Love reaches through and beyond death

Peter Seal, 20 December 2020

2 Samuel 7: 1–11, 16; Romans 16: 25–27; Luke 1: 26–38

We’re in the midst of deep, winter days, with minimal hours of daylight. But tomorrow is the shortest day, December 21st – hoorah – and then gradually, almost imperceptibly, we begin to make the movement towards greater light; and, pray God, the unfolding of a new and a better year.

Meanwhile, the birds continue their dawn chorus. We take heart that God is indeed in God’s heaven, and that all will be well.

Covid continues to challenge us in ways we could never have foreseen. We knew that the winter months would be hard, and that is proving to be the case – probably harder than we’d ever thought. Many, I know, are weary, if not exhausted. So much effort is going into trying to keep life as normal as it possibly can be. The resilience of the human spirit is remarkable. The inventiveness of human intelligence and of scientific skill is manifest; and especially in the speedy production of a vaccine now, thank God, beginning to be rolled out.

In the midst of so much challenge we have so much to thank God for. There’s so much that we can look forward to – though it may all take rather longer than we’d like.

Here, in this church community, after much careful discernment, your planning team made the very, very hard decision not to hold any Christmas services in St Paul’s. With the numbers we usually welcome we’ve concluded that it’s just not sensible, or indeed safe, to hold multiple services. It’s interesting that in Winchester it’s the bigger churches, like St Paul’s, which are finding they have the bigger challenge. At least one large church I know of is holding everything online, and has done since March.

So, on Christmas Eve there will be a Zoom Nativity. Do contact Mary Copping for details. At St Matthew’s there will be pre-booked 8 o’clock and 11.15 celebrations of the Holy Communion. And from St Paul’s at 9.30 on Christmas morning there’s going to be a really splendid pre-recorded Christmas Eucharist with some lovely music and carols. We believe that this way of worshipping means that everyone is included, no one is left out; and most importantly – and this almost became a nightmare – no one is physically turned away at the door because one particular service has reached its Covid-safe seating capacity.

The days over Christmas, as we all know, pose increased Covid dangers. We’re challenged to be patient, to keep safe, to go on loving. We’re all asked, too, to make sacrifices not just for our own good but the good of others. So this Christmas will not be as we might have liked in so many ways, and there’s much that we will miss.

Last Sunday I spoke to someone coming out of St Paul’s who had found the Isaiah passage particularly poignant. It was the line ‘To comfort all who mourn’ which really hit home. He said to me: ‘Not just bereavement, but so much other loss’.

Perhaps when we find ourselves feeling sad that we can’t do what we’d like to do, we can feast on our memories. Begin it now. We can recall Christmases past which have been particularly wonderful, especially with loved ones, and in particular those now departed – those who now live in that new way on that other shore and in that greater light.

Julia and I went to see my mum this week. Now 86, she lives each day with dementia. For her the past is, of course, so much better remembered than what happened an hour, even a minute, ago. We talked a bit about my father, who died two years ago. About every two minutes she says, ‘Has Daddy died?’ She was sad. And I found myself saying something like this: ‘Mum, Dad still loves you. He still loves each of us. He’s willing you along.’ Love, I believe with all my heart, reaches through and beyond death. Our loved ones, now departed, I believe, are willing us along. They will have gone through challenges in their lives. They understand now even better because of the nearer presence. And you know, love beyond dying is really prayer. We can go on praying for them and they, I believe profoundly, go on praying for us. The communion of saints, the fellowship of the departed – we’re all together. They’d like the new chairs! We’re all together.

Our loved ones, now departed, I believe, are willing us along. They understand now even better because of the nearer presence.

Today we give thanks for Mary, mother of Jesus, who came from a small town, Nazareth, rooted in history – a real place, real people. Today we marvel at the mystical beauty of the annunciation, as Mary learns that she is to become the mother, no less, of God in human form.

Mary, quite rightly has the most honoured place among those who know Jesus. She bore him in her womb. She nursed him at her breast, she changed his nappy.

Mary now lives in heaven and she continues to pray to the Father. And I believe we can ask her to pray for us. Personally I find this an integral part of my praying. We’re not praying to Mary, please let’s be clear, but asking Mary to pray for us; just as we might ask a church community or a friend, or even a stranger. You may know the words, based on Holy Scripture, but here they are again:

Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

So I encourage you to ask Mary to pray for you and for the world in these testing times. As a mother she knew all about pain, all about suffering, but also joy and celebration. If the coming days are hard, for whatever reason, I encourage you to do one of three things, maybe all of them:

  • Ask Mary to pray for you – and part of what this does is take us beyond ourselves into a greater reality.
  • Go to the parish website and make a generous donation to Christian Aid or St Martin-in-the-Fields, caring for homeless folk in central London. Giving away, and in particular money, is always a liberating experience; it takes us beyond ourselves.
  • Go for a walk: come here to St Paul’s, which will be open every day, including Christmas Day. The crib scene will be set up here. Sit for a while, say your prayers. Give thanks, weep. Urge, intercede. Repent. All that also, wonderfully, takes us beyond ourselves.

I leave you with this poem from R. S. Thomas, which is a favourite of mine. It reminds me of the greatness and majesty of our Creator God. To pick up Liz’s theme from last Sunday: it drills down through our egos and it takes us into vast expansive spaces. Imagine, if you’ve been there, being on the beach at Aberdaron where R. S. Thomas was the parish priest, or a beach anywhere. It’s called, ‘The other’.

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and falling
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village, that is without light
and companionless. And the thought comes
of that other being who is awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.