Sunday, 30 January 2011

Candlemas - from darkness into light

I might be a born-again liturgist these days, but I've only ever been to two Candlemas services. I attended my first last year and my second this very evening, both of them at St Mary's Astbury, that wonderful 14th century church just this side of Congleton.

My wife practices with the choir there in exchange for singing with them at a few weddings and services a year, mostly on high days and holidays. Tonight it was Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

I might be missing something, but very few churches seem to celebrate it these days, certainly not at the 'low' or evangelical end of things where I've spent most of my time. It's a pity, because it's a service rich with meaning, an ancient turning point in the Christian year. As it was, we had to put up with karoake-style DVDs in our own parish this morning, so it was great to get to a service pregnant with symbolism - light and darkness, sin, suffering, sacrifice and the glories to follow. In fairness though, it was a good sermon, but the karoake ... !

Tonight's service gave the antidote to all that. As the service notes said, it has a certain 'bitter-sweet' flavour. Simeon's words from Luke's Gospel, enshrined in the familiar canticle, Nunc dimittis, speak of the 'falling and rising of many' and warn Mary that 'a sword will pierce through your own heart also.' As we move from Christmas towards Lent, there's the reminder that ahead lies sacrifice and blood before we reach the glories of the Resurrection.

The words of the ancient hymn based on the Liturgy of St James had particular resonance. 'Let all mortal flesh  keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand ...'

Monday, 24 January 2011

'Don't laugh, I've seen it happen!'

At last, instruction manuals are developing a sense of humour.

On the weekend I blew up our steam iron. It gave up the ghost with a hiss and spat out gunk all over one of my favourite shirts. I am pretty domesticated but do tend to damage electrical equipment fairly regularly.

There was nothing for it but to buy a new one. We ordered it on-line and I picked it up from Comet earlier today. I read the instruction manual, always a good place to start, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was written engagingly in English.

Here's the fourth point on the list of important safeguards:

'4. Don't iron clothing while it's being worn - you'll burn or scald the wearer (this is not a joke - I've seen it happen).'

Now, that wouldn't be at all funny ...

Well, it's the first time I've seen a first person comment in an instruction guide. I was heartened. There are people who write these things, people with families, relationships and life-experiences - such as seeing someone ironing someone's shirt while they were wearing it.

Or have they made it up? Are they circulating an urban myth to prevent us doing the same?

Whatever the case, it's made me think twice about doing it ...

Thursday, 13 January 2011

It's all Greek to me!

Reading between the lines

I was privileged to sit in on a friend's Ancient Greek lesson earlier this week. We practised writing the Greek alphabet on mini white-boards. It was all very therapeutic. I was fascinated by how, when copying them, you suddenly saw a connection between the shapes of the capital and lower-case characters. There were all upper-case originally and with no spaces between characters and lines. I'm told these only came in as people began to read silently, an ability Plato initially regarded as a major miracle.

My friend had a framed clay tablet from Ur of the Chaldees, the present day Iraq. He'd picked it up from a museum over there for an attractive price. The museum authorities were selling off papyrii and clay tablets by the dozen to ease the load on their archives. They've got hundreds of thousands of the things. Bills, inventories, accounts - all indelibly etched or pressed into wet clay and then left to dry in the sun. What a great way to ensure proof of delivery or demonstrate ownership.

They say writing developed as people abandoned a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle to live in towns and cities. There was much more reason then to label things and lay claim to them, to keep accurate records and accounts.

So that's what the first writings consist of. Boring stuff.

How fascinating then, that the earliest examples of the Greek alphabet that have come down to us are both poems, fragments of verse. They must have had their accounts and inventories too, of course, but I find it strangely heart-warming that a major Classical influence first bursts onto the scene with a couple of poems. And bawdy ones at that! All about getting drunk and getting laid.

Here - read them for yourselves.

Ok, so there's more to it than that. There's word play and scholarly debate. Ambiguity and tension between appearances and reality. All very philosophical.

I've been working on a poem inspired by the whole thing. I won't publish it here yet as I'd like to send it off to some magazines or a competition.

But isn't it interesting, language and meaning, the way writing developed?

Aren't human beings interesting? Isn't the world a fascinating place?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Goodness me, it's Theophany

'When thou O Lord wast baptised in the Jordan ...'

Well, it's like buses. You don't get any Festivals for a while and then they all suddenly come at once ...

Christmas, then Epiphany ... now it's Theophany (at least it is on the Eastern Calendar).

At the invitation of an Orthodox friend, I bobbed down to the beer garden around the back of The White Lion in Barthomley this afternoon to observe the annual 'blessing of the waters'. A well chosen location. Running water, shelter in case it rains ... and the splendid half-timbered and unspoilt pub to retreat to afterwards.

A Methodist lady joined us from a funeral in the nearby parish church (very historic and well worth the visit in itself). She sussed that I was a fellow 'spectator' and wondered whether I'd partaken of the 'blessed' water (from a bottle not from the stream) and kissed the cross after it'd been dipped into the running waters below. I'd done both, knowing that it's permissible for Christians of other persuasions to do so. I encouraged her to do the same if she felt it was appropriate.

She was hesitant but did so after Fr Samuel said, 'If you love the Lord, you can kiss his cross.'

'Well,' she said, afterwards. 'I've learned something new today. That was a completely new experience.'

I've seen water blessings before, but not at Theophany. And being an awkward and reductionist Prod, I've wondered how long the blessing lasts. Does it wear off during the year and need repeating annually?

Of course, it's a way of remembering the baptism of Christ and the significance of that event, when, as the Orthodox hymn has it, 'the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.'

That's quite something.

'When Thou O Lord wast baptised in the Jordan,
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest,
For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee
and called Thee his beloved Son!
And the Spirit in the form of a dove,
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself
and hast enlightened the world,
Glory to Thee!'

I'd had my lunch so didn't join the Orthodox for a meal but I did have a pint. I don't know whether that debars me from the Epiphany communion down at St Mary Magdalene's this evening. I've been invited down there too.

And there's a CAMRA branch-meeting at my local this evening.
And that's a picture of The White Lion over there ... it's unfeasibly quaint.

Lots of Festivals and some liquid refreshment. Can't be bad.

In moderation, of course.

PS - I skipped the Ephiphany communion. You can have too much of a good thing ...

Monday, 3 January 2011

My business Blog

I've now created a blog for my business venture.

You can see it here.

Have a look and tell me what you think.

Sunday, 2 January 2011


Those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star ...

In my more liturgy-lite, independent evangelical/charismatic days, Epiphany was always one of those feasts we overlooked. Sure, we had Christmas and Easter, but we never really bothered with Lent, Advent or any of the other traditional fasts and feasts of the Church year.

I wouldn't say I observe them with any great alacrity or discipline now, but I certainly believe there's a lot to be said for marking time in this way - it provides a rhythm and a structure to the year. Not in a superstitious sense, as if these seasons are magical or intrinsically more 'spiritual' in some way. But as opportunities to pause, reflect and celebrate the key events of the life of Christ and special anchor-points for the Christian faith.

 I attended a Churches Together service on an Epiphany theme on Sunday. Since then I've been Facebooking away with an Orthodox friend about the Troporian for Pre-Theophany and about Theophany itself - the next Feast which comes up in their Calendar. The Devil may have all the best tunes, but the Orthodox certainly have all the best words. As well as a good line in beards and funny hats.

For the last ten years or so, I've grown to love and appreciate this Orthodox prayer used by the Eastern Churches in their liturgies over the Christmas and Epiphany period:

'Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee!'

May we all gain that light of wisdom and know that 'Sun of Righteousness', the 'Orient from on high.'

I can feel a hymn coming on ... 'As with gladness men of old/Did the guiding star behold ...'