Saving sacred space

There have been suggestions in recent church documents that church buildings are a ‘limiting factor’ on the growth and spread of the Christian religion.  The idea that church buildings are an encumbrance rather than an aid to the practice of faith is not new, but in these days when maintenance of old buildings is seen as a drag on mission the issue has become critical.  Are religious buildings such as churches important and, if so, what purpose do they serve other than as facilities for people to congregate in to perform their religious ceremonies?  Are the buildings in which we perform our religious rites purely functional spaces, or do they serve a purpose over and above what happens within them?  In this article I want to defend the idea of religious buildings as sacred spaces, places which open us up to that which lies beyond, and which enable us to experience time differently.

One of the first things that people notice on entering an old church or temple is its beauty.  These buildings have been constructed with love and devotion and whether they are richly decorated or simple and plain they reflect the effort, artistry, skill, and imagination of those who have been involved in their construction.  Many of our religious buildings are national treasures and some of them contain works of major artistic importance.  Some people would say, of course, that our religious buildings are simply museums and that the monuments and works of art that they contain are simply a witness to the past.  I would like to challenge that viewpoint, for I think that our religious buildings (and perhaps museums too in a different way) celebrate something that is timeless.  Beauty is almost indefinable, and it catches people in different ways, but when we sense beauty, we know that we have been touched by something other than the ordinary and mundane.  Religious buildings open our eyes onto a different world – a world in which the works of human skill and artistry represent something that cannot be captured in human industry.  Like the poem, which seeks to capture something unsayable in words, so the religious building tries to capture in stone, wood, and other materials, that which is not in the materials.  A church, you could say, is a poem in stone.  Beauty is an expression of the sacred, which is why for a time some people thought that art was replacing religion as the means of exploring the meaning of existence.

Another thing that people often notice and remark upon when they visit a church or monastery is the stillness and quiet.  Even infrequent visitors to churches tend to lower their voices and speak in hushed tones, as if noise would disturb the atmosphere.  There are very few places that are associated with an atmosphere of stillness and quiet, with libraries being another traditional example, and these qualities create spaces for reflection.  Religious buildings often have a calming and stilling effect and draw one into a reflective mood, especially when they have vast open spaces that encourage what might be called the ‘expansive mind’ – a mind that is drawn out of itself and into connection with that which is larger than the self.  Even if they do not know how to pray, or what they are doing when they pray, many people want to light a candle and remember someone or something in the stillness, and the church may be the only place where they feel able to do this without fear of ridicule or embarrassment.  Sacred space, it seems, gives people permission to be reflective, quiet, and prayerful in the general sense of offering their thanks or fears or hopes into the silence.

For those who visit our sacred spaces it is often not the worship or everyday activity that interests them, but a connection with history.  Many visitors scan the memorials on the walls, spend time inspecting the tombs and engravings, and like to discover the history of the place.  Churchyards draw all sorts of visitors, from those who come to sit and enjoy the quiet and the still natural surroundings, to those who come to try and re-connect with a loved one or remember someone they have known or heard about.  For me, churches are places where history lives on.  Visitors are surrounded by walls that have heard thousands of prayers and tread on floors that have been paced by countless predecessors, often leaving traces in the worn-away stones.  Stained glass windows connect us with stories from the past, stories that many associate with the time of myth and legend, and they speak to us of the things we long for – healing, forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  Churchyards remind us of the cycle of life and speak the language of peaceful rest to those who find the loss of a loved one hard.  The witness of those visibly memorialised in tablets and tombstones is but a representative witness of all those who have come to rest in this holy ground.  If for no other reason, the space is sacred because countless numbers have chosen to hallow it as their final resting place.  This hallowed ground connects the living with the dead in a stream of prayer that continues down the ages.  The hallowing comes not from any personal worth or privilege, but from the prayers that have been offered – prayers that remind us that we neither our own beginning nor end, but that we belong to the stream of life which, as believers would say, flows from the heart of God.

Most sacred spaces seem to be constructed in such a way as to lead us forwards or upwards towards an infinite horizon.  The magnificent towering columns of a medieval cathedral or the remains of a medieval abbey leave us with a sense of the loftiness and immensity of being, a little like the view of the night sky sometimes does too.  However, it is not just the immensity of the enclosed space of a gothic cathedral that shapes this infinite horizon, but the way in which we are drawn in and beyond by the central feature, whether it be an altar, a statue, a sacred repository, or the mihrab that points towards Mecca.  Our sacred spaces speak to us of that which lies beyond our everyday, mundane lives, and they remind us that transcendence has always been one of the central features of the religious and spiritual search.  At a time when the Christian religion seems to have taken a ‘this-worldly’ turn, focussing perhaps more upon human needs and worldly concerns than this sense of transcendence, our buildings remind us of what we are in danger of forgetting – that the religious instinct is an orientation towards the infinite and eternal.  Whether the religious stories we tell ourselves are true or not, our religious instincts lead us to reflect on that which transcends our ordinary everyday lives and the superficial way in which we are often tempted to lead them.

Are churches that speak to us of beauty, that offer us quiet space and slow time, that connect us with the prayers of the ages, and that direct us towards the infinite horizon, really a ‘limiting factor’ on the growth of our religion?  Or are they the safest point of entry for a sceptical and religiously semi-literate public in their search for meaning and purpose?  Saving sacred spaces may prove to be the best means of regenerating people’s awareness of their own religious and spiritual instincts – that and the producing of worship to match the immensity, grandeur, and awe of our religious spaces.  That will be the subject of my next post.

A Sad Affair – the festive season without Christmas

Imagine what a world without all the good things spoken about in the Christmas story would look like? A world in which there is no glory, no promise of peace and redemption, no joy, no light to light up the darkness, and no love surrounding the birth of an innocent child! Although the commercialisation of Christmas leaves a lot to be desired, it still makes me happy to see the trees and the lights, the baubles and the festoons, the excitement on children’s faces as they receive presents, and the parties that turn this season into a special time of the year. There may not be much room for God in the Christmas marketplace, but at least there is still light and joy, glimmers of glory and benevolence, and a sense that there is something to celebrate.

Unfortunately, this year we have been warned that a happy Christmas might be an occasion for causing offence. Wishing someone a ‘Merry Christmas’ might be an affront to their religious sensibilities, or lack of them. Even calling it ‘Christmas’ could be considered lacking in tact, for many people would be offended that the time for festivity and parties should be associated with a minority religious affair. Even our parties must be subdued, say some, in case of wounding those who don’t drink or eat meat, or who feel offended by Christmas trees and treats. Perhaps the ‘sad affair’ that has come to represent the festive season for those who no longer believe in Christmas is a reflection of the misery and sadness that some people feel in a post-religious society? Perhaps it is a sign of the times – a time when Russia wages war on Ukraine; when there are strikes by rail workers, post workers and nurses; and a time when our society is divided, unhappy, and suffering because of rising prices and falling standards.

This sad affair of a festive season matches the sadness of our times. They are times in which there is not much glory, when peace seems as far away as ever, and in which love, joy and light are in short supply. That’s how it may seem for some, and I am sorry that they feel so sad and so offended by a story that ought to bring joy rather than offence, and a sense of gratefulness rather than disgust. But, I refuse to be sad at Christmas – without good cause, anyway! I refuse to let those who would mock my faith in the goodness of creation and human nature win! Despite all the difficulties that surround believing in the Christmas Story when it is turned into Christian doctrine and dogma, I refuse to let go of this story because of what it offers to the world – the vision that it contains.

The Christmas Story is a story to warm the heart and to raise the imagination. It is a story in which angels announce good news, news of great joy; in which shepherds run eagerly to see the birth of a new-born child; in which an innocent child is surrounded by the love of a mother and father; and in which wise men follow a star and arrive to shower the new-born with gifts that are fit for a king. Joy, love, and the giving of gifts turn this into a story about what we all need. We all need good news that will set us rejoicing; we all need love that will make us feel cared for and welcomed; we all need gifts that will lift our spirits and help us on our way; and we all need the light of the star to guide us when we lose our way. The glory of God is not to be found in the doctrine of the incarnation (something for academics to ponder on), but in the story of God reaching into the ordinary, humble circumstances of the birth of an innocent child to fill our hearts with joy, love, peace and light. What could be wrong with that?

The Worth of Worship

For those like me who are interested in the origin of words, it will come as no surprise to learn that the words ‘worship’ and ‘worth’ come from the same root.  ‘Worship’ is derived from the old English ‘weordscipe’ and refers to the state of being worthy and, as I explained in an introduction to worship for school recently, the idea behind worship is to celebrate those things we value or find worthy.  For religious people that usually means celebrating God or the divine life, but worship need not be seen as the preserve of the predominantly religious.  In her rather interesting recent series of lectures on ‘Values as the New Religion’, Professor Linda Woodhead argues that secular values have largely taken the place of religion in our society, and she reminds us that the secular celebration of values can be found everywhere – in major corporations, government departments, schools, and marketing organisations.  One value that has recently acquired a religious significance is the genuflection (taking the knee) that football players make at the beginning of games to mark the respect they have and demand for each other.  However, it is not just mutual respect that commands our attention as something worth celebrating, but values like dignity, accountability, transparency, honesty, and integrity.  Many of the organisations to which we belong celebrate these values, even if they are honoured more in the breach than in the observance – ‘laminated values’, as Linda Woodhead calls them

What I want to ask in this article is whether worship is simply about celebrating our values or whether it is more than that?  Thinking back to my previous piece on sacred spaces, I wonder whether there is a difference between celebrating worldly values – values such as success, mutual respect, and human kindness – and celebrating those values we associate with sacred space?  What are those sacred values, and what is it that makes something ‘sacred’?  In that article on ‘sacred space’ I explored the idea that religious buildings stand as witnesses to beauty, stillness, and quiet, and that they are reflective spaces that connect us with a living past and point us towards an infinite horizon.  The atmosphere of a sacred building directs our attention to what lies beyond, and it places us in a space and time that is stretched out and that reduces us to silence. The sacred raises us up and points us beyond ourselves to a space that is bigger and a time that is longer, bringing us to a point where words start to fail causing us to fall still and quiet.  In some circles this is described as awe and wonder, and these values have often been associated with worship.  Worship, in the sense of sacred worship, is designed to take us out of ourselves and place us in the context of the infinite and eternal, just as sacred spaces do.  Orthodox Christians see worship in terms of the present and mundane being touched by the eternal and heavenly – worship transports us into a different space and time where our perspective is transformed, and our lives are changed.

But, as someone pointed out to me after my article on saving sacred spaces, not all religious buildings convey this sense of transcendence or even the sense that they have been prayed in, and that is curious.  What makes a place or an act of worship sacred, and are there some qualities or characteristics that we can associate with this slippery designation ‘sacred’?  We have already mentioned beauty, stillness, quietness, reflection, and connection as elements of sacred space, and to these we could add inspiring, uplifting, and enlivening, particularly when we think about worship.  For an act of worship to feel sacred it must lift our spirits, enliven our souls, and connect us to what lies beyond that which is immediately present to our senses – to the place where words can no longer describe what is happening, but where we are embraced by a peace and joy that surpasses our understanding.  I have often had this experience after hearing a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music, or on entering a place where the stillness, peace, and tranquillity have been a palpable presence.  It is an experience that cannot be contrived or manufactured, for its purpose is not to create an effect, but to reveal or uncover that indescribable peace and joy that lie at the heart of creation.

One of the best insights into worship that I have received has come through walking the dog in the early hours of the day.  Each day I am struck by the way in which the trees just bask in the sun’s light, or the way in which the birds carry on singing in the rain, and this basking and singing feel like nature’s way of worshipping life – life which is mostly joyful and calm.  I know this is an idyllic picture, and I do recognise that nature can also be cruel and powerfully dangerous, but even in the sheer power of an attacking animal, or the roar of thunder, or the explosive power of a volcano, there is something to be wondered at and respected – valued, found worthy, worshipped.  Those wonderfully expressive and ancient songs we know as the psalms, songs that have formed the basis of worship for over two and a half millennia, celebrate every aspect of life as a cause for worship.  They are a pouring out of human experience and a lifting up of the human condition before the un-nameable and un-thinkable, and yet they mention the name ‘God’ to refer to this indescribable presence that they find elusive.  Life is full of moments when worship is the only word that is suitable for describing what is going on – whether it be the trees basking in the sun, the birds singing in the rain, a choral or symphonic work that pulls on the heart strings, the poem that says just the right word, or a piece of art that expresses a beauty beyond words – all these occasions open us up to the peace and joy of infinitude.

If we can find worship everywhere, and I do believe it is possible to experience worship almost everywhere, then why do we need places and acts of worship?  Some places lend themselves to worship, and many churches fall into this category.  However, some do not, and I wonder why – is it that they don’t point beyond themselves, or that they take themselves too seriously, pointing only to their own importance or even lack of importance?  When it comes to acts of worship, I wonder whether using the word ‘act’ is even appropriate?  Worship is not worship when it is contrived, when it seeks to produce an effect rather than create an atmosphere or a sense of orientation.  Often, worship fails when there are too many words, when it tries to do what is un-doable – to describe or delimit that which is indescribable or limitless.  Every experience of worship needs an element of mystery, for worship is about orientation and atmosphere rather than explanation and mundane concerns.  The worth of worship is that it points us beyond, towards the infinite horizon, and that it lifts us out of our present, placing us in the greater space and longer time of that which is beyond space and time.

Easter – looking out of the tomb

As most of us will be feeling entombed on Easter Day, I thought that I would write some reflections on the resurection looking out from the other side of the tomb. As we are confined to our homes during this period of lockdown, what does this looking out feel like, and what would resurrection look like? As I read the verses from today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah 31, I couldn’t help but identify with those who Jeremiah says are under the curse of the sword, or those still wandering in the wilderness. The virus feels like a cruel sword hanging over us, and being in the seclusion and isolation of our own homes feels a bit like being in the wilderness. Into this situation, Jeremiah says, God speaks the following words:

“Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you”. (Jeremiah 31: 2 – 4)

Finding grace in the wilderness is what we are all trying to do right now and that grace – the promise of love – gives us hope that one day again, like the people who were in exile in Jeremiah’s time, we will take up tambourines “and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards…the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit” (verses 4 – 5). Resurrection in this context would be about returning to life after the wilderness and isolation, our exile – returning to life after the scourge of the viral sword. Resurrection is about coming out the other side of our trial and tribulation to a life of merriment and laughter, rejoicing and planting fruit that will make us happy and strong.

We have all been anxiously waiting in these times for signs of good news. We are all looking for those first signals that our curse is over, that this unforgiving epidemic is coming to an end, and that our lives can be restored to some semblance of order and peace. We are looking for relief and deliverance, and that puts me in mind of the second reading for Easter Sunday from the book of the Acts. Peter says that he has a message for anyone who will listen to God and do the right thing, and he tells an assembled crowd that deliverance has come in the events he and his friends have witnessed in Jerusalem concerning Jesus:

“We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging from a tree, but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”. (Acts 10: 39 – 43)

Whatever happened on the first Easter Day, and it is impossible to speculate after two thousand years have elapsed, Jesus’ followers obviously believed they had received God’s deliverance – his peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness and love – in the new life they were experiencing, and that is what matters. This is why Peter could be so fervent in his witness, and why so many others throughout history have testified to the transformation this sense of deliverance has made in their own lives. Resurrection, in this context, is about being delivered from the burdens that often weigh us down – our faultiness, self-centredness, our guilt and lack of care. Resurrection is about being delivered from the limitations of our fleshly life, our weaknesses, and don’t we all have anxieties about these and want to hear the good news that they can be overcome?

Perhaps the most worrying anxiety that we have at this present time is that we ourselves may catch the virus, or that those nearest and dearest to us will get it. We worry about our nurses and doctors, those doing essential jobs in our shops, our supermarkets, our postal services, our farms, our transport companies, our essential manufacturers and our refuse services. We worry about our Prime Minister and about the homeless, about the elderly in our care homes, the patients in our hospitals, as well as those who flout the government’s guidelines. We are afraid, and we are particularly afraid of death. In the reading for Easter Day from Matthew’s Gospel, the angel says to the women:

“Do not be afraid: I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples. He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him”. (Matthew 28: 5 – 7)

These are not just words of comfort, but words that point to the most important message about the resurrection; that it is about replacing the fear of death with the joy of new life. The angel gives the women the task of telling Jesus’ closest followers to go back to Galilee, to their homes and their work, because it is in the context of their ordinary, everyday lives – the life after all those terrible events they have witnessed in Jerusalem has been put behind them – that they will see and know Jesus with them again, We know from the other Easter witness accounts that most of the encounters with the risen Jesus were within the context of everyday life – at a meal, by the lake, in a quiet room – and, throughout Christian history, that presence has been particularly encountered in the Eucharist. The stories that we read at Easter remind us that the encounter with the risen Christ is not an encounter with a ghost or a revivified corpse, but with the God who meets us in ordinary, everyday things that have become holy and special because they have brought us the love, comfort and grace of God. The first followers of Jesus found that grace in the assurance that Jesus was with them as they returned to life after their curse. Resurrection, in this context, is about learning to live without fear, and learning to receive the new life God grants us wherever we find it – in a word of comfort, a sign of grace, or the sacraments of nature and the church.

Looking out from the tomb there is new life on the other side. May God grant us the grace to come out the other side rejoicing, having been set free, and unafraid of all that lies before us.

Feeling useless and helpless?

One of the side-effects of the current lockdown because of the viral epidemic is that lots of us are feeling useless and helpless. Those of us not in what are considered essential occupations are having to hunker down and, although we might try our best to help our family, neighbours and friends, there is not a lot we think we can do. I feel particularly guilty, as a Christian priest, that I am not doing more to help my community, but then I can only help those whose needs I know about, and even then I know that I am limited as to what I can do. I have very few skills that are useful in the present crisis, and I am even having to learn to exercise my ministry remotely.

There are times in life when we all find ourselves in the position of not being able to help or be of use. On Maundy Thursday we remember the disciples accompanying Jesus into the garden on the Mount of Olives. They were not able to stay awake, let alone be of any earthly use during the agonising hours before his arrest. Then, of course, there was Peter on Jesus’ final day who was less than useless and helpful as he denied knowing Jesus out of fear for his own life. When Jesus was on the cross, the crowd scoffed at him by saying that though he thought he could save others, he couldn’t even save himself. The whole episode of Jesus’ passion and death shows us just how useless and helpless we can be in times of crisis. Jesus, some accounts infer, refused to help himself and his friends mostly ran away.

Christians feel they have to be helpful and useful, almost as if that is what God requires of them. But, does God really require us to feel guilty when what we can do seems so very little? Even Jesus couldn’t help everyone, and often he had to retreat from the crowds. No, God doesn’t require us to be useful or helpful, although it is nice if we can be, but to be faithful and to care. He calls us to do our bit to spread his love, mercy and forgiveness, and if we can do that for at least one person every day, then we have done our bit in God’s service. At the centre of our Christian story is the death of Jesus on the cross, and how useful or helpful was that?

Well, as it turns out, that seemingly useless and helpless moment was the moment when God’s love met our human wickedness and selfishness, and proclaimed that our uselessness and helplessness in the face of death are not the end. Love triumphs over all. So, whether you are a nurse or a patient, a care giver or someone being cared for, have an essential job or are locked down at home, you are not useless or helpless if you love. As we remember those in essential roles this evening, all those who serve our community, let’s remember that we too play our part by caring for them, praying for all who are suffering and dying, and that our love, thoughts and prayers are useful and helpful.

A tale of two gates

The contrast could not be starker. One man enters by the South gate, clothed in judicial robes, surrounded by armed guards, the very model of imperial power – self-assured, a man of wealth and prestige, and held in veneration by sycophants. Another man enters by the North gate, clothed as a simple Galilean peasant, greeted by a few waving branches in imitation of the old days when David came to the city as king. This man arrives on a donkey, hardly a model of any kind of useful power, but held in veneration by those who look on with hope for the poor and dispossessed.

The confrontation of these two men is about to make history. Pilate, the delegate of Imperial Rome, egged on by those who have been affronted, decides the poor Galilean prophet must be handed over to his fate. He washes his hands – it is nothing to do with him. Jesus, the prophet who has entered by the North gate, as so often, will now be pilloried, persecuted and put to death. One man, who has the power to be merciful and beneficent, walks away and leaves a poor man to his fate. The other, who has often talked about the mercy, forgiveness and love of God, is left in the hands of those who think God requires punishment, retributive justice and sacrifice – the sacrifice of flesh. It is as if two opposing forces have entered by these gates into Jerusalem, and that these forces must battle it out in the middle – cross and confront each other at that spot, some say, that marks the centre of the world.

The tale of two gates begins the story of Holy Week. One gate where the powerful enter, self-assured, wealthy and prestigious, sometimes greedy beyond measure, often out of touch, with a tendency to be unmerciful and unforgiving. There are plenty of Pilates in this world! At the other gate enter the powerless, the poor, those who seek justice and mercy, and who risk being punished if they speak out. There are some who are like Jesus in this world, and they are saints. These are the ones who live and breath mercy and forgiveness, who serve others to the point of death, and who love with a love that lays down no conditions. To do so is to follow the way of God, and to live the way of God is to risk that place of crossing and confrontation.

Thank God for all those, especially our angels and saints in the health and care system, who daily take up the cross and walk to that place at the centre of our world where God meets us in love and care.

A week to remember

At first sight my title might suggest that I am asking you to remember this past week – a week which has been memorable for its toll in lives and loss of livelihoods because of the raging pandemic. However, I’m going to push our memories back even further to a week two thousand years ago when something happened that changed the course of history. Whatever your views about the death of Jesus, it has to be acknowledged that his death affected history, and therefore our lives, in a big way. Europe, and many other parts of the world, would not be what they are today had it not been for the Christian faith that developed after Jesus’ death, and our attitude to love, suffering and death has been indelibly shaped by his story.

So, why remember this week, the coming week that Christians call ‘Holy Week’? In a series of posts next week I want to show how the story of Jesus resonates with the story of our time and of our lives. It is a story that incorporates the suffering of innocents; the notion of giving one’s life in suffering service to others; and the idea that God can be found at the point where human existence begins to run out in the peace that follows the sheer silence of devastation.

On our church website – http://www.ststephenscanterbury.net – we will be offering reflective Services to cover each day of Holy Week, kicking off with a Palm Sunday celebration this Sunday. On Monday to Wednesday we will be offering a Compline to end each day and, on Maundy Thursday, there will be a Eucharist (with the invitation to make ‘Spiritual Communion’) that will incorporate reflections on the washing of feet and the stripping of the altar – things that would usually take place in church. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday there will be some liturgies to help us reflect on the death and burial of Jesus, and then on Easter Sunday we will celebrate the new life of Easter with a festal Eucharist and reflection on the dawning of the new day with its light and promise of unlimited life.

Please do join us as we remember this very special week, and may the blessings of this holy season be with you as you continue to live through these difficult days.

All aboard the slow train

Today marks the beginning of Passion-tide and the fifteen days between now and Easter have been celebrated by the Church throughout history by dwelling on the story of Jesus’ last days. One of the most useful ways for doing this is the practice developed by the Franciscans of following the way of the cross by stopping at various stations or stopping points. For those who may have followed The Way of the Cross in Jerusalem, I think you will agree with me that it is a bit like getting aboard a slow train – not a mechanical one, but a human one – and stopping every few minutes along the journey to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So, I would like to invite you to come aboard that slow train with me and, as we stop at each station, reflect on our present life in the light of the enduring Passion story. There are fifteen stations along our way, so one for each day leading to Easter.

Our first station is the one where we board the train, the station where Jesus faced Pilate and was sentenced to death. As we set off we remember all those in positions of responsibility – our international, national and local leaders – who are having difficult decisions to make. May God help them to act wisely and kindly. As we follow their directions, we stop with Jesus at the second station where he accepted his cross. Here we remember all who have crosses to bear, whether it is just the simple cross of self-isolation, or the more difficult crosses of terminal illness, abuse or living with a loved one who suffers. At the third stop we remember the first of three falls and, calling to mind Jesus’ heavy cross, we remember that many of us find the journey of life one of stumbles and struggles. At the fourth stop, Jesus met his mother and we recall what pain she must have suffered seeing her son so badly treated. We remember all those who wait and watch alongside the suffering, and especially all those who at this time are afraid of losing loved ones. At the fifth stop we remember Simon of Cyrene, the one who was called to help Jesus carry the cross, and we remember all those who help others along the way of life’s struggles. Let us recall those who have helped us in times of need and, particularly at this time, remember all those in the caring professions – our NHS, Emergency Services, and other essential service workers – who are doing such a marvellous job to help those in need.

At the sixth stop the journey celebrates the meeting of Jesus with a woman whom tradition calls Veronica and who wiped his brow. We think of all those who care for the terminally ill and dying, for our Hospices, Critical Care Wards and all who will man the new Intensive Care Hospitals being built in our cities. At the seventh station Jesus falls again and we find ourselves once more thinking of those many times we have fallen down in life. Perhaps at this point we can remember all those who have fallen on hard times – those short of money, food and essential services – and ask ourselves how we might help them. At the eighth stop there are some women who meet Jesus and, although they are crying for him, he has compassion on them and tells them to think of their own situations. This act of selfless compassion calls on us to remember all those who act selflessly, all those who show care and compassion, and we think at this time of those hundreds of thousands who have volunteered to help their communities during these hard times. At the next stop Jesus falls again and we are reminded that, for many, the struggles of life continue unabated. We think of those who are afraid, anxious, depressed, or worn down and we ask God’s strength for them as they pick themselves up yet again. As if a third fall is not enough, at the tenth station Jesus is stripped of every last thing he has, his clothes. For all those who feel stripped to the bones, all those who feel humiliated and brought to the point of sheer naked terror, let us spare a thought today.

The first four of the last five stations are the most difficult as we accompany Jesus through Holy Week. First, he is nailed to the cross – we remember those facing death today, not just from the pandemic, but all those whose lives are coming to an end. At the twelfth station we remember Jesus dying on the cross, and we pray for all who will die today. Perhaps we can remember all those who have died in the pandemic in recent days as well as those who we have known and loved – everyone is precious to somebody, and all are precious in the sight of God. At the thirteenth station we remember Jesus being taken down from the cross by his friends, and we think of all those tasked with caring for the dead. We remember at this station our morticians, pathologists and funeral directors, and we thank all those who treat the dead with respect and care. At the last of the sorrowful stations we remember that Jesus was buried in the garden, and we pray for all who have been buried over the last few months. We call to mind those who celebrate at funerals, those who dig graves or work in crematoria, and all those who keep our graveyards as places of quet, peaceful rest and reflection.

And so, we reach our last stop where we get off the train on Easter Day. This is the day of resurrection and the promise of life without end. This stop marks the triumph of life, love and peace over everything, including death, and I commend all of you into this resurrection life. Resurrection is a return to the source of all life, that from which we come, and that to which we are heading back. May God bless you on this journey, and may the slow train take you from suffering to glory!

Graceful Lady

Most of the members of my family are keen on ballet and we are always impressed by the gracefulness of the ballerinas in particular. The news that the Royal Opera House is about to put some ballets and operas on their YouTube channel during this period of lock-down is not only welcome news, but prompted me to think about what we might mean by the word ‘graceful’.

Tomorrow is the day when the Church traditionally thinks about the graceful Lady Mary – the one to whom the angel announced that she was full of grace – and we will be putting up a Service to celebrate the feast day of the Annunciation on our website http://www.ststephenscanterbury.net which I hope you might visit.

What, then, does it mean to be graceful or full of grace? When we think of ballet dancers, we might think of the elegance with which the dancers move – the smooth, effortless and expressive way in which they appear to control their movements. Grace, in this sense, is movement with feeling. Although it is being highly controlled, and physically demanding, it is made to look like it is not contrived or forced, but simply natural and flowing. Of a graceful performance we could say that the energy flows and seems to flow naturally and without effort, expressing feeling and emotion.

Another way of thinking about this gracefulness is to think of those qualities the Christian faith has traditionally associated with Mary – kindness, gentleness, receptivity and attentiveness. A graceful person is one who is courteous and kind to others, and who listens and receives in good grace – effortlessly and without contrivance. Some people are naturally kind, good, gentle and receptive, and it is these qualities which faith usually ascribes to Mary. She received the gift of grace from God, the grace of being a channel of his love and self-communication, and so was addressed as one ‘full of grace’.

Mary, the graceful Lady, is a model of what it means to live a graceful life and, in these difficult days, we need more people to be living lives that are graceful, channeling the love, peace and joy of God. As I leave this traditional prayer of the Church with you, perhaps you could think about how all our lives could become more graceful.

The Ave Maria

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus; Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Something amiss on Mother's Day

What strange times we live in, and what a strange day to be celebrating Mothering Sunday. As I look outside and see the daffodils gently swaying in the wind on this beautiful day, with blue sky and sunshine overhead, it is difficult to imagine just how disrupted this Mother’s Day is going to be for so many people. The things that usually mark this day – the visiting, the hugging, the sharing of gifts and flowers – all these things have been put on hold. Like the parent separated from the child who is infectious, or the child separated from the parent who is in critical care, today will be one of being separated in love and care instead of being close.

Those who have been through the experience of being separated from a loved one in a time of crisis will know that love and care for our loved ones can flourish and grow even in separation as well as proximity. If you are a mother who is self-isolating today, or a child who is unable to visit your mum, you can be certain that the love and care you feel for one another will be even more marked and precious this year because you cannot be in close proximity. Sometimes, love and care mean keeping our distance, and I remember my dad telling me of the six months he had to spend in an isolation ward when he had Scarlett Fever. For my grandma that must have been a very painful time, but I think it probably taught them both not to take each other for granted. Being apart can be a time for strengthening the bonds of love and care.

In the Christian story, Mary had to accept long periods of separation from her son. He went off on his travels, with nowhere to lay his head, and he eventually ended up being put to death on the cross for being too challenging. His mother stood by as they put him to death and, during this season of Lent, we remember her agony as well as the agony of Jesus himself. In the Stabat Mater we hear of Mary’s pain and suffering as she watched her son suffer and die, and I think that will resonate today for many as they stand by those who are dying of the viral epidemic. Suffering and death can also bring us closer together in love and care, and it is often only when someone dies that you realise just how much you have loved them and they you.

These thoughts today prompt me to urge us all to express and show our love and care for one another in separation as well as in proximity. It is vital, as we remember our mums today – and as they remember their children – that we extend that circle of love and care to all around us. Mother’s Day should be a day to return what is amiss – the love and care which comes from God and which surrounds us every day of our lives.

A Prayer

God of compassion, whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary, shared the life of a home in Nazareth, and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself; strengthen us in our daily living that in joy and sorrow we may know the power of your presence to bind together and to heal; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.