St Brigid of Kildare and other patrons

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A Brigid cross

Today, February 1st, is the day St Brigid of Kildare is honoured and celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion (today because it is the day that she died in 523).There isn’t a great deal known about Brigid and in recent times there has been debate as to whether she existed at all. Some have suggested that the name and characteristics of the goddess Brigid were attached to the saint.

In a way her historicity is immaterial. What matters is what people have made of her life and what her life has come to mean. There are plenty of stories about her charity, her faith, her wisdom and her healing powers – the sort of stories that make a saint. For example, she is credited with founding a school of art, including metalwork and illumination. She is said to have been sold by her parents into slavery. It is easy to understand why she has become patron saint of babies, children with abusive parents and printers. But she is also patron saint for blacksmiths, boatmen, brewers, cattle, chicken farmers, dairy maids, fugitives, mariners, nuns, poets, poor, sailors, scholars, travellers, watermen and Ireland!

It is this reach of her legend which interests me. That long list of those to whom she is “patron” is a list of those who come under her care. They become the people she entertained with God’s blessing in her life, whether her actual life or the life as it has come to be in culture. That long list represents an enormous reach in prayer and practice and is a measure of the extent of God’s embrace.

The honouring and celebration of saints are spread liberally through our calendar. They help to make us a people of thanksgiving, and they help to make us a people of prayer. From what we have made of Brigid our prayers can stretch from children in abusive homes to midwives, from boatmen to brewers, from sailors to scholars, from fugitives to poets. All of them are taken in by God. Normally I wouldn’t give them a second thought and would pass them by. But today, thank Brigid, I think again and remember the reach of God’s love, his particular intentions and his call for us to love like him.

The photo is by Amanda Slater, showing what is known as a Brigid cross. These crosses are traditionally made on February 1st. They are made from rushes or straw and hang in many kitchens as protection from fire and evil.

PS. I asked John Bleazard, Rector of St Bridget’s West Kirby to contribute to this piece after being moved by what he was telling me about what is happening in his parish and other parishes he knows dedicated to St Bridget, or St Bride. I’m really grateful for this that he writes on how St Brigid’s tradition is kept alive. John writes:

Good to see you remembering Bridget on 1st February, David.

As rector of the 1,000 years-old St Bridget’s Church here in West Kirby, I find myself planning a patronal festival service each year and researching stories about her. Apparently she was once short of drink to offer proper hospitality to some guests, and so prayed over a bath full of dirty washing up water which happily then turned into beer. Hence Bridget becoming known as the patron saint of beer, and why of course, with that knowledge, we just had to organise a weekend beer festival here at St Bridget’s!

In my introductory notes for the patronal service order of service booklet this year, I wrote: “…it is said that Bridget was the keeper of a sacred flame in the church at Kildare that her nuns kept alight for 1,000 years. In the dark days of early February this notion of Bridget keeping an everlasting light has become entwined with that of Jesus being revealed as the light of all the nations at Candlemas, and also with the old Celtic festival of Imbolc that welcomes the return of light and warmth as Winter turns to Spring.

“Bridget is one of only a very few female saints from Celtic times, so her revered place is testimony to her outstanding leadership and holiness. It is said that when she was taking her vows as a nun a ring of fire appeared over her head. In awe of this, Bridget was ordained a bishop by mistake!”

Knowing this history, (or should I say, hagiography or is it legend?) about Bridget as a pioneer of women’s ministry in a man’s world, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the present day St Bridget’s church congregation have signed up as members of Inclusive Church and campaign for full and equal treatment of everyone within the church regardless of sex, sexuality, or other forms of discrimination.

What is more striking is how many other churches dedicated to St Bridget are also involved in the Inclusive Church movement – indeed I’m going to a meeting of Inclusive Churches next Saturday – where? St Bride’s, Liverpool of course!

How exactly does this patronage or influence remain down the centuries? Robert Warren in Healthy Churches Handbook talks about the angel of the church – and how we might better understand decision making processes and the outlooks of churches if we discovered more about the personality and identity of the church’s angel (or patron?) as first described in the letter to the churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. The letters are addressed: “to the angel of the church in…”  Warren quotes from Walter Wink’s book, The Powers That Be, who says that “The angel of the church is the coincidence of what the church is – it’s personality – and what it is called to become – it’s vocation.” We at St Bridget’s need to look back at where we have come from, but also need to look forwards to what we are becoming.

I was very struck by what Revd Dr Peter McGrail of Liverpool Hope University said to us in his Patronal Festival sermon here at our service this year about the potential impact and legacy of St Bridget on how we make decisions in our church. Peter pointed out that Bridget is this ambiguous person with stories of the Christian Abbess of Kildare mingling with the Irish Goddess Briege. He asked: “Where does one stop and the other start?”

Maybe this ambiguous hagiography is one reason why St Bridget’s church was (and is) “…a melting pot of ideas, a liminal, threshold place where human thought and action is extended and broadened.” I would add, too, that maybe the influence of the parish dedication to St Bridget is why a whole range of different views on any given topic are represented among the congregation. If that is the case, then our decision making needs to recognise this diversity.

Peter McGrail concluded his sermon: “The challenge we face is how to engage with issues around … who is the “other” as we follow Jesus who … transgressed humanity’s deepest taboos with regard to the sacred, and who set in motion a radical refusal to be bound by the barriers that humans set against other humans. Perhaps a parish dedicated to St Bridget that in it’s origins straddled boundaries between peoples and traditions might offer some insights?”

What would Jesus do? What would Bridget say? What is St Bridget’s Church here in West Kirby call to be and become under the influence of our patron, Bridget?

John Bleazard, March 2017

 

Lazarus Sunday

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laughter of a 125 year old Israeli.
Source unknown.

Lazarus’s laughter brought a challenge to yesterday’s sermon (April 10th 2011). “Doesn’t God only laugh at the wicked?” was my tight-lipped challenger’s question.

According to the Lazarus’s post-mortem report I had picked up from Eugene O’Neill’s play, Lazarus LAUGHED. Lazarus had replied to his sisters’ question about what life was like after death by saying that God’s laughter resounded round heaven. Lazarus too in his post-mortem life could only laugh. That is how he came out of the tomb, with laughter welling up from his whole being.

I thought. Maybe God does laugh at the wicked (though I think he probably takes them more seriously than that), but I am sure he laughs along with the righteous (sorry, theological correction – those he has made righteous).

Two points intrigued me with the Lazarus’s story.

Firstly – it’s what’s in a name. Lazarus isn’t a name you hear much about – would his nickname be Laz-y (we often shorten names to the first syllable and then add a “y”). If we pronounce it Lazzy, his friends would be members of the Lazzy band. Lazarus means “God helps”. He’s from a village called Bethany. Bethany means “house of affliction”. So the story of “Lazarus in Bethany” is the story of “God helps in the house of affliction”.

Secondly, Lazarus stands for all of us. Laz ‘R’ Us. We can’t establish Lazarus’s cause of death for his post-mortem report from John’s gospel (11:1-45). But we know what causes ours – pick any from poverty, abuse, disease, anger, anxiety. We all get  bound up with these, with deadlines, with expectations of others. They all suck the life from us. When Jesus called “Lazarus, come out” he is calling us out of our bind, so that we can have post-mortem life. (How that phrase “coming out” has gained new liberative meaning in recent decades!) No longer bound by his ego, no longer with death on the horizon, Lazarus stands for all of us.

God helps Lazar/us in the house of affliction to laughter and life. When Lazarus laughs, he laughs with all who enjoy post-mortem life, whose date of death is not some time in the future, but a moment in the past.

I was struck by the beauty of this Lazarus blessing by Jan Richardson from her beautifully Painted Prayerbook.

The secret
of this blessing
is that it is written
on the back
of what binds you.

To read
this blessing,
you must take hold
of the end
of what
confines you,
must begin to tug
at the edge
of what wraps
you round.

It may take long
and long
for its length
to fall away,
for the words
of this blessing
to unwind
in folds
about your feet.

By then
you will no longer
need them.

By then this blessing
will have pressed itself
into your waking flesh,
will have passed
into your bones,
will have traveled
every vein

until it comes to rest
inside the chambers
of your heart
that beats to
the rhythm
of benediction

and the cadence
of release.

>Nicodemus

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St Michael and All Angels - West Kirby
St Michael’s, West Kirby by Arthur John Picton

Fun at West Kirby with Nicodemus as the focus for the gospel reading – he comes to Jesus by night (John 3:1-17). Is that to hide himself? Does it describe his “unknowing” – which Jesus exposes? Does it describe his anxiety?

Does John attach any significance to his name – which means “victory of the people” (as does “Nicholas/Nichola”) with the passage ending with the words about Jesus’s coming not being to condemn the world, but to save it – the victory of the people?

Nicodemus is a shadowy figure this early in John’s gospel. He crops up again – John 7:45-51. Here he defends Jesus while still being very much part of the ruling council. He stands on his own when he says: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” To which his fellow councillors react, replying: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?”

By the time Nicodemus makes his third appearance – John 19:38-42 – he is no longer associated with the rulers, but does come with Joseph of Arimathea (who is a secret disciple because of his fear) to take Jesus’s dead body to prepare it for burial.

I’d say that that was quite a journey John describes of the prestigious Nicodemus – from meeting Jesus in darkness, to being in two minds while keeping his old party membership – to his new identity of being with Jesus in his death and resurrection.

The Myrrhbearers from Fr Stephen’s blog

Nicodemus is one of the myrrhbearers celebrated in the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers in the Orthodox tradition on the 3rd Sunday of Easter. He and Joseph wrapped Jesus’ body with myrrh before burial. The other myrrhbearers – Mary Magdalene, Mary (wife of Cleopas), Joanna, Salome and Susanna – all brought myrrh to anoint Jesus’s body after his burial.

A story that begins in night and ends with the new morning of resurrection is a telling way of explaining the possibility of being born again. It’s a telling story for Lent – for Lent comes from the old English for “lengthening days”. One day,  “there will be no more night” (Revelation 22:5), but in the mean time we live in the restlessness, anxiety, secrecy of the night – for some a time of great fear and violence – as we see in this clip from Libya.