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Word from Wormingford

28 February 2014

Ronald Blythe makes up his mind where he is in the liturgical year

IT BEING too good to be inside, I check the oil tank, walk the muddy paths, and survey the snowdrops, which are legion. They clothe the rises and the hollows in their thousands, with their matchless whiteness and their sudden appearance. One day it is sodden undergrowth, the next this purity of flowers.

The birds rustle around; the sky shines. Four young horses race around the field, their coats flying. In church, I have to make up my mind whether it is after the Epiphany, or before Lent. I preach on the showing of Christ.

Religion can be neither darkness nor light, just cloudy. And there is this fading away of the brightnessas the years gather. Amos - a favourite of mine - cried: "I may not be a theologian, but I can see that things are not what they should be!" But who was going to take notice of a noisy young fruit-farmer out in the sticks? But I love his voice. It is new and non-liturgical. And beautiful. Very clear.

In mid-Epiphany, we have St Paul on his restless travels, church-founding, magisterial. Confident - Tarsus bred men of letters. It was on the old caravan route from Asia to Europe. Tent-making in such a city was a profitable trade. We read about him during the Epiphany because the blinding light of his conversion meets the greater light. He was on the road because his deliverer had said: "I am the light of the world."

On his way, Paul had met Timothy, a man of mixed race, with his Greek father and Jewish mother. So they walked on, the pair of them, teaching what the friends of Jesus had taught them.

When Paul reached Troas, he had a vision - more light. Someone in his head was begging him to "come over into Macedonia, and help us." Leave your native east, and come to Europe. Why not? He had a Roman passport. First, he and young Timothy made for Philippi, where Paul founded perhaps his favourite church: "I thank my God for every remembrance of you," he would say in his letter.

His first encounter with a Philippian was near the water's edge. Walking to it on the sabbath, he had found a women's prayer-meeting in progress. He and Timothy sat down and took part. This was St Paul's first Christian activity in Europe. One of the women was a businessperson named Lydia. Having heard Paul preach Christianity, she is the first named European to become part of the Church: this woman who sold purple cloth.

His next encounter was with a girl who had been forced into fortune-telling because of her profitable madness. Along with the gospel came the light of reason. "Be affectionate with one another," Paul told the infant Church.

He foresaw the multiplicity of behaviours that must enter a universal faith - it takes all sorts to make a world - and yet "Be kind to one another." The Church must not be monolithic, but various. Because Lydia ran a house church, she could be described as the first Christian priest in Europe, if one might be fanciful.

On a spring-in-winter day, with the Stour bursting its banks, a formlessness takes over the familiar landscape; something uncontrollable is in power. Pretty rivers swell into terrible giants. Water, water everywhere, although no rain to speak of. My ditches roar. And all these snowdrops! And the wild duck wherring over.

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