The angel who was late for everything

A little known angel called Billy finds himself given a very special task indeed but will he ever get there on time? This Christmas story for children is a slightly extended version of a Christmas play written for a Special School a few years ago. We hope you enjoy.

Heaven Sent

High up in heaven, where life is angelic and people are peaceful and rest is the work of the day, when God has a message to give to the world he gathers his angels around him.

Now, you’ve all heard of Gabriel and the message he gave to a young girl called Mary and her husband to be, and some shepherds he found in a field but this is a tale of a little known angel called Billy.  Billy was good, like you’d expect any angel to be but Billy, unfortunately, was always late for everything.  One moment, he’d be on his way carrying a special message, with a skip in his stride and a woosh in his wings, whistling away and singing happy, heavenly songs and, suddenly, he would find…well, let’s just say, other things to do!

God, as you know, had given Gabriel, his highest of angels, a very high job indeed.  He gave him the message that a new king was to be born, a king to brighten the world with his love, for the king he was sending was his own Son.

‘Take this message to Mary and Joseph and some shepherds you’ll find in a field,’ said God.   His voice was very serious and Gabriel bowed low, for being an angel he was always ready to serve.  ‘Take Billy with you,’ added God, ‘and make sure he gets there on time!’

And off they flew, with a flash of their wings, to bring good news to the people below, good news of a king, good news of God’s Son to be born in the world.

Market Days

They passed through a place where a colourful market with wonderful stalls was busy and bustling with life.  There were fresh fruits and spices, there were chocolates and cakes, and vegetables pulled from the ground.  There were saucepans and ladles and earthenware mixing bowls and every kind of crockery you could imagine.  Cobblers were cobbling and tailors were stitching and bakers were selling their freshly baked bread.  Large legs of  honey-roast ham hung from the butcher’s stall, and a rather round, rosy faced lady cooked maple syrup pancakes which melted in the mouth. 

Billy squeezed his way through the crowd until he came to the most colourful, sweet-smelling sweet stall that he had ever set his watery, sweet loving eyes on. 

‘This is like heaven!’ cried Billy, and the sweet seller smiled kindly at his heavenly words.  Billy chose the largest lollipop he had ever seen in his life, and it was sweet and delicious…and took rather a long time to eat!  And then, after a long time of confectionery delights, he remembered to look at his watch!

‘Oh no,’ gasped Billy.  ‘I’m late again!  I have to go!  Thank you for the lollipop!’ he cried to the rather satisfied sweet seller who, by now, was selling a very similar lollipop to another little boy who had slipped through the crowd and whose eyes were as bright as the cloak of gold which covered his back.

And off Billy flew, with a flash of his wings, to catch up with Gabriel.

Now Gabriel was visiting a young girl called Mary at home.  Mary had been very busy indeed, for she had been drawing water from the deepest well in the village.  She had carried the water in a large earthenware jug, and the water was clean and pure and lovely.  It was the loveliest water in the world.  Every day the villagers thanked God for the well and for the water.

Gabriel gazed into Mary’s eyes.  ‘You’ve been chosen by God,’ he said so gently, ‘to give birth to his Son who will grow up and bring life to the world.  The baby’s name will be Jesus.’   Mary was deeply disturbed by such news but Gabriel, being a very experienced angel, knew just the right things to say.

‘I’ll do whatever God wants me to do,’ said Mary, and she bowed to the angel and Gabriel bowed back for he knew that he was in the presence of someone so very special, someone who had been chosen by God.  As soon as Gabriel’s work was done, he left Mary alone, for Gabriel, as well as being very experienced was also very efficient.

‘I’m here!’ cried Billy, almost bumping into Gabriel as he left the house.  ‘I’m here at last.  I’m here to tell the news!’

‘The news?’ said Gabriel.  ‘Yet again you’re late.  Far too late.  Late by a mile.’

And Billy was sad, for a while.

‘Come on, we have other work to do,’ said Gabriel.

And off they flew, with a flash of their wings.

Carnival Fun

They passed through a place where the sound of  a circus was filling the air.  There were carnival colours and magical music and laughter and so much to do.  There were lions and llamas, tigers and zebras and wonderful creatures from every continent on earth.  There were singers and dancers and jugglers and gymnasts and acrobats bending their rather long limbs.  The smell of sweet popcorn was tickling the taste buds of everyone who passed by, and an elephant trumpeted a loud elephant noise as only elephants do!

Billy squeezed his way through the crowds until he came to the funniest, fanciest clown he had ever seen, with bright orange hair, and a bright shiny nose and a smile as wide as his face.

‘This is like heaven!’ cried Billy.

He watched as the clown made him laugh, and, oh, how he laughed!  He laughed until his belly ached…and then, after even more laughing and more belly aching, he heard the deep, echoing sound of the town clock in the distance, and Billy remembered to look at his watch!

‘Oh no!’ cried Billy.  ‘I’m late again!  I have to go! Thank you for the fun!’ he shouted to the clown who was now entertaining another little boy who had also squeezed through the crowds.  As Billy listened to the little boy’s laughter lingering high above the crowds and the creatures, off he flew, with a flash of his wings, to catch up with Gabriel.

Now Gabriel had gone to a carpenter’s house, and the carpenter’s name was Joseph.  Scattered around his workshop were wood saws and screws and hammers and nails, and the floor was full of sawdust and shavings of wood.  There were half finished tables, and chairs with two legs, and fun wooden toys wonderfully carved from olive wood and lemon wood and any other kind of wood that Joseph could lay his hands on.

It was late in the evening and Joseph was asleep on a rug on the floor but he was having the kind of sleep you have when you have something on your mind.  He tossed and turned and wriggled around and worried about all kinds of things, for his life had become quite complicated lately and he really was confused about all the recent happenings.  Gabriel leaned over, brushed Joseph’s brow with his golden wing and whispered gently in his ear.

‘Joseph, don’t worry.  Mary’s baby is from God. Take her as your wife.  Everything will be good.’

Joseph relaxed and sighed and breathed so deeply and dreamed of only lovely things for his dreams were now full of an angel’s whisper.  As soon as his work was done, Gabriel left Joseph to his beautiful dreams.

‘I’m here!’ cried Billy, as he almost bumped into Gabriel who was shaking off sawdust from his feet.  ‘I’m here at last.  I’m here to tell the news!’

‘The news?’ said Gabriel.  ‘Yet again you’re late.  Far too late.  Late by a mile.

And Billy was sad, for a while.

‘Come on, come quickly, we have other work to do,’ said Gabriel.

And off they flew, with a flash of their wings.

Bear cuddles

They passed through a place with shops that lined long streets.  The shop windows were as large as houses, and the displays inside were weird and wonderful and brilliantly lit.  There were magical mannequins dressed in fine clothes, and hampers of food with items that Billy had never seen before and had certainly never tasted.

Billy squeezed his way through the crowds until he came to the window of what seemed to be the biggest toy shop in the world.  He slipped inside the shop, where Billy discovered the furriest, fluffiest teddy bear he had ever seen in his life!

‘This is like heaven!’ cried Billy, and the bear’s ears twitched warmly, for the words were lovely to hear.

The teddy bear was so cuddly and warm that Billy forgot about his special work and then, after a long time of cuddly delights, he remembered to look at his watch!

‘Oh no!’ cried Billy.  I’m late again. I have to go!  Thanks for the fun!’  And the bear gave him a big bear wave before he turned to give cuddles and warmth to another little boy who was looking rather wide eyed, and whose fine cloak seemed to shimmer with golden light.

Billy took one last glance at the bear and his new friend and off he flew with a flash of his wings!

As Billy flew onwards and upwards so fast, checking his watch for the time, he could hear the sound of angels’ voices and he could see such a brilliant light in the sky that brightened the night!  For Gabriel and a host of other angels were singing aloud to some shepherds they found in a field about the birth of a new king.

‘The king’s name is Jesus,’ sang Gabriel, as he filled the field with light.  ‘He will bring peace on earth.’

The shepherds, excited to hear such a thing, rushed off to see everything the angels had told them.

‘I’m here!’ cried Billy.  ‘I’m here at last.  I’m here to tell the news!’

‘The news?’ said Gabriel.  ‘Yet again you’re late.  Far too late.  Late by a mile!  You really do have to keep an eye on the time, Billy.  You seem to be late for everything!

A fireside king

Now Billy was sad, and he sat beside the shepherds’ fire, warming his hands and face, hoping to find comfort in the heat of the flames.  His day had been such fun and he had seen so many wonderful things but he wondered how he could ever be a proper angel if he couldn’t get anywhere on time.

And then, as if from nowhere, along came a small boy who was looking rather hot faced and flustered.  He looked like a little king, for he had a small crown on his head and wore very beautiful clothes, embroidered with gems and strands of golden thread woven in far off lands.

‘Excuse me,’ said the little boy. ‘I seem to have lost my way.  I could see you in the distance through the darkness and I thought you looked a very helpful chap indeed.’

Billy thought he recognised the boy from somewhere and he shook his head and he shook his wings, which is what angels do when they are trying to remember something.

‘I was travelling along with three others to see a new born king,’ said the boy, ‘and, well, I seem to have lost my way.  I’m always late for everything, you see.’

Again, Billy shook his wings which caused a shimmer of light to glow.  The light was even brighter than the shepherds’ fire which, by now, was beginning to die out.

‘Everything was going fine,’ said the little boy, ‘until we passed through a market place and I stopped to taste the sweetest lollipop I have ever seen.  And then we passed through a circus and I stopped to laugh at a clown.  And then, as if that wasn’t enough, I found the furriest, fluffiest teddy bear I’ve ever seen and he was so warm and cuddly that I just couldn’t resist playing for an hour…or two.’

Billy thought back to all the things he had seen throughout his long, lovely day and then he jumped up from his place at the fire.  His wings fluttered with excitement!  Golden showers shimmered through the darkness of the night.

‘I knew it,’ cried Billy.  ‘I knew I’d seen you before.  At last I can be a proper angel and give good news to the people below.’

‘An angel?’ asked the boy.  ‘I’ve seen some wonderful things today.  In fact, I’ve travelled many miles since leaving home and I’ve had such fun but I don’t think I have ever seen an angel before!’

‘Well, I don’t think I’m a very good angel,’ replied Billy, ‘You see, by the time I get to where I’ve been sent it’s always too late and some other angel will have already given the news.’

‘Is that what angels do?’ asked the little boy.

‘Well, there are different kinds of angels,’ said Billy.  ‘Some angels are like an awesome army and they fight great battles against evil.  They are the bravest of all angels.’  Billy looked very serious as he thought of Michael and all the angels of heaven who had marched to war with only goodness in their hearts.  ‘Some angels are heavenly helpers who bring comfort and warmth to those in need,’ continued Billy.  ‘They are full of kindness and their hearts and so very loving and they bring healing in their hands.  And other angels are messengers.  They fly from God with great news.  That’s the kind of angel I am.  That’s the kind of angel I’m supposed to be,’ said Billy lowering his head.

‘Well, you look very grand and glorious,’ said the little boy. ‘You look as if you have great news indeed.’

‘I do have news,’ said Billy.  ‘I have news of a new King who has been born into the world.’

‘Do you think it may be the king I am looking for?’ asked the little boy.  ‘Do you have any news of him? Or is it all too late…again?’

‘No, of course it’s not too late!’ cried Billy.  ‘It’s not too late at all!  The new king born this night is in the town below.  They say he is beautiful.  Hurry, you’re not far away at all!  Just follow that star!’  Billy pointed to the sky and it was the clearest night and the brightest star that anyone had ever seen.

‘This is like heaven!’ cried the little boy.  ‘Thank you for the message!  Thank you for being the best angel I’ve ever seen!’

‘Oh, one more thing,’ said Billy.  His eyes were filled with great sadness.  ‘There is still much in the world to fear and I really don’t want you to come to any harm.  When you’ve seen the new king, please do be careful on your journey home.’

‘I will.  I promise,’ said the little boy.  ‘And thank you once again.  You’ve been so kind.  I think you may be the best angel I’ve ever met.’

And off ran the fourth wise man, who was really a boy and who is not very well known at all.

Billy glanced up at the star in the sky and there above him, gazing down, was Gabriel who had a very proud look on his face.  In fact, his face was glowing, which is what angels do when they are very pleased indeed.  Billy’s face glowed too and up he flew, flying high and higher.  The sky burst open with light and it seemed to Billy as though heaven and earth was one.  There was heavenly song, the kind that only angels sing when there is something wonderful to celebrate, for tonight the angels had delivered the most important message ever.  And Billy’s timing had been just right!

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Copyright Dean Atkins

‘O’ my God!

On December 17th, Advent takes a turning point, as we move closer to the celebration of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. During this time, each day is characterised by the ‘O Antiphons,’ ancient words dating as far back as the sixth century. 

Each Antiphon tops and tails the Magnificat canticle at Evening Prayer, and is also used at the ‘Alleluia‘ Gospel Acclamation at Mass. Beginning with an ‘O’ to Christ, and addressing him with a particular title found in Scripture, we ask him to accomplish something in our lives. In themselves they can become a beautiful prayer for each day as we approach Christmas.

From 17th to 23rd December, we’ll be sharing a short reflection here for each ancient Antiphon, and how they may be applied to our own lives and experiences today, so please feel free to check back each day!

The ‘O’ Antiphons

December 17: O Wisdom of the Most High, ordering all things with strength and gentleness, come and teach us the way of truth”

December 18: O Ruler of the House of Israel, who gave the law to Moses on Sinai, come and save us with outstretched arm.

December 19: O Root of Jesse, set up as a sign to the peoples, come to save us, and delay no more.

December 20: O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver, come and save us, Lord our God.

December 21: O Key of David, who open the gates of the eternal kingdom, come to liberate from prison the captive who lives in darkness.

December 22: O King of the peoples  and cornerstone of the Church, come and save man, whom you made from the dust of the earth.

December 23: O Morning star, radiance of eternal light, sun of justice, come and enlighten those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.

St Mary’s Wild Side: our Christmas Charity Appeal

During this last year, the world has experienced such a challenging time.  We want to reach out, particularly to those who are lonely and isolated, those who find life difficult, whether through poor mental health or other issues and concerns which can affect our health and well being.

As a city centre church, we are also concerned about the natural environment and the two can and do go hand in hand! We know that spending time in green space, close to nature, can benefit our mental and physical wellbeing. It can:

  • improve our mood
  • reduce feelings of stress or anger
  • help people take time out and feel more relaxed
  • improve physical health
  • improve confidence and self-esteem
  • help us be more active
  • help us make new connections
  • provide peer support.

Each Christmas, we choose a charity to support with donations made at the Christmas Crib, our Christmas Greetings Board or simply by direct donations. This year, St Mary’s Christmas Charity Appeal is our home grown “Wild Side.”  After beginning to shape and create a space in our gardens over the last few months, we are now in a place to further develop them to benefit the wider community.

Donations will not only go towards physical resources but will be used to deliver sessions in our pilot project in the new year. We’re hoping to work with all ages from all backgrounds, and we already have a small amount of money ringfenced for activities involving those who are homeless.

This is an exciting yet simple project to:

  • strengthen community life
  • cherish our natural world
  • provide a safe and nurturing environment for  people experiencing  difficult and trying times.

Donations can be made through the Christmas Greetings Board, at the Christmas Crib or simply directly to St Mary’s

We’ve begun to transform the gardens to make them more accessible to people and more friendly to nature!

Get in touch

If you’re interested in partnering with us on any aspects of our garden project by volunteering, taking part in activities, commending people to us to engage in organised activities or you just want to find out more then please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!

Chocolate coins and Advent light

Whilst Ava waits in the wings with the anticipation of lighting the rose candle next Sunday, Seb was more than happy to take his turn at this Sunday’s lighting of the Advent wreath.

Beneath the evergreen ring, sits a bowl of incense, a symbol of our prayers rising through the gateway between heaven and earth, as we raise our eyes to heaven and the coming of Christ.

Eternal God, as the days shorten and the evenings draw swiftly in we light a candle to enlighten our minds and stir our hearts so that he of whom the prophets spoke may find us watching and waiting to welcome him, the Light of the world, for he is Lord forever and ever.  Amen.


The joyful simplicity of our Advent worship is enriched by the wreath, and the daily delights of adding a symbol to the Jesse Tree which, on Christmas Eve, adorned with the symbols of our salvation story, is illuminated and crowned with a star. But that’s all to come! Advent is about waiting and anticipation after all.

The Jesse Tree transformed into the Christmas Tree – but we have a few weeks before it looks anything like this!

Santa Claus

Meanwhile, with St Nicholas being subdued today by the Second Sunday of Advent, we gave thanks for his life and ministry at the end of Mass, and blessed and distributed small bags of gold chocolate coins for the children – although some adults managed to get their hands on a coin or two, too!

St Nicholas is, of course, the provenance of Santa Claus, and an important Advent saint. One story associated with his life involved a poor man with three daughters.  Unable to provide a dowry for his daughters meant they were unable to get married and so destined to be sold into slavery.

On three occasions a bag of gold appeared in their household: tossed through the window and landing in stockings or shoes left at the fireside to dry.  This led to the tradition of children leaving stockings for St Nicholas to fill with gifts.  A symbol of three gold balls, coins, money bags or sometimes oranges or apples are used to represent St Nicholas.

God our Father, the light of Christmas is breaking upon the horizon, the night time gives way to the coming of your Son into the world. Bless us and all who receive these coins. May they remind us of the generosity and kindness of St Nicholas and the help he eagerly gave to those who were in trouble or need. Help us to use our gifts to create a world of peace and love. May we be signs of hope in a world of despair, shining beacons of light where darkness overshadows. We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.


The mystery of who you are…

Her story was utterly moving and utterly captivating. As a child, she is on a school residential trip away, enjoying time with her friends. Having fun. Being a teenager. Being young. They are camping out together in a large sports hall echoed with laughter. Their lives filled with hope for the future.

Then there is an explosion.

Noise. Chaos. Dust. Death.


After too much silence she crawls out from under the bodies of her dead friends.

It is 1992 and the beginnings of the Bosnian conflict. For days she goes on the run. Through woods and quiet places. Surviving. Somehow. Removing a wallet from a dead man. Hoping he won’t mind.

Years later, as an adult, finding herself finally in the UK after moving through several European countries, the flashbacks and fear fester away. Her mental health is imploding. Her childhood experiences weigh heavily and her response to everyday noises and incidents completely disproportionate.

After seeking help and falling often through care nets, she emerges as a woman who wants to understand what has been happening to her and she begins to study psychology. She is a mystery to herself and she wants to understand her mind, her life. She needs to enter the mystery of who and why she is. Her life is very different now.

We are indeed a mystery to ourselves. Rarely do many of us want to face up to who we are or get to grips with the meaning of our lives, with the mystery of our mind or the workings our heart. Perhaps it is too much to contemplate, too much to take even without the extreme experiences of that impressive woman.

As Christians, we are presented with a great mystery. The mystery of God and the mystery of who we are. Believing and belonging doesn’t always settle our minds. We’re human after all, and none of us is perfect.

And yet there is still that yearning to be settled and whole. To have an understanding or at least some insight into who we are and why we are.

“The mystery of who you are,” said St Augustine, “is laid upon the altar.”

He means that we find meaning in the Mass. The Eucharist is the means through which Christ’s saving love is made manifest. “When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again,” said St Paul.

We cannot get away from the death of Jesus. In the Eucharist, it is his death that we proclaim. A death which brings life. A life which brings love. A love which brings healing and wholeness and which understand the fragility of who we are and the difficulties we experience.

“We are what we eat,” so the well know health slogan goes. In the Eucharist we are fed with Christ’s body. And we become, we are, what we eat. We are Christ’s body in the world.

The mystery of the Eucharist not only tells us who we are but what we shall become. “God became human so that humans can become divine,” said St Augustine.

On the first Thursday of the month we gather in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, the body of Christ. And in gazing upon him we discover not only how much he loves us, a love which is expressed and proclaimed by his death on the cross but we also gaze upon the mystery of ourselves, who we are and what we shall become.

“We are God’s children now,” said St John, “and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

The mystery is deep and cannot be grasped with sound bites or harboured by headlines. Sometimes we simply need to look and wait and wonder. To spend some moments in silence and grateful contemplation.

There is nothing too clever about this. No gimmicks, no stage directions, little drama. Just watching and waiting and knowing or wanting to know.

Why not join us on Thursday 3rd December at 6pm as we spend some time in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and be drawn into the mystery of God who comes to dwell with us.

Whatever the weather

A Palm Sunday procession from St Paul’s Methodist Church through Butetown to St Mary’s Church

Two years ago, we celebrated the 175th anniversary of the opening of the present day St Mary’s Church, deep in December in the heart of winter.  Our celebratory dinner planned for the following month was postponed thanks to the “Beast from the East!”

Having opened in 1873, it was two years later on November 6th, 1875 that St Mary’s Church was actually consecrated, a sign of eagerness, perhaps, to open as soon as possible!

Before this, for over a hundred years, the Parish of St Mary’s had been without its own church building, the former Priory Church having fallen into disrepair, damaged (amongst other things) by flood, the whims of the weather.  Parish life continued.

The congregation continued to worship at St John’s Church but retained its own wardens, financial accounts and identity.  Since Medieval times, when St John’s Church was built, the town’s attention and population had shifted towards the Castle but, in the nineteenth century, with the expanse of the docks and the rapid rise in population in the parish of St Mary’s, a new church building was needed.

The first Vicar of the new church retained the dual Incumbency with St John’s but when the second Vicar was appointed St Mary’s continued its separate identity, with a fresh calling.

Planting in the Parish

The population continued to rise.  How did the church respond and grow in the parish? One way was to open satellite places of worship, with clergy and others given responsibility for the mission and ministry of that part of the parish.  After time, these ‘rented rooms’ were replaced by consecrated church buildings, and separate parishes were eventually carved out, often pastored by the priests who planted them.  ‘Church planting’ is nothing new.

St Mary’s Church, looking very different today from when it was first opened in 1873 and consecrated in 1875

The Patterns of Life

Today, the city continues to change shape and years, after the development of Cardiff Bay, the city centre is moving slowly but surely towards the sea, linking the two identifiable areas of Cardiff, and nudging St Mary’s along the way.  Meanwhile, in between, the Butetown community retains its separate identity, stubborn to shift, despite decades of external forces which threatened its life, overlooked its values and tried to bury its hidden treasures now being brought out into the shining sun.

Over the last ten years, since the census of 2011, the population of the parish has grown by 40% and is predicted to press on further. More apartments and planning for homes continue at a rapid pace.  We’ve seen this before.

Parish Life has served the city, which was simply a town when St Mary’s was built.  It kept pace with the patterns of life, lived through change, effected change, and enabled growth. Still does.

Some of those churches born of St Mary’s in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century have now closed, a result  of the changing shape of a city, merciless in its development.  Others, however, have continued their role, retained a presence, picked up the presenting needs, continued to minister to all.

Years ago, St Stephen’s Church, a chapel of ease from St Mary’s at Mount Stuart Square, was closed down, sold off.  Perhaps, if decision makers had known how the Docks would be redeveloped and rebranded as ‘The Bay’ and how Cardiff would redefine itself,  there may have been some stubbornness to retain it, standing as it does in an area prime for Mission.

Over the last ten years, since the last census, the population of the parish has grown by 40% and is et to grow further with new housing developments and plans

Dry but cloudy

Today, St Mary’s Church continues to be a solid presence in a changing city.  There is nothing new under the sun, and whilst we must attend to the present moment with an eye and ear on future opportunities and changes, we can also learn from the past and how parish life can serve the needs of even the quickest growing city in Europe, with its diverse and fascinating communities.

In a newspaper report of the Consecration ceremony much was made of the weather which “during the early period of the forenoon was dry, but cloudy; and continued so until about twelve o’ clock, when it commenced raining.”  However, it didn’t prevent a large gathering of people who processed “to the building to be consecrated.”

At many times in its history, the Parish of St Mary’s has looked at the whole picture and, whilst scanning the scene, has looked ‘small’ at times.  It picked out those pockets of population which showed such potential, which presented needs, and which needed priests, and a place for people to gather. By doing this, it enabled the parish to grow in number, to grow in faith, to grow outwards.

It played to the strengths of Parish Life which means, 175 years after its consecration and 177 years since it was first opened, St Mary’s Church on Bute Street remains both a home to a vibrant congregation, and a sign and symbol to the wider community that we are here for them, whatever the weather.

Dry but cloudy: from a report of the Consecration Service in the The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette, 8th November 1875

The Colour of Black

Coinciding with Black History Wales’ activities launched at the beginning of October, we look at one of the few representations of black people in the holy art at St Mary’s, and the place played by a North African family in the growth of Christianity in the first few decades.

Three black people stand next to and under and near the cross of Jesus.  This is a painting at St Mary’s Church by local artist Kenneth Smitham of the fifth Station of the Cross.  It’s a glimpse from the gospel which sets Simon of Cyrene on the stage, compelled as he is to carry the cross of Jesus.

We know, too, the names of the two younger people who colour the canvas.  They are Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon, and named as such by Mark in his gospel account.  It’s an important mention, for it means that, at the time the gospel was written, Simon and his family were known to the wider church.

These are not three passing encounters.  They aren’t people who just walked on and off the stage never to be seen or known again.  This chance encounter between Jesus and a (possibly) Jewish pilgrim from North Africa (present day eastern Libya) had deeper repercussions – for Simon and his family become believers.

There is no indication that Simon, at first, is moved by pity or compelled by compassion.  Rather the Roman soldiers force him from the crowd and place the crossbeam on his shoulders.  And yet, in a word, Mark reminds us that Simon carries the cross behind Jesus, calling to mind the words of Jesus that “Whoever wants to be a disciple of mine must take up his cross and follow me.” Simon, in a very particular and precious way, has been drawn into the passion (the suffering) of Jesus, and his life is changed for ever.

We may assume that Simon was a Jew, since he had come to Jerusalem at Passover time – and Cyrene, at the time, was a centre for dispersed Jews, 100,000 of whom had been forced to settle there during the reign of Ptolemy Soter, 300 years before the birth of Christ.

Fly forward, fifty days or so from Simon’s maiden appearance, and it’s Pentecost Sunday.  The festival has drawn pilgrims from across the known world, and the Apostles are about to hit the streets after receiving the gift of the Hoy Spirit.

The Acts of the Apostles (2:9) delivers a cacophony of countries from where these travellers hailed, to create a bubbling mix of cultures and traditions: Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” All of these, so the Acts of the Apostles tell us, can hear, in their own language, the teaching of the apostles. We are told that, from among these widely drawn pilgrims, 3,000 believe in Peter’s message, and are baptized.  Perhaps Simon and his family were amongst these. (Acts 2:41)

Likewise, too, later in the Acts of the Apostles (11:19-20) we read of people from Cyrene who preached to the Greeks.  “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.”  We can only conjecture that Simon may have been among these!

And the mention, again in Acts, that in the church at Antioch, “there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” can only again lead us to conjecture and what tradition tells us: Lucius became the first Bishop of Cyrene but there is no actual proof that “Simeon (Simon) who was called Niger” can be identified with Simon of Cyrene.  But perhaps we can be forgiven some fanciful thinking which places him there in Antioch!

And yet this isn’t the last we hear of Simon’s family.  It is thought by some scholars that one of his sons is the Rufus mentioned by St Paul in his letter to the Romans, along with his mother who, says St Paul, has been like a mother to him too.  “ Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine.” (Romans 16:13)

The gospel of Mark, which initially names Rufus, was written to the church of Rome, perhaps some time after Peter’s death, around AD 64-6.  Perhaps, then, there is some credence to identifying Mark’s ‘Rufus’ to the one who settled in Rome with his mother!

Although there is no proof of the colour of their skin, tradition and art more often than not portrays them as black skinned, and in so many churches where there are Stations of the Cross, their representation may be the only artistic and architectural portrayal of a black person.

As Black History Month continues, Simon and his family continue to stand tall in the part they play in the history of Christianity from its very beginning. Perhaps we need a little more black representation in our holy art here at St Mary’s.  But, for now, Simon and his boys sit quite happily here, guiding us through the Stations of the Cross, shedding light on what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and how being drawn into the passion and death of Jesus transforms us.

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