Christmas 2011

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Above: Isaac gives a knitted Santa a cuddle a few days before Christmas.

Christmas Eve

“I was very surprised that you agreed to preach at the midnight mass,” said Jane on Christmas Eve, “after you’d said last year that you were going to take a year off this year.”

“Did I say that?” I asked.

Apparently so, but I’m glad that I had forgotten because the midnight service at All Saints’, St Andrews was beautiful. The nave (where the congregation sits) was in darkness, lit by hand-held candles, there was a procession during which the baby Jesus was placed in the crib, which was then blessed. The choir was small but enthusiastic; and daring (In dulce jubilo in German). My sermon was warmly received, with another member of the clergy team saying to me afterwards that he thought that it was “spot on”, which I found encouraging.

I drove back to Anstruther around a quarter past one, glowing and thanking God. While I was waiting for the toast to pop-up at home I tweeted:

Fabulous midnight mass at All Saints, St Andrews. The good news of Jesus preached. Feeling very blessed. Happy Christmas one and all. x

I retired to bed for about four-and-a-half hours.

Christmas Day

The drive to Selkirk wasn’t quite as I had planned; particularly the 30 mph winds. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared while driving. The Forth Road Bridge was closed to high sided vehicles, buses, cars with trailers, caravans, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians: pretty much everybody apart from us. I crept across the almost deserted bridge at 30 mph, driving mostly down the line between the lanes.

Just south of Edinburgh, at Newtongrange we discovered that Isaac had a very dodgy tummy. And that we’d forgotten to pack a change of clothes. He turned up to St John’s in Selkirk wearing his pyjamas: a George Pig (Peppa’s brother) fleecy sleep suit. Very sweet.

Jane stayed at my Mum’s to prepare Christmas lunch while the rest of us (minus Reuben, who wanted to stay with Mummy) went to church.

We had Christmas lunch round a wallpaper-pasting table covered in a table cloth, which was a great idea and fit the space perfectly. Jane’s lunch was cooked to perfection—even the parsnips in honey and mustard which always go wrong for us.

Before and after lunch presents were opened, mostly by Reuben and Joshua regardless of whose name was on the label—they were so excited, it was great. And all too soon we were packing up bags and boxes and loading up the car again for the equally-windy drive back to Fife.

Once back home the boys all transferred effortlessly (and for us thankfully) from the car to their beds. We unpacked the car, reheated some Christmas dinner and crashed out in front of the telly to watch the season finalé of Merlin that we’d recorded from the night before.

Then bed.

Boxing Day

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Above: Joshua (left) and Reuben rip open a present on Boxing Day morning.

This was our stay-at-home day, with the majority of Reuben, Joshua and Isaac’s presents still to open. It was nice to stretch out their presents over the last two days rather than overwhelming them with everything all at once.

Jane had picked up a big box of action figures: underwater, mountain, space, etc. which you can see Reuben and Joshua opening in the photograph above. They have loved playing with them all day. At one point they were both lying on top of the dining room table totally engrossed in their play: fabulous!

It was also a tired day, as the busyness of the last few days caught up with us. Jane crashed out on the sofa around mid-day; I went for a sleep mid-afternoon; Reuben fell asleep on the armchair just before dinner.

That said, bedtime still took about three-and-a-half hours. And everybody wanted Mummy to put them to bed.

And to be honest, that’s where I should be now, so I’m going to be uncharacteristically sensible and catch up with as much sleep as I can get. That is, after all, the only thing that I asked for for Christmas: a sleep.

Night, night! And Happy Christmas!

Ash Wednesday

Priest, Deacon and Subdeacon standing before the altar

Priest, deacon and subdeacon standing before the altar, taken from Ceremonial Pictured in Photographs (Alcuin Club Publication)

This evening I was involved in my first Solemn Eucharist at All Saints’ Church, St Andrews, where I took the role of deacon during the liturgy of the imposition of ashes and Solemn Eucharist; my first Solemn Eucharist since I left St Andrews Cathedral, Inverness in 2003.

A moving experience

I found it a very moving service, and one that I was easily able to enter into without being overly distracted by where I should be or what I should be doing next. But that I put down to trust in my fellow ministers of the sacrament, the priest and subdeacon, who gently guided me and prompted me when required.

Like when I forgot to say the offertory sentence and just began to lay out the altar in preparation for the Eucharist.

“Offertory sentence,” Fr Jonathan prompted me.

“Oh! Sorry!” I said, pulling an apologetic face that probably made me look like I should be in a scene from Wallace and Gromit.

I turned to the congregation. And then back at Fr Jonathan. “What is the offertory sentence?”

He smiled. “Let us present our offerings to the Lord with reverence and godly fear.”

I turned back towards the congregation. “Let us present our offerings to the Lord with reverence and godly fear,” I said before returning to ‘setting the table’.

But I digress.

I found it a very moving service and a perfect start to Lent.

Our observation of Lent

I don’t have the words before me that were used during the service this evening, but here are similar words that I’ve used in Ash Wednesday services before, taken from the Church of England book Lent, Holy Week, Easter: Services and Prayers (Church House Publishing/SPCK, London, 1986):

Brothers and sisters in Christ: since early days Christians have observed with great devotion the time of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.  It became the custom of the Church to prepare for this by a season of penitence and fasting.

At first this season of Lent was observed by those who were preparing for Baptism at Easter and by those who were to be restored to the Church’s fellowship from which they had been separated through sin. In course of time the Church came to recognize that, by a careful keeping of these days, all Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and in devotion to our Lord.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

What really spoke to me was the Hebrew Bible reading from the prophet Joel:

[12] Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

[13] rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing […]

[17] Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
“Where is their God?”‘

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1996)

The sentence that stuck out for me most was in verse 13: “rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”.

Rend your hearts not your clothing. Lent is about a change of mind, a change of heart. It’s an internal thing, not external. The external comes later, once the heart has been changed.

“Remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

With those thoughts in mind I now feel prepared to enter Lent.

Finding community at All Saints

High altar at All Saints, St Andrews
The high altar at All Saints, St Andrews (Photo from All Saints’ website)

This evening, after work, I presided at the 18:00 Eucharist at All Saints, St Andrews. It was a quiet, reflective service at the end of, for me, a pretty tough day.  It was, in the words of the Compline service, “a quiet night and a perfect end”.

Six of us gathered around the high altar, used the 1982 Scottish Liturgy, remembered David, King of Scots (1153) whose feast day it is today in the Scottish calendar, and prayed for the world, the sick and the church. A simple said communion service.

Formation of community

All Saints holds a special place in my heart, and in my formation as a priest, because it was the first place that I really experienced community, other than that of a whole congregation.

Between my first and fourth years at the University of St Andrews (probably sometime between 1990-1993) I would say Evening Prayer in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament with three friends and colleagues at St Mary’s College: David Campbell, Clive Case and the late Simon Gould.

We used the Church of England’s Alternative Service Book which for me was a good discipline: an introduction to using an unfamiliar liturgy.  Some evenings we used incense, most evenings not. Fr Brian Hardy, the (church not university) Rector at the time, joined us when he could.

I very much enjoyed our community of four.  I look back with great fondness on those years and both the discipline that it instilled in me, and the structure that it gave my day.

Returning to community

Leaving full-time parish ministry in 2006 was both one of the hardest and easiest decisions of my life.  On one hand it was easy because there was much in that way of life that I found painful and uncomfortable, on the other it was difficult because so much of my identity and security was wrapped up in that role.  (Letting go of that and learning to trust God more was an important step.)  The decision to leave took me about two years to make. There were many tears on that journey.

What I did miss most over the next four years, however, was feeling that I belonged to a particular Christian community.

Starting in 2006 and extending through to early 2010, I covered services at Newport-on-Tay quite a bit.  They were a lovely congregation to worship amongst and I found that time to be in many ways a healing time for me.  But when they got a permanent priest I took a few months out to decide what to do.

It was actually my involvement in the Scottish Episcopal Church’s Provincial Youth Network summer camp at Glenalmond College in August that inspired me to start attending All Saints again.  And Fr Jonathan who’d been offering me an altar to celebrate before for the last couple of years once again invited me to get involved… and here I am.  Six services in and already I feel like I belong. Thank you saintly people of All Saints.