In a few weeks’ time, we begin our Lenten journey. During the 40 days of Lent, we’ll be sharing 40 meditations on the Mass at our other prayer website www.daybydaystmaryscf10.com As we begin to look forward to the possible emergence from lockdown in the weeks or months to come, Fr Dean reflects on the Eucharistic life experienced during the past ‘Lockdown’ year.
It is silent here.
No cracks or creaks from central heating pipes. No sound from outdoors. Few cars, little noise except the sound of birds whose tweets become a new mantra of love. There is no chatter as people arrive, no doors opening and closing, no breeze, no scuffle of feet. I am alone, and will remain alone here.
The doors are closed to everyone except me, the altar untouched by anyone but me. This is a lonely place. Except that, in the corner, there is a soft glow of a candle. It’s not a candle lit by someone at morning Mass burning long after they have gone but the light at the Tabernacle, reminding me that, though unpeopled, this place is not empty, and one is never alone.
And yet, the lack of people creates a void as though this place has been abandoned. But it is not abandoned. People are prevented from coming here. They are at home, a hoard of people, frustrated perhaps, and yearning to return, keeping themselves and other safe.
In time, they will return. Although not all. It’s a slow process. The end of Lockdown and pandemic restrictions will take longer than any introduction which was severe and sudden, although indications of what was to come had come from other countries who already were juggling with pandemic pains.
There is no response from the unpeopled church, no ‘Amen,’ no one to own the prayer. It’s not normal to celebrate the Eucharist alone and many priests, depending on their situation and tradition, their personal beliefs and differing theology, cannot bring themselves to celebrate the Eucharist by themselves. It makes no sense to them. The Eucharist is something shared, a gathering at the altar, with a common cup, and the breaking of bread – intended only so that it can be shared with others. And yet the Eucharist is also so much more.
“Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again,” said St Paul (1 Corinthians 11:26) in the earliest written piece about the Eucharist.
“The Eucharist is connected with the Passion,” said St Teresa of Calcutta. She continues in her characteristically simple and striking way: “ If Jesus had not established the Eucharist we would have forgotten the crucifixion. It would have faded into the past and we would have forgotten that Jesus loved us. To make sure that we do not forget, Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a memorial of his love.”
It’s in the cross of Christ that we trust, and through the cross of Christ that our sins are forgiven. The Eucharist is the perpetual memorial of Christ’s precious death until his coming again and, through the Eucharist, we receive all the benefits of that saving death.
If Jesus had not established the Eucharist we would have forgotten the crucifixion. It would have faded into the past and we would have forgotten that Jesus loved us. To make sure that we do not forget, Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a memorial of his love.”
ST TERESA OF CALCUTTA
“Remember that we have not a single hope but in the merits of Christ’s death,” wrote a former parish priest of St Mary’s, Fr Griffith Arthur Jones. “The way in which we now plead the sacrifice of Christ in the presence of the Father is the celebration of Holy Communion.”
Over the months, I move from altar to altar, trying to find a comfortable place, a less lonely place, a place where my voice does not appear too small, too lost in the echoes and acoustics. Some days, I find it a struggle.
Loaded with the privilege and the possibility of doing what others cannot, I still find the solitariness something to suffer, and I wade through the Mass as though I am asked to do something difficult and daring, as though speaking the words and making the moves is a job of hard labour, of sweat and sorrow. It’s a purely pathetic response of mine but then the pandemic situation plays its particular part in many different ways on lots of people. I’m grateful that mine is so mild.
Meanwhile, I’m mindful of the harshness and pain experienced by many people on the frontline, the home-workers who work so hard, as well as those who feel, for a while, that they’re on the back-burner, their lives frozen, locked in, locked down.
Since then, months on, we’ve managed to move back to the daily momentum of Mass, always alert to how fragile our position is within ‘Lockdown’ restrictions. I’m grateful to the people whose ‘Amen’ owns the prayer we make. The peopled church is alive with prayer, as candles burn long after the morning Mass. But a gentleness is needed now, and we don’t need to ask more of people, only the little things that mean so much.
A gentleness is needed now, and we don’t need to ask more of people, only the little things that mean so much.
We still wait for others of our number to return, those who are still isolated, still at home and where they feel safe, as they make their own Spiritual Communion, united as we are by the Holy Spirit, and turning to the cross of Christ for comfort and consolation.
The peopled church is alive with prayer, as candles burn long after the morning Mass. But a gentleness is needed now, and we don’t need to ask more of people, only the little things that mean so much.
There have been so many amazing ways in which so many have responded to people’s needs during the last year, and there is still much left to do whilst we wait for the final effects of the past year, and what poverty and hardship, struggles and struggling mental health will emerge. For some, perhaps, the offering of the Eucharist is a small, very insignificant and perhaps unimportant gesture to make, not worth the effort, not effecting much, too small when so much is asked of us.
And yet, during the last year, we have learned to love the little things, the things we often overlook or take for granted. Those things that become so important when all else has been stripped away. During Lockdown and since, I’ve learned to love the Eucharist in a new and different way, however small it is.
“We must be faithful to that smallness of the Eucharist,” said St Teresa of Calcutta, “that simple piece of bread which even a small child can take in. We have so much that we don’t care about the small things. If we do not care, we will lose our grip on the Eucharist – on our lives. The Eucharist is so small.”
From Ash Wednesday, February 17 2021, each day for the 40 days of Lent we’ll be sharing a Meditation on the Mass, a reflection on the Eucharist, at our prayer website www.daybydaystmaryscf10.com
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.
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!
“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
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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’)
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.
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.