Do you remember (or are you too young?) the episode of ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ with Alf Garnett telling his family about the birth of Jesus? He had to be born in a stable, because there was no room for him in the Inn. “Well, it was Christmas” says his wife Else. “Everywhere’s busy at Christmas!” Silly moo, of course – it was the other way round, because Jesus is the reason for the season. As the history books tell us, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, 6 miles from Jerusalem, and as the Bible tells us, this was the fulfilment of God’s promises and prophecies over many generations; Jesus’ remarkable life is also a matter of public record, and so it’s hardly surprising that Christians gather together (mass) to celebrate the birthday of the Messiah (Greek: ‘Christ’). And so the Festival became known as Christmass.
There are people these days who bemoan the commercialisation of this wonderful season, and others who would want to “take Christ out of Christmas”. I’m neither; the fact that God loves the world so much that he sent His Son, born as a baby, expecting to give up his life for the sake of humanity’s eternal future, is so wonderful to me that I want to celebrate it as much as possible – and Christians as much as anyone will take any opportunity to have a good party! Let’s decorate every surface to celebrate the beauty of God’s earth; let’s send cards to show others we care about them, just as God cares about us; let’s exchange presents, large or small, to remember the best present the world has ever had. It’s also a fact that the story of Jesus is told in so many ways at this time of year, and his name is on people’s lips, in homes and on the airwaves more than at any other time – that’s great!
So let’s all join in the celebrations. We hope you’ll want to join us in Church for at least one of the special services, such as the “Christingle” Family Service, the Carol Service, or the Crib Service. And as Christmas Day is on a Sunday this year, we have a service to fill that gap between opening the presents and cooking the turkey! New Year’s Day is also a Sunday, so we can make a resolution to start the year well. But if this season is going to be manically busy for you, you might also like to spend a quiet time on your own in Church – it’s always open during the day – perhaps to pray in our new Prayer Sanctuary, by the side altar.
I’ll be praying that you receive and give lots of love, joy and peace, and that there will be room to welcome Jesus, the reason for the season. Have a wonderful Christmass!
Yours in Jesus
Our faces can unwittingly reveal our inner being, says Ronald Blythe
WE USUALLY think of the spirit, or the soul, as being that part of us which is invisible, and which returns to God when we die. But the spirit, or the soul, is often seen. We catch glimpses of it in some unsuspecting face in the street, or in the train, maybe. A stranger, without knowing it, and in some kind of personal dream or state of thoughtfulness, loses his public face and shows his inner being. He doesn’t know that it is happening.
We ourselves do it. We are taken off our guard, as it were, and somebody in our vicinity sees what we ourselves cannot see, unless we are a great artist like Rembrandt, who painted his own portrait over and over again — not because he was vain, but because he wanted to know who he really was.
I remember a friend seeing a portrait of Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud: two modern artists who sometimes shock us when they go beyond what we normally think of as a likeness.
Some time ago, on TV, I watched a pope’s funeral. By courtesy of modern communication, we have sometimes been witnesses of such a revelation of the Holy Spirit as no previous age could have experienced it. There is the Eternal City itself; there are the countless spiritual faces; and there is the Spirit of God, sometimes seen both in Muslim and Christian cultures. In kings and presidents, and choirs and priests, in backpackers and pilgrims, and in ourselves, as we watched, this televised universe of flesh and Spirit.
The Spirit is common among us, but never commonplace. It is simply wonderful and beautiful in whoever it is revealed. It sometimes travels around, invading spiritual privacy for the sake of spiritual recognition. At Pentecost comes this Holy Spirit, not a gentle wispy thing but a tumultuous aspect of God and his Son, which shakes the house and fills the world with fire and revolution, and a human heart with beauty and love. It was at that moment that the little group of Christ’s friends and apostles received the Spirit as a gift. And this is still the only way in which any of us can have it — as a gift, but a gift for the taking, like grace.
Few of us remember when we took it, this holy gift, for the first time; it just seems to be in our hands. And it certainly dwells in our faces for other people to see, this spirituality. On certain occasions — it could be at a concert, or in an old empty church when rearranging the flowers, or looking up its history, or when we are in the garden, or at Liverpool Street Station — it will come to us, uncovered, as it were, this Spirit.
Our faith tells us that we are both guarded and activated by it, this Spirit of Jesus. He said that he would leave it with us, that it would be a comfort to us. And it is. He told us to call it the Comforter — what a wonderful name for his Spirit.
I think about this at this time of the year, with Christmas approaching, this child approaching, this festival coming towards us, and winter, too, which, in the Stour Valley, comes usually in the New Year and not before Christmas.
Ronald Blythe commends pottery as a philosophical occupation for humanity
WHEN the Lord and his friends “took the cup”, it would most likely have been a clay cup, not the glorious vessel of the Arthurian legend. But beautiful all the same, like Brenda Green’s pottery. Her work fills the church, as does her voice. The cup in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is a loving cup, which tells us to drain its contents to the dregs, meaning life itself, because its contents are all that we have.
I knew this wonderful poem by heart when I was a boy, and was fascinated to find the poet’s grave just a mile or two from my house when I became a writer, and I would stand by it frequently. Edward FitzGerald discovered the original soon after he lost his faith in Christianity and was looking for a philosophy to replace it. A local scholar was teaching him Persian, and had recommended this ancient poem to him to help him in the language.
The FitzGeralds were Anglo-Irish gentry who came to live in Boulge, a village near Woodbridge; but their fine house was pulled down long ago. All that remains is Edward’s resting-place, and some rose trees from Omar’s tomb in Iran. The roses were decimated by tourists who picked them. The last Shah, hearing of this, sent some more, and the Persian ambassador and I replaced them.
It was one of those lightless afternoons when the rooks complained in the trees, and the Rector, Mr Braybrooke, and I waited and waited for the ambassador to arrive. When the electricity failed in the little church, it had to be replaced by paraffin lamps and candles. We were about to go home when a Rolls-Royce crept towards us, and our grand visitor got out. He had stopped for lunch at Newmarket, on the way, he explained. He pulled out a Persian rose and heeled it in; then we all had tea in the rectory. “You English,” he said, “you are so prompt.”
This Sunday, Brenda’s pottery reminded me of a potter in the Rubáiyát,“For some we loved, the loveliest and best That from His rolling vintage Time has pressed, Have drunk their glass a round or two before, And one by one crept silently to rest.”
Chapter 4 of the book of Numbers contains the furnishings of the temple: “And upon the table of shewbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and covers to cover withal,” God tells Aaron. The Christian altar is a long way off. The only bells are on Aaron’s robe, but we hear them down the vast distances of time. As for the cup, it is already on its way to become the one that Jesus held when he said, “Drink this in memory of me.”
The 17th-century lid of our cup is worn thin by worshippers who spoke when Shakespeare was alive. As for spiritual sustenance, there will always be more than enough to satisfy us all.
Our local pots were made for wine or ashes, and were created by the same movement as Brenda makes: she spins the clay in her hands, as life spins in ours, the most philosophical thing that humanity can put its hand to.
Ronald Blythe thinks of the lives of those named on a war memorial
WHILE John, our Vicar, conducts the Remembrance service at the war memorial, my mind wanders. Who could the three Ernests named on it be? Where did they live? How did they die? They were born when The Importance of Being Earnest was being written. Their brief lives were important to them — they were all that they possessed, at a time when such lives were undervalued by society at large. Labourers were what they were called.
Once, in a Suffolk parish, and unusually, I found a red notebook by the side of the war memorial, which gave little biographies of the young men named on it: what they worked at, when they volunteered, where they went to school, and who their parents were. And at once they became more than names: a shepherd, a postman, a carpenter, a farm worker.
Too late now for our war-memorial names, although a dedicated parish historian might find out if they were redheads, or had a bike. At Wormingford, Barry, a bell-ringer, can claim cousins and great-grandparents; for his family has been here almost since the Reformation.
They are laying down water pipes in the lane to what was the ringing chamber in the church, and white bones gleam among the rubble. John Constable’s family graves are only a yard or two away. The great artist once stood outside in the lane to draw these tombs. Its wild hedge separates them from the lane. Hardly suppressed by tarmac, the little stream which is part of the water table of the River Stour breaks the surface perpetually. Nothing can stay a river and its source from flowing. The streams and brooks which fed the Thames run below Fleet Street.
This year’s autumn is extra colourful, and the leaves are late in coming down. Now and then I consult past diaries to find out what happened in December 1795. I’m reading the Revd James Woodforde’s diary — that very hungry parson. And it says that, on 9 December, “we had for dinner fish, pea soup, boiled neck of mutton, and capers, and a goose roasted, and a hot apple pie.”
I had for dinner something easy from Waitrose, on this summery November day. Such days were not unique: for instance, on 22 December 1790, “it was remarkably warm this morning”. This Norfolk priest had caught such a bad cold the previous winter that he was afraid to go to church, and so he sent his curate instead.
I love a wintry church — the candles wavering, the trapped scent of altar flowers, and trapped time itself. And then I am with the organist and the old friends. The organist is playing the introit, “Toll for the brave! The brave, that are no more! All sunk beneath the wave Fast by their native shore.” The Royal George had tipped over at its launch, drowning “twice 500 men”. But the years have washed away all the suffering, leaving just the date. The war memorial mentions a sailor or two among all the soldiers.
As for the local British Legion, I was told when I got there that it had vanished last year. “Time, like an ever rolling stream, Bears all its sons away,” leaving just a name or two for us to dream about.
Ronald Blythe considers the pathos of the Unknown Warrior
THERE is no dwindling of the Remembrance Day congregation; no lessening of these Georgian elegiacs. My last year’s poppy lies in a drawer, and I recall how the live emblems went on blooming throughout the carnage of the Western Front. And how the nightingales went on singing, but how young men did not go on living. My father, who had returned from Gallipoli, did not attend these rites. His medals lay in a drawer, the experiences alongside them; for it did not occur to him to tell them to us.
But for many years now I have laid a wreath, and said the sad words “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old”, thinking how these men would have preferred to have grown old rather than lie in a forest of gravestones.
Long ago, I was told how the Vicar of Margate, David Railton, who had been a padre in Flanders, initiated the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The congregation was chiefly composed of private mourners. There was no foreign representation. One hundred VCs lined the nave. The service was brief, and The Times said it was the most beautiful, the most touching, and the most impressive that this island had ever seen.
The grave had been dug just inside the west entrance of the abbey, and at the feet of Chatham. It was dug deep into the sand of Thorney Island, and there was no trace of any previous burial. After the committal, the grave was filled in with 100 sandbags of earth brought from the main battlefields, and a large slab of Tournai marble was laid over it.
For a brief time, it was inscribed “An unknown warrior”, but the Dean of Westminster could not leave it at this. He said that in 50 years’ time “they will want to know who the ‘unknown warrior’ was”. So he drew up the inscription for the present word-packed memorial.
After the funeral came the homage. In five days, more than a million peole visited the grave, and left 100,000 wreaths at the Cenotaph, which was almost obscured by flowers. The French buried their unknown warrior on the same day. They had lost one-and-a-quarter million men, and, unlike Britain, had had great tracts of their country reduced to a shambles.
In 1921, the present gravestone of black marble from Belgium, crowded with texts by Dean Ryle, was laid over the grave in the abbey. A great day, the Dean wrote in his diary, for Westminster Abbey.
The anonymous grave soon assumed precedence over all the mortuary magnificence which crammed the abbey. Its pathos was irresistible. And remains so.
Ronald Blythe thinks of a former companion on a trip to Scotland
AT THIS time of the year, all kinds of readings and experiences come together. The first I remember was when I had just come back from Scotland, staying with friends at Kinloch Rannoch. This was, in fact, a retreat for a party of eight friends, including two botanists, in a big, white, lonely house above Loch Rannoch, and backing on to Rannoch Moor, one of Britain’s mighty desolations.
One of these annual walks was no more than two miles from a deserted stone village which belonged to the notorious Highland clearances, when landowners such as the Duchess of Sutherland preferred sheep to men. There it lay, a biggish place with crofts and barns and tracks and drovers’ roads, by a flashing burn, with sheep in residence and the strong pattern of long habitation by men, women, and children, ancestors now of prosperous folk in Canada and New Zealand.
Then, my neighbour, Mr Brown, died, aged 100: born at Michaelmas, died at Michaelmas. When he was three, his father had hired a train which brought this Ayrshire family from the Lowlands to the south-east of England, and the little boy heard and remembered the kicking of the plough horses in their box, as the special train, hired for £10, brought everything they possessed: farm gear, stock, chattels, and their corn seed, to East Anglia.
He only once returned to Scotland, and this was in his seventies: he took his grandson to see the obelisk commemorating their ancestor, on the moor. The young crofter was shot by Claverhouse’s men for being a Covenanter. One of Mr Brown’s constant requests when he came to talk to me, once a week, was to look up Scottish words in the glossary at the back of my book of Burns’s poems; for he was in his nineties, and they were slipping away from him. At his funeral, the church in which I gave the address was filled with Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex Scottish farmers of the third generation of immigrants.
When I first walked in Scotland during my twenties, my Bible was Boswell’s life of Johnson and his tour of the Hebrides. It was the notoriously unpromising first encounter of these two unlikely friends which brought John Clare’s grandfather into focus. The great man Johnson was 54, and his biographer was 23. Boswell was longing to meet Johnson while having tea with Mr Davies, a bookseller in London.
The door was darkened by a terrifying figure, and Boswell went to pieces.
“Don’t tell him where I come from,” he begged Mr Davies.
“From Scotland,” the wicked bookseller said.
“Mr Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I can’t help it.”
“That, Sir, I find is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help.”
The year was 1763, and, 20 years after this, Dr Johnson was telling poor Boswell: “Sir, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road to London.”
The effects of all the diaspora, artistic as well as socially, are incalculable. John Clare is often thought of as the epitome of the English village voice, but Clare’s grandfather came from Scotland: not a ploughman, like Robert Burns, out of rural poverty, but a schoolmaster.
How and why he entered Helpston we may never discover. He walked along the Great North Road, and played the violin, and was educated by self-reading; and, bit by bit, he came to be the greatest rural poet of England.