February sees us marking Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday: both ultimately to do with love and both affected by the current pandemic. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday, which would have been perfect for the weddings afternoon that we have held at St Matthew’s for a number of years. We should have been inviting couples who have booked weddings with us to a meeting in church with the prospect of a glass of fizz and the opportunity to talk about the plans for their big day. It has always been an enjoyable occasion as we have welcomed couples, and their guests, and shared their excitement.
25 people attended last year’s event – brides and grooms, bridesmaids and best men, mums and dads. We offered them a cup of tea and a piece of cake, showed photographs of weddings from previous years, played the bridal march, and interviewed some returning couples who said – without being bribed and with very little prompting – what a fabulous wedding ceremony they had had at St Matthew’s. ‘Perfect’, was the word they used.
We also had bellringers, flower arrangers, a musician, a warden, and a verger, to talk about what they could offer to make each wedding personal and special.
In the end, of the six weddings booked at St Matthew’s for 2020, only one actually took place – a much-reduced ceremony postponed to Christmas Eve for a couple determined to get married whatever the circumstances! The wedding was very different from what they had originally envisaged, but it was nonetheless a very special and memorable occasion.
At the start of 2021, we have a number of couples looking anxiously at the restrictions in place and wondering if, by the time their wedding day comes around, they will be able to celebrate as they hoped, or if they will have to postpone yet again.
Lent, Holy Week and Easter
The Church of England has also published advice on how to mark Lent, Holy Week and Easter in a COVID-secure way. Ash Wednesday – which falls on 17 February this year – has traditionally been marked by a service including the Imposition of Ashes. This is usually done by the priest making the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead in a mixture of ash (made from last year’s Palm crosses) and oil. But how do you do that safely in a pandemic where social distancing is prescribed? The guidance suggests sprinkling the ash on the forehead; but I don’t see that going well: worshippers will be getting it in their eyes, on their clothes, up their noses and everywhere. I’m not sure it’s something we can do in a dignified manner. So, maybe the imposition of ashes is one of the things we’ll have to give up for Lent this year?
What’s Love got to Do with it?
I started by saying that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday were both ultimately to do with love. Valentine’s Day celebrates romantic love. It was originally a Christian festival honouring a martyr (or two) of that name who possibly performed marriages for Roman soldiers who were forbidden to marry. Of course, the saints’ feast day falls in Spring when, according to the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love”. The romantic associations of Valentine’s Day ensure the sales of cards, chocolates and flowers, and make it hard to get a table in a restaurant, at least in a normal year.
But turning to Ash Wednesday, and paraphrasing Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” Most churchgoers associate Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent with Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and being tempted by Satan. Lent, however, has varied in length through its history and was associated with solemn preparation for Easter, particularly by those who were to be baptised and those seeking to be reconciled to the church. The practice of abstinence, prayer, and study recommended itself to other Christians and became a part of the Church’s year. If you do decide to follow some Lenten observance, starting on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Eve (or Holy Saturday), then have a look at your calendar: you’ll see that it adds up to 46 days. How do we reckon the 40 days of Lent? Well, obviously, as I am fond of pointing out, Sundays don’t count! Why? Because every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, a little Easter. It’s a day for feasting (in moderation, of course), not fasting.
But what’s love got to do with it? The bible tells us that
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life
This self-giving of God shows us what love looks like. Our loved-up wedding couples are just one example of what love can do. It changes lives. Jesus shows us what love looks like taken to the infinite degree. He holds nothing back but gives his all for the world he loves. The story of Good Friday is the story of love without limit. The Easter gospel of resurrection shows us that a love like that knows no bounds. It is eternal.
Love in the time of coronavirus may feel in short supply, particularly for those who live alone; or for those who share a home with someone they don’t love, or who doesn’t love them. But we hold on. We hold on to our conviction that, at the end of the day, love wins.
Perhaps the saint for our times is Julian of Norwich (1342 to 1416). Mother Julian lived in the wake of the Black Death and was – as we would say today – self-isolating in a small cell linked to St Julian’s church in Norwich. She experienced a world devastated by plague, and her own sickness led her to believe that she was on her deathbed. Into this darkness came the light of Christ, in the form of visions (‘shewings’ or revelations) of God’s love, demonstrated particularly in the passion of Christ.
In one vision, Julian sees something no bigger than a hazelnut, sitting in the palm of her hand. What is it?, she asks. She is told that this everything that God has made. She is amazed and concerned by its littleness and fragility. How can something so tiny and so vulnerable survive? The answer?
It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
Mother Julian sees God’s creation as loved and sustained by God.
How shall we see our world? The world glimpsed only through windows if we are shielding. The world we encounter on our daily walk (if we are able to get out). The world seen through fogged-up glasses (if we wear them with a mask). The pandemic reminds us just how fragile our world is.
Before AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and now covid-19, it was tuberculosis, the plague, cholera, typhoid, and influenza that cut swathes through the populations of the world. Perching like puffins on the cliff edge is the historically normal situation for humanity, but we had forgotten.
The precariousness of our existence is an uncomfortable thing to dwell on. But we have come through a year in which there were tens of thousands of excess deaths in the UK, and we are not through yet. Julian believed that our fragile world was created and is sustained by divine love. So I will give the last word to her, finding light in the darkness:
but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well