Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Incarnation is not only for Christmas

The Feast of the Visitation has been, historically, a slightly odd one for those who have had an association with St Mary's Bourne St.  The month of May was never seen out with any great festivity, which you would at first think was unusual for a church in the highest of Anglo-Catholic traditions, dedicated to Our Lady, indeed thus dedicated on the Feast of the Visitation in 1874.  In fact there is a very good explanation.

Unlike so many of the apparently unusual traditions of individual parishes around the world, there was no secret behind this, there had been no loss of the rationale for this seemingly strange omission (although it must be admitted that the number of people "in the know" is not high).  The church was dedicated on the Feast of the Visitation according to the pre-1969 calendar, when this fell on 2 July, hence it always seemed slightly superfluous to hold another grand service on the 31 May.  Therefore, it had been practice since shortly after the calendar changes to observe the Visitation in a slightly low key way, given the bonanza to follow later in the year. 

Indeed, even although our friends at Bourne St now do mark the Visitation on 31 May in more style than in our time (and, on that note, we take the opportunity to wish the vicar a very happy birthday), the first weekend in July is still a time of great festivities there: founders and benefactors are commemorated on the Saturday, and a great procession around the parish accompanies the usual Sunday morning rituals. 

Whether the day is marked today and/or according to an older calendar, it is indeed a cause for great joy. Even if circumstances mean that we no longer agree on everything and are sadly no longer in communion, we have no difficulty at all in saying that our friends at Bourne St will be entirely right to include a Marian procession through the streets in their plans for early July.   The day should be marked with celebration and happiness.

Indeed, the first weekend of July holds a particular significance for us, as it was the occasion of our own parting of friends last year.....but we will say much more on that in around a month.

All that ecumenical introduction serves as explanatory background to the fact that we are not yet used to marking the Visitation at the end of May.  In this instance, we cannot attribute the lack of familiarity to strange Catholic practices, nor to clinging on to Anglican habits: the root cause lies in the parochial traditions of our former home.

The Visitation is a time of great rejoicing, commemorating not only the joyful leap of St John the Baptist in his mother's womb, but also the incarnation itself.  It is very easy to make the mistake of thinking that we celebrate the incarnation at Midnight Mass, and that that's enough : we do indeed celebrate the incarnation then, but the incarnation is not only about a signficant date of birth, but as the greatest of acts (all the more so for being an act of humbling abasement), it is rightly marked through the Annunciation, through the Visitation and all throughout the Church's year.

Without the incarnation there would have been no Holy Week and Easter, indeed even Pentecost, which we marked last week, would have been rather different.  The incarnation is a wonder that affects every day in the calendar, pre or post 1969, and it is absolutely correct to give thanks for it at all times.   

I mentioned above the celebrations of the Visitation in July (even if technically the event is now a commemoration of the anniversary of the dedication of a church).  Well, to make my point about the need to mark the incarnation throughout the year, I want to (appear to) be even more unseasonal and include Betjeman's well-known poem Christmas, another example of Anglican Patrimony.  The poem talks about all the ways in which Christmas is celebrated, and the things that people fixate upon, and concludes by noting that really what counts is miraculous yet rather simple.  The same can be said at any time of year, there is this single Truth that underpins so much of the Truth that the Church is blessed to proclaim.
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
The Gospels all flow from that single Truth, and we do well at all times and in all places to ensure that we ponder it in our hearts all year round, not just when the London shops are strung with silver bells and flowers.

The Visitation is a timely feast in its current position because it gives us one more chance to honour Our Lady in this her special month of May - not, of course, that we should desist from honouring her outside of May.  Time then for two pieces of music.  The first, a piece of Anglican Patrimony, the Magnificat, today's song, as set by Stanford in his Evening Service in C, and as sung at the Ordinariate's first anniversary celebrations at St James's in January this year.  The second: I just couldn't resist one last outing this year for Frank Patterson and Bring Flowers of the Rarest, a true May hymn. 

Tomorrow, our devotions turn towards the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the burning love of the incarnate one.  For tonight though, let us rejoice with Our Lady, and give thanks for her role in the incarnation.

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