Thoughts Archive

ST FIACRE
a talk by Kevin Scully before the Blessing of Cabs
on September 1, 2015

Today is St Fiacre’s Day. How did he this Irish monk get to be the patron saint of cab drivers? Well, he was something a traveller himself, leaving his native land to go to France in search of solitude. He liked to live alone – not something that would sit with the reputation of many cab drivers. He did not really get his wish. Others wanted to join them, so he had to travel through life not only with Jesus, but other monks.

Other saints might have been called into be the patron of the taxi industry as we remember it before God today. St Christopher, whose legendary exploits include carrying the Christ child on his shoulders across a river. He didn’t know who his fare was, but he found out later.

Or we could look to Botolph, enshrined in so many English towns. Here in London, churches under his patronage are at Aldgate, Billingsgate, Bishopsgate and Aldersgate. Gate, being the clue here. The churches were by entrances to the City. This also occurs in other cities, even to the point of there being a church inside and outside the city walls. For your going out and coming in, as it says in the Psalms.

Fiacre protected his privacy, to the reported point of hostility towards women, but came to be associated with a number of miraculous healings and his relics were placed in the cathedral of Meaux.

French cabs are called fiacres because the first cab rank - well , more accurately, the first establishment to let coaches on hire in Paris, in the middle of the seventeenth century, was in the Rue Saint-Martin, near the hotel Saint-Fiacre, in Paris.

The theme of travel, and of being accompanied while doing it, is also part of our reading. Philip is on his way and he gets up into a chariot and helps someone who is having difficulty finding his way – not around town, but with holy scripture. It is a life changing experience. Philip explains how what the eunuch is reading points to Jesus.

There is an echo in the gospel of Luke when two men – admittedly this time on foot – who encounter a stranger who the reader knows, but the travellers do, to be Jesus. Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, we are told, Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. Their hearts burn, they realise later, at the gift God has given them in this encounter.

Now, I expect every cabbie has his or her own encounter with someone famous. But an encounter with Jesus can be life changing. In blessing the cabs after this service, we hope something of the life changing encounter that Christians speak of may be part of those who drive and travel in the fiacres of London.

HOLLY FROM THE BONGS
a sermon preached by Judith Blackburn
Epiphany 2015

I hope you all had a very happy and peaceful Christmas, and I am sure that many presents were given and received. I am a firm believer in not opening a present before the allotted celebration – birthday, Christmas or some other anniversary. I enjoy the suspense of the revelation when I finally take off the wrapping pape and, before that, the squeezing and rattling of the package as I try to guess what the gift might be. I enjoy savouring the mystery of my present.

Today we celebrate the Epiphany – another story of the giving of gifts, but in some ways this gift giving involved a double mystery. The Magi arrived with presents, certainly, but not the normal presents that one might offer a new born and new parents – teething ring, teddy-bear, cute booties; no, they came with gold, frankincense and myrrh – three mysterious and strange presents for a baby; but the Magi were also confronted with a mystery. They were expecting to pay court to a new born king, so why did they find him in very humble surroundings with no retinue or finery, just a simple parents and in an ordinary house, not a palace? That was a mystery for them to ponder - what was their journey all about?

The Wise Men were compelled to seek out the child who was born to be King, and in doing so the importance of this child was recognised by those who were representatives of the world’s ‘establishment’ – people of power. The Magi – ‘Wise Men’, astrologers were people who represented the great places of learning and influence and they brought gifts that reflected all that was important to them and, they believed, would be important to a new born king.

Gold is a symbol of wealth and power – but these alone do not bring about salvation. Frankincense is used in worship – a symbol of the prayer of the people; however, worship may make us feel good but it’s meaningless if we do not place ourselves in the presence of God. Myrrh is a painkiller and is also used in embalming, which makes it a very peculiar gift to bring a child. Perhaps the Wise Man who brought this gift was healer who recognised that he would be meeting the great healer – the healer not only of individuals but of the whole of humankind. These three symbolic gifts try to speak to the mystery of the recipient - not the most practical gifts for a new-born and yet, mysteriously, very apt when considered with the gift of hindsight. The Magi were confronted with the mystery of how their gifts would be relevant to this small and seemingly insignificant infant. Mary and Joseph were already well used to the ways of God working in and shaping their lives and they must have been happy to be visited by such distinguished visitors, but also very afraid for their child.

On Christmas night I didn’t sleep so well, as sometimes happens, and I resorted to the wonders of all night radio. At 1.30 am on Boxing day morning I heard a short radio documentary called ‘Bringing Holly from the Bongs’: it tells of how 50 years ago the acclaimed children’s author, Alan Garner wrote a nativity play for his local village school, Goostrey Primary, with the traditional Christmas story transposed to Cheshire. In the documentary Garner describes how the play came to be written, and the, now adult, children remember what it meant for them to be part of it. The play was put on not in the school hall, but the barn attached to a local pub. The part of the three ‘Kings’ was given to the three tallest girls who were told that they had to be serene, unflinching and stately, and as they arrive and offer their gifts the boy playing Joseph comments on the fine joinery of the boxes which hold the gold, frankincense and myrrh, Mary is more worried and speaks of what these gifts will mean for her son: ‘Gold, the weight of the world; Frankincense, the cares of the world; Myrrh, the death of her new-born son;’ and then she asks, “What gifts are there for his loving?” At this all the cast – shepherds, Magi, Mary and Joseph all bow their heads for they have no answer. However, the situation is saved by all the children who are not acting in the play for they come on, as modern day children, with all sorts of gifts – apples and medlar fruit, plants from the village boundaries and ‘Holly with berries from the bongs’ . . . the ‘bongs’ being the word the locals used for wooded banks in the area. They bring all these special things grown around their homes to offer the child and having presented them a little girl comes forward and says: “Now may you Jesus see/ by Goosetry’s heart and boundary/ all garlanded with leaf and tree/ then thank thee God for this mercy.”

Alan Garner seemed to me to capture both sides of the mystery of this most famous exchange of gifts. God, through the birth of Jesus Christ, had given to the world the gift of one who holds all power and authority but bore it with the great weight of responsibility that such sovereignty requires; the gift of him to whom we can come with our prayers and concerns and lay them at his feet; the gift of the one who dies so that we may never fear our own death because by his resurrection he defeats death. These three strange presents open our eyes to what is to become of this child, and what this child is to become: the one person the world has waited for. Mary’s concern for her child is well founded, but her faith in the God from which he came is also sound as she ponders and makes sense of all that is going on around her. Yet the question that Mary proffers at the end of Garner’s nativity is still pertinent: “What gifts are there for his loving?”

As the New Year unfolds before us we will come to church and listen to the Bible, and hopefully, will read from the Bible in our own homes; we will hear the stories of Jesus ministry – his healing and teaching, his miracles, his life, his death and his resurrection. However, what we may end up forgetting is that all these happenings occur within a context, and that is the context of God’s love for his creation; that is the bottom line – God is love and so we place our faith in love, we come to church to worship love, we rely on love to carry us throughout our lives, but how do we show our love – what gifts do we offer for this loving?

There is only one gift that we can offer and that is to try to love as much in return; and by this I don’t mean to be ultra-pious or to be ultra-defensive of our faith. No, I mean that we should try to offer the world the same unconditional love as we receive; that in our daily lives we should be quick to help and slow to judge; to recognise that all people are children of God, whether or not they acknowledge that for themselves, and so our response to our neighbour should be generous, kind, patient, forgiving, compassionate – all the virtues that are prompted by love.

Quite an ask, isn’t it? Are we really up to it? Not on our own . . . we cannot deliver this gift on our own, but we are not asked to. The shepherds were given directions by the heavenly host; the Magi was guided by a star; Jesus has not left us comfortless but has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that turned St Paul from being a persecutor of the church to one who can say: “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift od God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.”

This New Year offers us a new opportunity to respond to the great gift of Christmas – the Good News that is Jesus – by bringing good news to others in sharing and radiating the love that we receive through him. The Magi brought princely gifts but Jesus offers so much more. Let us offer the best of ourselves in return. Amen.

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