Thursday, December 29, 2016

Preparing for 'The Gate of the Year'

This week after Christmas is a so-called 'down-time' for a parish priest and also, though to a lesser extent, for a cathedral in this our holiday season.  No choir and a certain quietness falls; no PA and the pew sheets will be entirely prepared and assembled by the Dean; a bare string of volunteers keep the Cathedral open for visitors and pastoral care is summoned via the Dean's cellphone.  There is a strange sense of improvisation - and there are still the crib, tree and decorations to get down, sort  and store away by Epiphany.  I draft a note for the Cathedral pew sheet and am especially mindful of how the Sunday is also New Year's Day.  On New Year's Eve the Octagon will be rocking with celebrations and the Cathedral steps will be taken over as a viewing platform for the Town Hall Fireworks display; in the morning we will discover evidence of this 'occupation' and I will once again ponder how better we might use this privileged location for the gospel.  It would be nice to have some help ... but back to the pew sheet.

When I think about the new year I find myself drawn back to childhood and to remembering the quaint custom my mother had of staying up till after midnight and opening the front door to (as she put it) ‘let the New Year’ in.  More significantly, I also remember the framed text she had in the kitchen, ‘The Gate of the Year’ which read:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. 
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” 

The words are quite famous, being spoken by George VI in his Christmas 1939 broadcast to the Empire, certainly striking a chord to people facing the uncertainty of war (and I suspect that my mother’s fondness for the text may date from that particular Christmas message). The text comes from a poem God Knows by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957) and her story is interesting in itself and I found good information on this from Sue Donnelly, the LSE Archivist.

We live in ‘interesting times’ and the juxtaposition of the secular ‘New Year’ alongside the sacred story of Christ’s birth always sets me thinking about the story by which we mark our lives. Haskin’s poem does not so much celebrate the New Year as enclose it within the greater narrative of our faith – and I (of course) feel comfortable with that. That, I think, keeps the so-called ‘New Year’ in its true perspective.

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