Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (present day Turkey) c270-c326AD
The story is partly lost in the intervening 17 centuries, but the core of it goes like this.
A man with three daughters, probably becoming teenagers, as if that isn't stress enough, has fallen into abject poverty. There is no way out. He offers his girls to traffickers, and they are destined to become slaves, somebody’s property or worse sold into prostitution. Nicholas, who may have come from a wealthy family, gave the girls money, (three gold coins?) enough to free them from slavery, and by all accounts settles their dowries. They can get married, the best route to safety for a woman in the Eastern Roman Empire.
Nicholas was born in about 270 AD in the Greek coastal town of Patara, now a Turkish resort. Orphaned quite young he was brought up in a Christian household by his uncle. He must have had enough money for pilgrimage as he spent some time in the Holy Land. On return to his home region of Lycia he was made bishop of Myra another coastal town, present day Demre, in Turkey. Remains of his church still stand, although the Turkish authorities are not really sure what to do with them. They have been re designated as the "Santa Klaus museum". To help the tourist industry?
Nicholas faced persecution under Diocletian (c302AD) but survived it. Some accounts list him as attending the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. He would have been in his 50s. The council of Nicaea was ordered by the Christian Emperor Constantine the Great to sort out doctrinal issues, especially the heresy of Arius. Out of that came the Nicaean Creed which we use today. Nicholas died in about 326, some put it as late as 343, and was interred in his cathedral.
Fast forward 7 centuries and in 1087 when the Seljuk tribes threatened Christianity in the area, coastal traders from Bari in southern Italy made off with the relics of the saint for safe keeping! A nice excuse for theft, and for considerable profit one suspects. And so the Saint came to be to the focus of pilgrimage and devotion in Italy and his basilica and a local monastery thrives in Bari to this day. Less cynically however, this move created a bridge between western Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox. Our present Pope used Bari for that reason as a base for dialogue and prayers for the Syrian people and the Syrian church in the present civil war.
Nicholas remains a popular saint without any of the trappings of Santa Klaus and the modern consumerism that explodes on us a Christmas time. 350 Belgian and about 400 English churches are dedicated to him, including Pluckley. He is the patron saint of children, sailors, and many other deserving folk, including pawnbrokers, whose sign to this day is three gold coins. He is celebrated on December 6th.
The Festival of Christ the King; an historical note
One might have thought that the feast of Christ the King was an ancient fixture in the Church's calendar. Medieval celebrations to round off the Church’s liturgical year? Not so! The festival was instituted by Pope Pius XI as recently as 1925.
What was on his mind?
His concern was twofold. Mostly he was aware that many Roman Catholics were seduced by the popular and charismatic Benito Mussolini, and flocked to support his fascist ideology with its undertones of violence and promises of making Italy great again.
Only recently (1922) Mussolini had led a popular march on Rome. That raises the second point. The position of the Papal states had not been resolved. The Italian state, both under King Victor Emanuel II from 1870 and later as a republic, claimed the city of Rome for its historic capital. The trouble was that it was “owned” by the Papacy. It would not be until 1929 that the Lateran treaty would resolve things; the Pope got Vatican City, and Italy the rest of Rome.
There was every reason for the Pope to remind members of the Catholic church where their allegiance really lay. The kingdom of heaven has no place for national or racial superiority, only love and service, justice, reconciliation and humility. Other denominations also saw the need for this correction, and quickly adopted the festival. Within a few years it got located to its present position in the calendar, and linked with apocalyptic themes in the lectionary.
Today around the world populism and aggressive nationalism has burst out of the post-war consensus. International rule of law, human rights and responsibilities have been undermined, not least in western democracies. Christians are again challenged to commit themselves to the Kingdom of God. “Thy Kingdom come” we pray daily. It may not be popular, and there are risks. But we are encouraged by the genius of Pius XI, the “great cloud of witnesses” who have stood against repression and violence over the ages, and of course Christ the King himself. To Him be the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty for ever!
Mark Taylor. Reader in the Benefice of Calehill and Westwell.
Of all the romantic names of ancient French provinces, perhaps the three most familiar to the English, apart from the ones whose names have been borrowed by local wines, will be Flanders, Artois and Picardy. In Flanders fields, as we are all aware, the poppies grow between the crosses, row on row. Roses, on the other hand, are what bloom in Picardy. In Artois the country round Arras the heaviest crop is by far the crosses.
The First World War was perhaps the last in which most of the casualties were suffered in the front line. There are places in the North of France where almost every field has its cemetery, and a cart track disappearing through a hedge will have as many as four signposts at its entrance. Within a few miles we had found British, French, German, American, Canadian, South African and Australian cemeteries and memorials, each with its quota of graves for its own people, and mingled with each a few, as it were, visitors whom fate had cast among strangers. In the Australian cemetery there rests an unknown Private of the Lincolns; among the French a sprinkling of Senegalese or Moroccans.
I have been here before. The dreadful, overwhelming waste of young manhood came home to me the first time, the second, the fifth perhaps. Now I am beginning to observe only the significant details. War is like that; it sneaks up and anaesthetizes you, and only a sudden jolt reminds you that each stone is a life as vital as your own only, shorter. One can begin to take those stones for granted. And then we saw another signpost, pointing down a track impassable to the car but plainly marked. Ayette Wood, it said, Chinese and Indian Cemetery.
It was very small, and very beautiful, and very sad. Perhaps there were thirty graves; certainly no more than forty. The grass was neatly mown, the flower-beds between the gravestones had roses and marigolds. Beyond the chestnut trees which shaded them, sleek cows cropped the grass of a green meadow. Each stone was neatly carved in two languages; Chinese and English, Chinese and French, Bengali and English. Each name carried a rank or title. Among the Indians some were military ranks recognizable from stories of the Raj: Jemadar, Sowar, Lance-Naik. But many of the Indian graves carried the title, Driver, and about half of them, and all the Chinese, were labelled Labourer.
Here was a place that touched me to the heart. Here were the bones of men who died digging trenches in stinking mud, ten thousand miles from home. To this place they had come six weeks on a ship through minefields and torpedoes, two weeks marching on shell-pocked roads, to a country where there was nothing left to see, with a language they did not understand, for a reason they would never know. No history book records their names or their achievements; the custom of their time treated them as less than men; they were Chinese labourers, coolies, lascars, always a collective noun. Only in death, and in this place, was their humanity, their individuality recognized.
Have we learned?
Do we progress? Do we still see other races as creatures to be used, existing in herds like cattle? Or is our concern for Sierra Leone or Iraq or otherwhere based on a recognition of individual worth? God knows every hair of every head, and marks the fall of a sparrow. Every life is as important as my life, every consciousness is the centre of the universe; before God we are all equal; in life as well as death.
in a rural setting
Harvest reflection in 2020
"Then shall the Earth bring forth her increase" (Psalm 67)
The work of bringing in a harvest, once a whole village activity, is these days reduced to a few people armed with high tech machinery. Nevertheless there is a deep sense that even in our season-less, industrialised, consumer-driven world the harvest needs celebrating in towns and cities as much as in the countryside. This year, those celebrations will be very different from what we have come to accept as normal. No village harvest supper. Churches stripped to a Lenten austerity rather than being decorated with fruit and vegetables, and empty of joyful singing.
It is worth using this year's different experience to explore what lies at the heart of harvest festivals that have been celebrated one way or another since the invention of agriculture. For our ancestors, and for many in other parts of the world today, harvest was never certain. Failure and famine always a possibility. Has our post war Western drive for security over food and other resources (oil for example) led us to ignore our true relationship with the planet and its intricate ecosystems?
Harvest is clearly a blessing upon humanity, and made more precious in our eyes because it has the element of a gift to us from the natural world. We would be wrong to think of it as a dependable right. It is better understood as a partnership between human action and nature's providence. Mankind in partnership with our Creator God. Partners have to agree their roles and responsibilities.
Psalm 67 often used at Morning Prayer as a hymn of blessing is familiar to many. It has a particular poetic structure (chiastic structure) loved of ancient writers. In reproducing the text here I hope to show how this works. Each verse steps up to the next until we reach the centre of the poem, the punch line. Then they step wise return to the starting point like this: A-B-C-D-C'-B'-A'. This give the central message a frame.
Psalm 67 is all about blessing. Verses 1 and 7, beginning and end are the framing verses that set the pace. God will bless his people and the whole world will be in awe of it. Next, the blessing has a purpose for the Earth; the Earth being mentioned in both verses 2 and 6. Those blessed will know the creative intentions of God (v2), and "Then shall the Earth bring forth her increase" (v 6). All that is in the purpose of the Creator will come into being. As a result everyone erupts into praise for the wonders taking place on Earth (verses 3 and 5 which are identical as a refrain). Note the important "Then shall the earth..." What has to happen first?
We are pointed unmistakably to the central message of verse 4. We are to be judged and governed righteously. While that might sound ominous in fact we will be glad of it. The link between divine governance and the Earth's productivity has immediate relevance for the partnership between humans and God that is needed for a harvest. We have to acknowledge that greedy self interest has not distributed the Earth's resources fairly, and over exploitation has led to the ecological crisis of our times. Some would add that the current pandemic itself has its origins in that same exploitation of nature. Mass displacement of people, and wars over dwindling resources follow remorselessly from the founding injustice. Care for our neighbour on the other hand would lead to sustainable living and partnership with the natural world. If we see the generations that will follow us as our neighbours too, there is the prospect of intergenerational justice. Something that young people rightly raise in their public concern about ecological collapse.
This year harvest celebration might move us from the usual congregational expression of gratitude to a deeper reflection on our relationship with our children, the generations to come and our planet. Our private consumption and our appetite for change are up for review. As Christians we can do this confidently in the assurance that justice and blessing are bound to each other. According to the Psalmist, justice, both at a private and at a national level is the key step that unlocks the full bounty of the Earth and leads to fullness of life.
1 God be gracious to us and bless us ♦
and make his face to shine upon us,
2 That your way may be known upon earth, ♦
your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; ♦
let all the peoples praise you.
4 O let the nations rejoice and be glad, ♦
for you will judge the peoples righteously
and govern the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; ♦
let all the peoples praise you.
6 Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, ♦
and God, our own God, will bless us.
7 God will bless us, ♦
and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.
Mark Taylor, Reader