Picturing the Spirit of God as blazing fire…
One Friday afternoon, as I arrived at St Matthew’s for ‘Praise and Play’ (our group for pre-school children and their parents or carers), I noticed that the west end doors of the church, and the screen doors, were wide open. The P&P leaders and helpers were spread around the church in a bit of a flap… “There’s a bird in church!”, I was told. And indeed there was. A little blue tit was hopping around the place. He or she (I’m not a twitcher so I wouldn’t know) had made a bit of a mess, here and there, but other than that the only problem was that, with a group of children about to arrive, it was going to be difficult commanding their attention with a bird flying over the tops of their heads. Of course, being a resourceful fellow, it was up to me to save the day. I positioned myself strategically behind the communion table and took a photograph. Having done the most important thing, I then proceeded to organise a plan of campaign. We cleared the bird’s exit and I started clapping. The bird flew halfway down the nave. And then halfway back. This went on for a little while and then, eventually, he or she spotted the exit and went out to enjoy the fresh air. Success!
One of the children who was there (the child of one of the helpers) told me that it was she who had encouraged the bird out of church. Of course, I didn’t disabuse her of the notion, but I knew that it was my efforts that played the major part.
The next most important thing was to make sure that my picture of the bird appeared on Facebook, so I quickly uploaded it. It wasn’t long before my picture was ‘Liked’ and commented on. One of my Facebook friends added a bible reference: Psalm 84. Of course, as a vicar I have the bible pretty much memorised, but I looked it up, just to be sure.
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars,
O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.
But of course, you knew that too!
I like to think that the author of these verses, had seen those birds nesting in the temple and reflected that, while the temple was the place in which God’s glory was to dwell, it was, at the same time, a place that offered welcome and shelter to the humblest of God’s creatures.
If the temple is the place where God meets with us, then, it makes sense that in the gospels, Jesus refers to his own body as ‘the temple’ (John 2:19). Jesus is the ‘place’ where God and humanity meet. Then the New Testament tells us that our bodies are also the place where we meet with God. Your body is a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)! It is the place where God dwells, by His Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16).
This, of course, means that our church buildings are not ‘the house of God’, although people sometimes use that phrase. The place where you meet with God is within you and you don’t need a fancy building to do that! At the same time, we have some wonderful buildings at St Matthew’s and St Cross. But they are not the temple. What they are is places where the church meets for prayer and worship, and from which we reach out in love and service to our communities. We are doing our best to take care of the buildings we have inherited, with the hope that we will leave something even better for future generations. At St Cross we are making good progress with underfloor heating to make the place more comfortable. At St Matthew’s we have made a start on a major refurbishment to give us a building that is more welcoming and from which we can better serve our parish.
Our buildings are not the temple, but, like the temple, they need to enable us to proclaim the glory of God and welcome the humble.
Occasionally, people ask me why the date of Easter changes each year. Usually I try to bluff my way out of it, hoping to give the impression that I know the answer but that it is too complicated for mere mortals to understand. I do know that, because of its connection with the Jewish Passover, and the Jewish lunar calendar, it is something to do with full moons and the spring equinox. But not actual full moons or equinoxes. No, ecclesiastical full moons and equinoxes that you can look up in tables (not astronomical ones that you would look up into the sky to see). And I know that the Christian calculation parted company with the Jewish one some time in history, so that Easter doesn’t always coincide with Passover. Anyway, you can read all about it on Wikipedia (as I have tried to do) and learn the actual formula which determines that Easter can fall anywhere between 22nd March and 25th April. This year, Easter Sunday is 27th March (if you follow the Gregorian Calendar, as we do in the West. It’s on 1st May if you use the Julian Calendar, as Eastern Churches do. And Passover is a month later, on 23rd April this year.)
Of course, the changing date makes life difficult for some, including schools whose holidays are now fixed in the first week or two of April, rather than being dependent on religious festivals. Some years ago, I got a phone call from a parishioner who worked for one of the utility companies asking if I could let him have the date of Easter for the next few years. I was able to look it up for him and I like to think I made a small contribution to their planning (although I never got a reduction in my fuel bills).
In 1928 Parliament passed the Easter Act, fixing Easter as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The Act has never come into effect, because it would require the agreement of the major Christian churches. Archbishop Justin Welby has said recently that there could be such an agreement within five or ten years (Church Times, 22nd January). Until that time, I will continue to rely on someone cleverer than me to work it out and let me know.
Of course, any change to the calculation will be controversial. In 664 AD, at the Synod of Whitby, King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would henceforth calculate Easter following the practice of Rome, rather than that of the Celtic church of Iona. In our day, some will be saddened by the prospect of a utilitarian calculation based on the practicalities of the calendar, rather than wrestling with astronomical phenomena. It also finally breaks the link with the date of the Jewish Passover, which some might regret.
The death of Jesus on the cross is linked to the Passover in the gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we are told that Jesus celebrated the Passover – which we remember on Maundy Thursday and call the Last Supper –
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed
(Mark 14:12; see also Matthew 26:17 and Luke 22:7).
He was crucified the following day, the day after Passover, which we call Good Friday. But John says that Jesus was crucified on the day of the Passover (John 19:31). How do we explain this apparent contradiction? It’s possible that John is using a different way of dating the Passover – in the year in which Jesus died, it’s possible that the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed over the proper date. So controversies over dates are nothing new! Or it may be that John is drawing out the symbolism of Jesus as the new Passover lamb, sacrificed like the other lambs for the feast in which the Jewish people remember their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their journey towards freedom in the Promised Land, as described in the book of Exodus.
Either way, it is that story which informs the gospels’ understanding of the death of Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; see also 1 Corinthians 5:7).
Some churches mark Maundy Thursday with a meal, like the Jewish Passover Seder. We are not planning to do that this year, but maybe one year we will. Instead, we will recall the Last Supper with a celebration of the Eucharist in which, rather than eating a meal together, we simply take bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus, who said, “This is my body… this is my blood”.
You’ll find details of our services for Lent, Holy Week and Easter elsewhere. I hope you will put these in our calendar and join us for at least some of them.
As Saint Matthews develops its service patterns, I am pleased to have been asked to provide some thoughts regarding the Evensong service.
At Saint Matthews we are very fortunate to have a bi-weekly Evensong service supported by an evening choir, when many churches have either lost this service altogether or only retain once a month.
The Evensong service connects the congregation to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the 1549 and 1552 prayerbooks of Thomas Cranmer. I find a great feeling of strength and continuity in knowing I am saying and singing the same words and phrases that have been said by worshippers of the Church of England for over 450 years.
The Evensong service itself is a wonderful combination of extracts from scripture and deeply thought and expertly crafted text. I find the General Confession and its preamble in particular a deeply moving and thoughtful contemplation of one’s relationship with God.
The service structure with Psalms , the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, lessons from the Bible, The Apostles Creed, the Lord’s prayer (in traditional form), the three Collects, Prayers and Responses constitute a carefully structured, beautifully balanced and thoughtful form of worship.
The service is further enhanced by singing from Hymns Ancient and Modern and a Sermon able to consider some of the deeper themes to be found in the lessons for that day.
Evensong is a service that binds us to tradition whilst still remaining relevant today.
I would certainly recommend attendance at Evensong for all those who are more traditionally minded and also for those who wish to explore the deep heritage of the Church of England.
I hope these thoughts will have encouraged some of the readers to try the Evensong service over the next few weeks and months.
If you wish to attend, the Evensong Service is currently being held on the first and third Sundays of the month at 4:30 PM until the end of March 2016, when the time will be reviewed.
If you would like to join the Choir: The choir meets to practice the psalms and hymns for 30 minutes before the start of the service.
A couple of pictures of our churches in the snow. Obviously this year a white Christmas seems very unlikely, and the idea that Jesus was born ‘amid the winter snow’ is very farfetched, but a couple of nice images nonetheless.
The photo of St Matthew’s is courtesy of Jim Fitzpatrick, the one of St Cross, Judith Brown. If you have pictures of our churches or parishes, please send them to me so that I can put them on the website.
By the time you read this, I will have sung the Christmas carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night”. More than once. I have to admit – just between you and me – that it’s not my favourite hymn. Sung to the tune most often used (in this country at least), ‘Winchester Old’, I think it’s a rather pedestrian telling of the story of the angelic annunciation to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). And it doesn’t help knowing that half the congregation are fighting the urge to sing, “While shepherds washed their socks…” (I also get a picture of a very large reggae singer when I see the words “Mighty Dread”.)
I agree it ends well, with the Gloria:
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.
The words were written by Nahum Tate, the Irish writer who became England’s poet laureate in 1692. (Although the satirist Alexander Pope cites Tate as being under the influence of the goddess Dullness in his work ‘The Dunciad’). Tate’s great contribution to the church’s worship was his collaboration with Nicholas Brady on a metrical version of the Psalms, some of which we still sing as hymns, such as their setting of Psalm 42, “As pants the hart for cooling streams.”
“While Shepherds Watched” first appears in Tate and Brady’s supplement to their collection of psalms, published in 1700. But wait a minute! The story of the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke isn’t a psalm, is it? Nope! But this is how the hymn gained its popularity: at the time, hymns were not sung in Anglican churches. Let me say that again: hymns were not sung in Anglican churches! The only approved texts were the canticles (e.g. the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis) and the psalms, which were sung at Matins and Evensong. If you look at the 1662 Book of Common Prayer you will see no mention of hymns being sung. At Morning and Evening Prayer, the BCP allows the following:
In Quires and Places where they sing
here followeth the Anthem.
Tate’s “While Shepherds Watched”, having been snuck into a book of psalms to be sung in churches, became popular because it is really a versified paraphrase of a scriptural text, the words being very close to those of Luke 2:8-14. So, at the time, “While Shepherds Watched” was the only Christmas hymn that could be sung in the Church of England! No wonder it became popular! Many of the hymns and carols that we sing today were not used in churches until as recently as the second half of the 19th Century (which makes them a modern innovation, not a tradition!) (In my humble opinion, carols were meant to be sung in pubs, not churches, but that’s a conversation for another occasion…)
The uniqueness of “While Shepherds Watched” also accounts for the fact that it has been sung to many different tunes in its lifetime. Many churchgoers seem to believe that for most hymns there is one ‘proper’ tune and they get very uncomfortable when the vicar or organist suggests singing them to a different tune. But over the years, the words of “While Shepherds Watched” have been sung to at least a dozen different tunes, perhaps more. In America, they use a tune based on one from an opera by Handel. It has also been sung to the tune ‘Lyngham’, which we more often associate with the words “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”, by Charles Wesley. There are regional variations too around Britain: in Cornwall it is sung to a tune called ‘Northrop’ and in Yorkshire and Derbyshire, it is sung, with a refrain, as song called “Sweet Bells“. At this point, I’d like to recommend that you listen to one of the Christmas albums by Kate Rusby, a folk singer from Barnsley. Or better still, go to see one of her Christmas shows: the song, “While Shepherds Watched” turns up in various guises, including to the tune we normally associate with the Yorkshire song “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”. Before you throw your hands up in horror, let me point out that the tune – ‘Cranbrook‘ – to which ‘the national anthem of Yorkshire’ is sung, was originally written as a hymn tune, and in some places, is still the most popular tune for “While Shepherds Watched”.
Each year at St Matthew’s we hold a Christmas Tree Festival. This year we are taking the theme “While Shepherds Watch…” I’m trying to remember how we chose it… I think someone had heard of the “Messy Nativity” project in Liverpool in 2010: sheep knitted by members of the Mothers Union popped up in the shops at Liverpool One, and other places, during the Advent season and were used to tell the Christmas story. So, if you are coming to St Matthew’s during Advent and Christmas, look out for the sheep: see how many you can count. Remember the shepherds who were the first to hear the good news. Think of Jesus saying that he is The Good Shepherd and his stories of shepherds looking for their lost sheep. And join me in singing “While Shepherds Watched” with gusto (to the tune ‘Cranbrook’).