David Frith urges us to look beyond the next fix of fun and escapism to the real joys that lie ahead, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice
Outside our back door and around the house we have collections of coloured pebbles and sea shells, spirit-lifting mementoes of happy and warmer days spent on different beaches on holiday. By the time you read this, the days will be getting warmer and the daylight stronger. We will also have noticed and rejoiced in other signs of improving weather: catkins, snowdrops, early lambs, daffodils, birds singing, the grass looking greener, and so on. And in the world of human affairs, who can fail to have noticed pictures, programmes, articles and conversations, all encouraging us to consider future holidays?
In the dark days we naturally look forward to something brighter and better, and rejoice in those pointers, like our sea shells, which tell us bleak times don’t last forever. What nicer way for many to hasten this prospect of future gladness by doing the research, looking at brochures and websites, and then finally making real that longed-for better future by actually booking the holiday?!
Springtime, then, is a time of hope, renewal, warmer days, the defeat of darkness, good things ahead. No wonder eggs, chicks, lambs, budding flowers and blossom feature so strongly in our imagery for Spring and the Easter season. That “ancient pulse of germ(ination) and birth” (as Thomas Hardy describes it in a very wintry poem) still beats strongly today and gladdens us in prospect.
As we contemplate the brightening meteorological future and the consoling prospect of time away on holiday, it might seem odd to be raising a cautionary note. Is everything ahead really quite so rosy and hopeful, uplifting and reassuring ? Is our natural focus on holiday pleasure and the freedom from the drudge and dreariness of the everyday actually a bit myopic?
As we raise our sights and see other less desirable things coming down the road towards us, it might seem natural to lower our vision again to the brighter short-term elements of the future over which we exercise some control. We’d rather edit out the advancing years, illness, crises, shortage of resources and offensive regimes making the lives of countless millions miserable. Add your own woe at this point! As Voltaire’s Candide famously puts it, we (in real or metaphorical ways) can tend just to want to “cultivate our garden.”
In this connection it is instructive to recall a verse in Scripture which notes that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51) No holiday trip lined up here. He had his sights fixed on an end point and was not going to be deflected in his intentions, even though he knew a long time back precisely what was coming down his particular road: what we memorialise this year on Friday April 14. This point of aim meant he knew, understood and accepted the various stages that were to lead up to this outcome: something we by contrast feel aghast at, since such purposefulness and far-sightedness are quite daunting for most people.
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews in our New Testament puts the crucifixion in a broader context of something far better coming as a result of Christ’s suffering: “Jesus, for the joy set before him endured the cross.” The knowledge of something unimaginably greater ahead, and the trust that even in the worst of suffering and anguish God is somehow still mysteriously present, helped him face the very worst ordeal any human can face.
On 1 March the season of Lent begins. It’s an opportunity for personal preparation for the outburst of joy and hope and the defeat of death’s power of Easter. We have a ready-made chance in the coming weeks, perhaps by some traditional ‘giving up’, or by taking on extra disciplines (prayer, reading, meditation, quiet time to do some guided or specific thinking) to create space to make a personal ‘collection’ of those things, like our shells, which remind us that behind the very real darkness and bleakness of much of life, there is a future hope of which Christ has been the pioneer. As he told his disciples on one of the occasions he was with them after the resurrection: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
David Frith, Reader, Berkeley Benefice
You don’t have to perform superhuman feats to embrace saintly qualities, as Richard Chidlaw explains
When you are on holiday in Cornwall, you will come across many churches which have a local saint, of whom nothing is known at all. (Such dedications are recognisable in St German's, but not in Gwennap or Mevagissey, where the “saint” part of the name is missing.) In many cases, even the sex of the local saint is unknown. They are thought to be people who first established the church in that place, but even that is a guess. The saint's details are lost, but the name remains.
So, what of St Jordan of Bristol, whose very name has almost been forgotten?
David Higgins has published an article in this year's Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society drawing Jordan out of obscurity and presenting him as an important, but forgotten evangelist in the Bristol region. There was a chapel to Jordan in the middle of what is now College Green at the bottom of Park Street. He was a young companion of St Augustine who was sent by Pope Gregory to convert the English in 597. Bede tells the story of Augustine meeting the British (Welsh) bishops at St Augustine's Oak, and failing to gain their support in converting the heathen English. The idea that this meeting took place on College Green is not without difficulties, but the continuing presence of Jordan in Bristol and the dedication of two churches: St Augustine the Less (now demolished, but near Queen Victoria's statue) and Bristol Cathedral (then St Augustine's Abbey) suggest early support for the location.
If you regard yourself in any way as someone who has a faith, then you too are a saint.
Jordan is identified as a “confessor” in a mediaeval book of prayers which states that he was a companion of Augustine in preaching to the heathen English. It has been argued that the “Harrowing of Hell” sculpture in Bristol Cathedral's South Transept originally covered the grave of Jordan in his chapel.
Does it matter that people such as Jordan have been forgotten, that his pastoral care and evangelising of the area have just been taken for granted, that he, like so many others have perished as though they had never been? I think it shows us something important about real saints, rather than those fictional ones of the dragon-slaying type.
The work they did and the example they lived were to honour Jesus and, by their witness, to bring others to believe also. Oddly, I find them more believable just because there are no mighty miracle stories told of them. They are people who lived and witnessed to the Faith in them, just like we do. The most important aspect of their witness is that it is acknowledged in Heaven, though many early Christians in this area will have had cause to be grateful to Jordan for his life, leaving his home and family in Italy, having to learn English and working in an area of political conflict between Briton and Saxon. Heaven remembers: we forget.
It shows us the importance of all the things we do for God's kingdom. They do not have to be things which demand public acclaim. They do not have to be remembered. Indeed, some of the most important things we do we may forget, but others will value and perhaps remind us of in years to come.
In conclusion, let me remind you that “saints” which means “holy people” is applied in the New Testament to all the believers and that if you regard yourself in any way as someone who has a faith, then you too are a saint. RC