I’ve always loved the ‘hinge’ time in the Christian year at the beginning of February - with the poignancy of time, light, joy and suffering in the Presentation of Christ/Candlemas, as well as its embodied meanings in places and people so varied as the dale farmers on my native hills preparing forw animal and plant births and the shiny school students in Sydney beginning new adventures at the same time.
This year was particularly poignant, as, before our Pitt St worship, the last time I had heard the Nunc Dimittis was at my parents funeral (shall I say the nunc dimittis? the vicar had asked me specifically - in a very priest to priest moment - knowing the answer and what it meant to us both, and to my father). These lines from the poem ‘Nunc Dimittis’ (originated dedicated to the great fellow poet Anna Akhmatova) by Joseph Brodsky express so well the Christian hope, reflected in Candlemas, which my parents carried in their last days, in the meeting of age and infancy, and in the eternal uncreated light:
‘He went forth to die. It was not the loud din
of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,
but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death’s kingdom.
He strode through a space that was no longer solid.
The roaring of time ebbed away in his ears.
And Simeon’s soul held the form of the Child --
its feathery crown now enveloped in glory --
aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,
to light up the path that leads into death’s realm,
where never before until this point in time
had any man managed to lighten his pathway.
The old man’s torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.’
So be it..
I’ve always so loved this song (see below) - though it always makes me cry - and it, above all, with some others, has accompanied me in the last few weeks. The tender, lyrical and even elegiac, tone fits my mood as I prepare to leave England, maybe never to return, or certainly never with so many of the deep intimate connections of parents, home,and particular place which have so shaped me. Laura Marling wrote this at 18 and says she always feels about 8 years old when she sings it - I know the feeling just in listening .
It’s about childhood memories (one in particular) and the ones who created them and about the particularity of place in this extraordinary land which I, like Laura, love so very very much, and from all of which separation is so very poignant. There hasn’t been any literal snow on my winter’s journey but enough in other ways - yet the warmth of love persists, like a beautiful garment in the cold…
“You were so smart then
In your jacket and coat.
My softest red scarf was warming your throat.
Winter was on us,
At the end of my nose,
But I never love England more than when covered in snow.”
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.
Lovely to light a candle from among my mother’s treasures today - the word summing up how I’ve always seen the heart of her being and the life she share with my father, for whom love and just dealings were always gifts of his soul: love and laugher together. I wrote a reflection for the funeral at St Thomas' Market Rasen (see here) and was grateful to be given the strength to deliver it.
Poignant rediscoveries at this time - including with my mother’s recent soft toy collection - as my siblings and I began tidying up the family home after our parents’ last days last week. I’m told the rainbow lion was one particular favourite in her long bed-bound years, and I like to think she gave a kindly thought towards the rainbow child in the family when she held it.
It is moving too to see my parents’ prayer book shelf, with communion box and accoutrements - a great treasure. For, until very recently, one of the ways they kept love and life alive and renewed was to keep a regular morning and/or evening prayer (in one of a number of forms) and to share a simple eucharist together, often with one or more visitors - a particularly intimate and tender affair. Together with carers’ visits a number of times a day, and meals scheduled around them, it helped form an almost monastic pattern of life keeping them going together in straitened circumstances - love, faith and grace in the deepest winter as well as the greater joys and glories of their lives.
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.