Rites of fall
IN THE month when I took up my new post as Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in 2010, a much loved 90-year-old catalpa (Indian bean) tree fell down and died in the courtyard of the church. I tried not to take it personally — until an ancient mulberry tree in the courtyard of St Paul’s Cathedral (where I was living at the time) also fell over, just as I left. That tree didn’t die, thank goodness, although it needed urgent repair and help. What is it, I wondered, with me and trees?
As a junior member of staff at St Paul’s at the turn of the millennium, I had great fun with the then Chaplain to the Bishop of London (now Dean of Chapel at St John’s College, Cambridge) as we wrote the liturgy for the blessing of yew trees to be planted in churchyards that year. We started as we meant to go on: “The Lord be with yew.” It went downhill from there.
BUT the catalpa tree that had stood in the courtyard off Piccadilly for 90 years, surviving bombing, pollution, and storm, has now been made into a striking set of nativity figures the size of an eight- or nine-year-old child (Diary, 1 February). The mysterious visitors from the East are there, of course, with their treasure-chests and symbolic gifts; but this year there is an important addition to the scene.
Last Maundy Thursday, members of the congregation worked with the artist and placemaker Sara Mark to make a shroud (cf. Lavant, 2018, www.saramark.uk). It was used during the washing of the feet that evening, was part of the Good Friday service the following day, and, during the all-night vigil, was stitched into the “grave clothes” that hung over the empty cross on Easter Day.
The shroud was subsequently taken to Spain by the artist. Last March, it was washed again in one of the old lavaderos in the town of Chelva, near Valencia, and then hung to dry in the chapel of Santa Cruz, itself a former mosque. This Christmas and Epiphany, back at St James’s, the shroud has become swaddling clothes, wrapped neatly around the holy child’s body, and lining the crib: a contemporary gift that echoes the traditional offering of myrrh, used to anoint the dead, and given to Christ at his birth.
JUST as the streets around the church are full of discarded fir trees, Epiphany is given more vigorous expression in Common Worship than before. No longer just about the visit of the Magi, Epiphany is now a whole season in which those other epiphanies — the wedding at Cana, the baptism of Jesus by John — are given equal attention throughout January.
While the rest of the country is doing Dry January, the Church’s liturgies are full of gallons and gallons of wine made from water; the abundant generosity of gold, incense, and oil shrouded in mystery from far-away visitors; and the delicate sight of the dove of peace, alighting on the scene when the Prince of Peace is baptised by his fiery prophet cousin.
MANY in our church were supporting the Extinction Rebels last year. Later this year, in Glasgow, the UK will host yet another attempt to forge an international response to the emergency of climate change (COP 26, 10 September 2020). And we now know that — for the first time in human history — one billion people live in a country that they were not born in.
These two global realities inform our observance here of this Epiphany season of cosmic “uncoverings”. Climate change and the forced migration of huge numbers of people are two of the defining issues of our time. But the inability of nation-states to work effectively together to address climate change, combined with the increasing nationalist rhetoric and hardening of borders evident in the election of populist leaders, demonstrates that we humans reach too easily the limit of our imagination to contemplate fundamental change.
In this, surely, Epiphany can help, by firing up our imaginations to do just that. These epiphanies that we celebrate uncover the deepest reality: the life, death, and resurrection of the cosmic and humane Christ. The stories reveal truths, however costly or irreducible, and drench those realities with rich colour, so that our eyes — weary from the making do and getting by that are much of daily reality — are lifted to rest our gaze on what is beautiful, good, and true.
And change — true, fundamental change — then becomes not just imaginable, but possible, in a way that it wasn’t before.
Triumph of love
ALL very well, of course, but, meanwhile, on the grey streets of central London, the pavements are hard, and many more people are sleeping rough than ever before. As the Archbishop of Canterbury noted before Christmas, this statistic, combined with the divisive rhetoric frequently used about minorities, can point to the UK’s having some pretty serious challenges to face in this new year.
Scrambled eggs are one small part of an answer. Having breakfast with people who have no recourse to public funds enables me to chat with a young man, a rough-sleeper who emerges from time to time around our central-London community. He shows me a picture of his boyfriend (handsome, we agree); from the extreme vulnerability of his own situation as an occasional sex worker, he still has the energy — God only knows how — to connect, laugh, and be one of the most humane and compassionate people I have met in a long time.
Continents away from the place where he was born, he finds himself in a room with many other bearded men with cold hands, eating chickpeas and eggs with a bunch of well-meaning strangers.
I feel angry; but he is still alive, still talking, and still able to be generous with his wit and his energy — an epiphany for me, certainly, that love is possible and enduring, even when life seems impossible and unendurable. Something like a swaddling and a shroud all at once.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly in the diocese of London.