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.
As Minister of Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, it is a great joy and encouragement to stand in a powerful lineage of prophetic ministry. The more I come to know, the more I appreciate its vital significance to Sydney, and the wider world, in providing light, inspiration and hospitality to so many. As a community Pitt Street Uniting Church mourns the recent loss of Bishop Spong from our lives in this world, but rejoices in what he shared with us and so many others. We give thanks that we were able to offer a space for him to share God's love even when others were sometimes so hostile. Here above is a photo of the old Pitt Street Uniting Church's celebratory 'Bishop John Shelby Spong Greeting Card'!
(we still rejoice to wear that stole too :-) )
One of the gifts I was given during my time as General Secretary of the NSW Ecumenical Council was a small seven branch candelabrum, from the Indian Orthodox community in Sydney. I love it for many reasons: not least as it helps me recall something of the wonderful life and faith of Indian Christianities and cultures; since it reminds me of the inheritance and shared values which Christianity owes to Judaism; and because it is such a beautiful item for life. for all For light is such a vital symbol for spirituality in so many different forms and context, and, In our current COVID-19 crisis, this is a particularly lovely thing to explore.
Within the Orthodox and Catholic (including many Anglican) traditions of Christianity lighting of candles is certainly a very life-giving established form of prayer. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America expresses it: 'Upon entering an Orthodox church, for example, it is customary to light candles and offer prayers for one’s personal needs or that of a family member or friend. Candles are lit before icons as a sign of one’s faith and hope in God’s help. .. By lighting a candle and offering a prayer, one enters into closer contact with the Church and her ministry to the faithful, invisibly warming the soul by the visible light of the candle.' See further, and for an opportunity to light a virtual candle here.
In my case, I often like to use my candelabrum to bless the classic seven directional dimensions of my life and world: north, south, east, west, beneath, above, and within. In doing so I can remember particular people or aspects of life. At this time for example, when I light one candle I hold in prayer, and offer intention, for those in the northern hemisphere, including those in Italy, Spain and the USA, who have been so badly affected by the coronavirus, and my family and native land in the UK. Praying for what is beneath me similarly enables me to recall the land of which I am a part, and the first nations of the place where I now live. Lighting a candle and praying for/with that which is above can also be a way of connecting with the greater universe and the powers which create, sustain and evolve within it. Working through the different directions thereby connects me more deeply with all that is, transforming my own little consciousness in the so much bigger and richer tapestry of all. Whether you, or those you know, draw on traditional pathways of spirituality or not, praying in similar ways with candles might be a helpful aid in our COVID-19 days?
Here, below, is my wife Penny Jones using our candelabrum in a brief prayerful reflection for her YouTube series for Milton Anglicans...
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.