Graham’s eyes. So Farewell, Graham, our friend and fellow pilgrim.  May flights of angels carry you home safely, and may the Prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham and all our prayers, cause you much rejoicing, as you proclaim the greatness of the Lord until we meet again, we pray, when God will gather us all into his heavenly kingdom.

Fr Graham Francis, October 30th 1945 to January 4th 2020; Ordained: August 6th 1971; Funeral: January 22, 2020

Light in the Lockdown

The final ‘O’ Antiphon for Advent seeks the light of Christ even (especially) during lockdown.

O Morning star, radiance of eternal light, sun of justice, come and enlighten those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.

With an early lockdown, the five day window of relaxation at Christmas has been removed, and what had once offered a glimmer of light has now been overshadowed by lockdown rules and a different kind of Christmas celebration.

Plans have had to be aborted, and families separated.  This, of course, causes a varied amount of disruption and disappointment for different people.  There is, for so many, so much doom and gloom when all they were seeking was comfort and company, warmth and light.

And yet, in the midst of these Christmas disruptions, our celebrations continue in some shape or form.  Christmas can’t be cancelled, for who can cancel the yearly reminder of the Incarnation, and the honouring of the presence of Jesus, who is the Morning Star that marks the onset of a new dawn, a new day.

A constant phrase in Holy Scripture as God relates to his people is the message ‘Do no be afraid.’ Time and time again we hear those words, ‘Do not be afraid.’  There has been much fear this year, and many dark times for people but Christmas is for those dark times, as Christ comes to enlighten those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.

We fill our homes with lights and bright decorations, evergreen trees and holly wreaths as we cling to signs of life.  At the deepest and darkest hour, at the midpoint of the night, we gather to celebrate the Mass of the Nativity at Midnight, a powerful symbol of the power of Christ’s light.

It was during the night that shepherds hear the angels’ message.  The sky is illuminated, and heaven’s song breaks out across the dark land.  They leave their secluded spot on the hills surrounding Bethlehem to see all that they have heard.

In the book of Wisdom, we read “Your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior.”

The shepherds did not set their sights on a warrior as the world would describe one but this small child who lay in a feeding trough would be the one to liberate Israel, the one to free us from the shadow of death, the darkness, the doom and the gloom.

So let’s not focus too much on the things that we can’t do but rather give thanks for all that we have.  Let’s seek the light even in the darkest moment.  Jesus was not born into a perfect situation.  Perhaps the angel’s message given to Mary and his words “Do not be afraid” were constant companions along her journey, as she grappled with uncertainty and confusion but gave herself wholeheartedly to Jesus her son and her Saviour.

She is filled with love for her child and she knows, even by the arrival of those first visitors, that her child can never be just for her and her alone.  The act of loving comes with sacrifice.  Already she has made so many sacrifices, and there are many more to come.  Love changes everything but it comes at a cost. There will be dark times but Christ is the Morning star, the radiance of eternal light, the sun of justice, who comes to enlighten those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, who enters the doom and the gloom of our lives with the light of his love. So do not be afraid. There is light in lockdown.

An everyday, effortless verse?

What did she think along the way, as she walked to the hill country of Judah? Mary is the first Christian pilgrim, journeying with the growing presence of Jesus, and today’s gospel reading at Mass stirs us to poetry and song, and an “everyday, effortless verse.”

“And I was travelling, lightly, barefoot / over bedrock, then through lands that were stitched / with breadplant and camomile. Or was it / burdock.”

The Dead Sea Poems, Simon Armitage (1995)

Google maps tells me that the distance from Nazareth to Ain Karem, the place where Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judea is 150.9 km.  By car, it would take me 1 hour and 35 minutes.  Public transport: 3 hours and 2 minutes, but if I was to walk , it would take me 31 hours.  Making the rather over exaggerated assumption that I would be able to walk for 8 hours a day, it would take me four days to walk there.  The truth is that it would probably take me much longer.

Assuming that the young teenage Mary was a little fitter than a middle aged priest who has seen better days, perhaps she experienced four or five or even six days of walking and wondering, aware of the growing presence of Jesus within her.

She’ll become more familiar with travelling in the months and years to come. She makes the difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, heavily pregnant.  Some time later, she journeys from Bethlehem to Jerusalem with a new born baby.  The frantic escape into Egypt, seeking safety from danger, a refugee far from home.

Years later, she makes the many-time journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem with her twelve year old son, wise beyond his years, causing her to wonder.  As she watches her child grow into a man, and become public property, she continues to travel with him.  She is always at a distance, but never far away.  Her travelling takes her to the torn body of her son, grounded on the way to Golgotha, raised aloft for all to see.  Her heart broken. Still, she moves on.

Mary is a well-travelled woman.  As she made that first journey with Jesus’ growing presence within her, cells separating into cells separating into cells, being human, becoming human, her mind is filled with thoughts.  Walking helps one think, perhaps. Heart beating, blood pumping, feeding the mind. The momentum of steps sets the rhythm, the pace of pondering.  With each step pressed into the ground, perhaps she speaks a word to herself which move into song, a litany of living, a litany of love.

She is anchored in the words of her ancestors as Scripture spins in her mind.  She digs deep into the well of Tradition, plucks out a song which sticks with her, claims it as her own, the song of Hannah whose own child bearing was equally unimaginable.

As she arrives in the hill country home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she is greeted as blessed.  The music of the moment stirs Elizabeth’s unborn child to dance in her womb, baby-kicking his way, impatient perhaps to prepare the way.

Mary’s words and wonderings along the way are tied together, intertwined. Unable to know which is her thought or someone else’s taken to heart.

She proclaims the greatness of the Lord, takes the words of Hannah and sees something equally special, more special, beginning to take root in her life, in her very being, in her womb.

“Knowing now the price of my early art,” writes Simon Armitage in his own journeying poem called the Dead Sea Poems, “I have gone some way towards taking it all / to heart, by bearing it all in mind, like / praying, saying it over and over / at night, by singing the whole of the work / to myself, every page of that innocent, / everyday, effortless verse, of which this / is the first.”

The song of Mary, the Magnificat, is an effortless verse sung or said each night at Evening Prayer.  Hannah’s words become Mary’s words, and Mary’s words become our words, so taken to heart that we can hardly tell who they belong to or even, at times, what they’re worth.

“I found poems written in my own hand,” writes Armitage in his poem, “Being greatly in need of food and clothing, / and out of pocket, I let the lot go for twelve times nothing, but saw them again / this spring, on public display, out of reach /… apparently worth an absolute packet.”

Mary’s song moves us beyond the limits of ourselves and our own needs to those who are unclothed and hungry, the poor powerful falling from their thrones, and the downtrodden layabouts lifted high. It is a song that proclaims the greatness of God who makes mountains out of molehills, and sees into the heart of our little lives and makes something more of us and the world than we could ever imagine. It may, at times, seem out of reach, hardly effortless, a long way off. Yet not so far.

“To get / There takes no time and admission / Is free if you purge yourself / Of desire, and present yourself with / Your need only and the simple offering / Of your faith, green as a leaf.” (R.S. Thomas, The Kingdom’)

The Magnificat

My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour. He looks on his servant in her lowliness; henceforth all ages will call me blessed. The Almighty works marvels for me. Holy his name! His mercy is from age to age, on those who fear him. He puts forth his arm in strength and scatters the proud-hearted. He casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly. He fills the starving with good things, sends the rich away empty. He protects Israel, his servant, remembering his mercy, the mercy promised to our fathers, to Abraham and his sons for ever.

Luke 1:46-55

Dust and glory

Today’s reflection on the Advent ‘O’ Antiphon for December 22nd takes us from here to eternity!

O King of the peoples  and cornerstone of the Church, come and save man, whom you made from the dust of the earth.

Cardiff continues to grow.  The next proposed stage of developments is to blow fresh breath into Cardiff Bay with the development of Atlantic Wharf for more entertainment, leisure, pleasure, housing, hospitality and retail.  It’s characteristically ambitious.  Cardiff needs to compete with other cities.  How the plans will empower the community of Butetown, though, needs to be seen – or will it be left behind like the initial redevelopment of the docks?

What, though, holds a growing city together? Finance? Retail? Profits? Politics? Glitz and glamour? Music and entertainment? Business and Tourism?  All are important, and then some.

Perhaps the real question to ask is where or what is the heart of a city? What is the heart of a place that is growing, seeing the skyline change, watching communities expand and merge? What are the cornerstones of the communities of which we are a part, their defining qualities, their true character?

We must ask this of the Church, too.  On what or who do we depend?  What or who is at the heart of our life together?  The answer comes in today’s Advent Antiphon.  Christ is the cornerstone of the church.  He is the one on whom we depend, the one who defines us, our beating heart.

He is the one on whom we depend, the one who defines us, our beating heart.

It is easy to slip away from this truth, to engage in so many projects, many of which are worthwhile, follow so many changes, be active and busy but lose sight of who we are and what we are, and why we’re doing them at all.  Christ is the cornerstone.  For us there is no getting away from this, and everything we do, we do for him who comes to us whom he made from the dust of the earth.

On Ash Wednesday, when we receive the ashes upon our foreheads, we hear the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  They draw us back to our humble beginnings, and our mortal end.  “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Some years ago now, at the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage, in a creative reimagining in Summer time, the young people were invited to receive the sign of the cross upon their forehead in glitter with the accompanying words, “Remember you are dust bound for glory.”

“In his own image God created man / And when from dust he fashioned Adam’s face / The likeness of his only Son was formed:/ His word Incarnate, filled with truth and grace.”

So goes a hymn sung at Evening Prayer.  We are made in the image of God and, as at the Creation God gazes upon the image of his Son when he looks upon humanity, so too in the Incarnation when we gaze upon Jesus we see God’s image and what it means to be a perfect human being.  “God became human so that human beings can become divine,” said St Augustine.  He transforms the dust of which we are made.

To a packed square of thousands of young people in Manilla on World Youth Day, St John Paul II said, “You are made to live with God for ever.”  All those young people with hopes and plans, ambitions and dreams for the future, are reminded that their future lies further ahead, far ahead, for eternity is the life upon which we should set our hopes.

We are fashioned from the earth, we are dust and ashes but with Jesus as our cornerstone we can hope to live with him for ever. Eternity beckons.

Safe and Sacred

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.

“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.”

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 Eucharist “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.