It was a deeply poignant yet beautiful Midnight Mass tonight in St Thomas' Church in Market Rasen. I had indeed had a yearning for one more such communion in the cold and dark and the depths of the symbolism and mystery it reflects - but not for years to come and not like this. The nave altar stood precisely where my parents’ coffins had been just two days before, the mood and singing was subdued by masks and the pandemic, numbers reduced and the liturgy unexuberant. Yet the magic, the miracle, persists - light in the very darkness, glory in the mire and sorrow, enfleshed spirit in our mixed up midst - and eucharistic participation on this, of all occasions, remains so truly special.
It was hard to move away into the night, for the last time to leave the church of my childhood and early formation, to step along the pathway into the marketplace one more time. The main street seemed even more deserted than ever as I made my return - even the wandering drunk had been spirited away. Walking the last part in silent darkness between the two cemeteries for the final time brought back the fullness of so many memories as well as profound emptiness and grief. For in the depths of our factual and metaphorical winters love can be reborn - just as a new dawn broke after the winter solstice on the morning of my parents’ funeral.
T.S.Eliot was partly right. ‘A cold coming’ it has indeed been - ‘just the worst time of year for a journey… the very dead of winter’, even without the Omicron wave and renewed distance and desolation - but we do not need to be ‘glad of another death.’ Birth, life and love happens always - divinity in the vulnerability of our flesh: Incarnation in our dark.
I am struck by this week's collect for the end of Advent:
raise up your power and come among us,
and with great might succour us,
that, whereas through our sins and wickedness
we are sore let and hindered
in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The language is clearly a modernised form of the 16th century expressions which helped form the historic Book of Common Prayer (BCP). As such, it has the kind of aural resonance that is loved many devotees of the BCP and King James Version of the Bible. For myself, though I am also a little wary of excessive use of what the Iona Community calls 'the language of the living room', such Tudor language can be often be somewhat dated for contemporary prayer and worship. However this prayer also reflects quite well certain aspects of both the character of Anglicanism and its distinctive theological outlooks. To say that, through sin and wickedness, we are 'sore let and hindered' is, for example, in my view, a less destructive view of the human condition than many. It avoids the 'total depravity' approach of Calvinism and other unbalanced conceptions. Yet it affirms the beauty and efficacious necessity of grace. As the last collect in today's main Australian Anglican Prayer Book, it is thus an appropriate lead in to Christmas. For the Incarnation affirms the embodied life of grace in humanity, essential for our redemption, yet celebratory of material existence as a whole. Pain, darkness and struggle are very real - for we are indeed 'sore. let and hindered' and typically in need of speedy help and deliverance - yet we are also participants in divine salvation and vehicles of honour and glory. Such is the miracle of Jesus Christ, born of Mary.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.