So another year draws to a close. If you’re like me, you’re left wondering where it has gone. It doesn’t seem that long ago that 2019 was the new year. Even 1980 doesn’t feel that old! But, when you look back, so much has happened, both internationally and locally this year. The war in Ukraine entered its second year; Hamas invaded Israel committing acts of utterly depraved cruelty and violence; Israel bombs Gaza killing thousands of women and children; Charles and Camilla were crowned; artificial intelligence burst upon the world; we had the hottest June and September on record; medical, teaching, civil service and rail strikes disrupted the country; and so on. Locally, several families lost loved ones, and communities have lost much respected and loved members. But our primary schools, especially, continue to do a fantastic job looking after and teaching our children to delight in learning, to be kind and thoughtful towards others, and to care for the creation around them, in an ever more difficult safeguarding environment.
Just as we said goodbye to summer visitors over the autumn months, so we welcomed the winter ones in their multitudes. Fieldfares and redwings, our two thrush visitors, come in large flocks to winter with us from Scandinavia and Iceland, feasting on the berries of our hedgerows, especially hawthorn, holly, juniper and yew (providing they haven’t yet been trimmed). You’ll see them in the fields, or suddenly rising from the hedges and trees as you walk along a lane, calling their characteristic ‘kyak-yak-yak’ and with a surprisingly fast wingbeat. Bramblings, too, in their scores flock into our beech trees escaping the snow of the Scandinavian winter, feeding off the beech mast. But the most majestic are, of course, the Barnacle geese, arriving in their noisy, yapping skeins all the way from Svalbard, deep inside the Arctic Circle, to winter on the Solway. The Svalbard-Solway Barnacle population is the third largest in the world at around 24,000, and they come here to stay with us.
Sometimes its difficult to remember, deep in the dark months of winter, when all the flowers have gone and the trees are bare, the days are short, wet, and cold, when the bees, dormice and hedgehogs are all hibernating, passing the months, waiting for the sun to return, that these birds have come to keep us company in our milder winters! They join the faithful birds that stay with us all year through; the blackbirds and song thrushes, the wrens and robins, the finches and tits, the owls, raptors and corvids. I often think about them in the trees, hedges and fields when the fierce wind is lashing the icy rain in horizontal sheets. Same for the sheep and the deer, sheltering in woods or against fences. I am so grateful to be indoors by the fire – how do they survive?
The answer is, of course, that not all of them do. The old, the weak and the vulnerable often don’t make it. Their lives here, like ours, are finite and one day come to an end.
But the enigma is that the end isn’t the end. Death is a portal through which we pass. How do we know? Well, last month Bishop John quoted some famous lines by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning:
Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
All of us have the gift, like Moses, to see each common bush afire with God. All it takes is the time and openness of spirit to catch it, and to see the hidden wonder of creation before us. But life and busyness has a habit of blinding us. We are used to using our physical eyes, but less so our spiritual ones. And yet without them we remain unseeing of the reality in front of us. Like the baby born in the cattle byre to the young mother and her fiancé one cold winter’s night long ago, in whose birth we can see death, but then, extraordinarily, another birth at Easter. We listen to the same story year after year, celebrate it with gifts, gatherings, food, glitter and song. But we have to make a special effort to hear it, and to see it with our real eyes. Let’s make sure we’re the ones who take off our shoes this Christmas, and not be those who just sit round a cosy fire eating turkey and cake, nice as that may be. Have a Happy Christmas.
Your friend and priest,