Thought for the month
Last Tuesday morning (16 April) we woke up to the fresh realisation that Notre Dame, the vast Gothic cathedral at the heart of Paris and at the heart of France, and which had survived both revolution and occupation, had been grievously damaged by fire the previous night. At one point it had even seemed that everything would be lost – thankfully it was later reported that the cathedral structure had survived the fire, though it had come within 30 minutes of not doing so.
In her Radio 4 “Thought for the Day” that morning, Rev Lucy Winkett reflected on our sadness at losing such tangible links with our past, and at the changes in the world since Notre Dame had been completed, quoting Heine’s words: “People in those old times had convictions; we moderns only have opinions. And it needs more than a mere opinion to erect a Gothic cathedral.”
Her talk (still available at this link) ended with the words: “When the medieval St Paul’s Cathedral in London was burned down in the 17th century, the architect commissioned to rebuild it, Christopher Wren, sifted through the rubble and found a large stone from the old cathedral with a word already carved on it. He picked it up in front of the assembled workmen and placed it on the ground as the cornerstone of the new cathedral. On it was carved the Latin word Resurgam; I shall rise again.”
That was last Tuesday; today is Easter Day; and “Resurgam” is once more a good way to start, as we reflect on the ongoing story of the One who overcame death and is alive for evermore, and as we look forward to Notre Dame rising from the ashes, and reaching towards the heavens with a new spire – whether it’s a replica of the old, or a design for the 21st century!
Over the past week we’ve had two reminders about mothers: today when we celebrate Mothering Sunday, a pause for refreshment during our Lenten journey, and last Monday, which was the feast of the Annunciation or “Lady Day”, in former times the beginning the year as well as the day when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would have a child and he would be called “the Son of the Most High”.
In his Church Matters blog, Paul Beasley-Murray reminds us how, throughout Christ’s life, Mary discovered to her cost that being a mother was not easy. When her twelve-year-old son went missing for three days. When, instead of marrying and becoming a family man as his contemporaries did, he left home and consorted with all sorts of undesirable people. When, at the age of 33, he ended up, naked, on a cross, and Mary experienced the pain of seeing her child die before her eyes. Simeon had warned her that a sword would pierce her soul – and how right he was.
Jonathan Singh’s blog reminds us that sometimes, when we start something, we don’t always know where it will end up. When we follow someone, we don’t always know where we’re going. Would Mary have thought that the wood of the manger would have been exchanged for the wood of the cross?
But it was from that cross that Jesus told his best friend, John, that Mary would be like a mother to him too. And then told his mother that John would now be like a son to her. It was a moment of entrusting. Jesus asks those who follow him to look after each other as family.
Singh continues: “If mothering were only done by mothers, it would be very hard indeed to ensure that everyone received the nurturing, protection, love, sacrifice, guidance that we need to become the people we are meant to be. As a church community, we are called into a role of mothering that sometimes might need to be just as desperate, fierce, loyal, grieving as with Mary and in the motherly experience of so many.
“On the cross, God’s love is nailed firmly to the world so as never to let it go. Is our love for the world as firmly fixed as this? Are we this passionate about nurturing the world into becoming the place that God created it to be? A truly parental love is one that would give anything and everything for the child. This is the love of God that we see on the cross, but this is also the love that we are called to have for one another, and which the Church is called to have for the world. When we love like that, we make our Mothering-God visible in the world.”
At our Ash Wednesday service, as preparation for communion, we read Isaiah 58.1–12 and Psalm 51, and in prayer we “called to mind our sins and the infinite mercy of God”. That prayer ended: “Accomplish in us the work of your salvation, that we may show your glory in the world. By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord, bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.”
Stirring words, and the point in the service where each member of the congregation had their forehead marked with the sign of the cross in ash (traditionally made by burning last year’s palm crosses), with the words of ministration “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. Explained by the words that came just before: “Loving God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence and a symbol of our mortality; for it is by your grace alone that we receive eternal life in Jesus Christ our Saviour.”
Apart from the symbolism, the service was also memorable for the homily on a verse from the Gospel of the day: “Beware of practising righteousness before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) The homily consisted in Michael Paterson reading a poetic reflection twice, with a pause for thought in between. His message will be there long after the ash has washed away.
with ash on our foreheads
a symbol not of piety
but of reality and intent:
the reality that we are dust
and to dust we shall return;
and the intent
to make that dust
a veritable storm
that whips up our lives
exposing the half-truths and the lies
by which we justify and deceive ourselves.
A grain of ash may be all it takes
to turn us round
and to refuse mediocrity.
A grain of ash may be all it takes
to signal our intent
and elicit our Yes
to act justly
to love tenderly
and to walk humbly with our God.
Who would have thought
a grain of ash
could start such a revolution?
[This reflection for Ash Wednesday 2019, prepared for St Margaret’s, Rosyth
by the Rev Dr Michael Paterson was inspired by and adapted from a poem
by Rev Liz Crumlish, Church of Scotland Path of Renewal Coordinator]