For the early Christians, the fish sign was one of the most important symbols of faith. Still familiar today, its origins and meaning are straightforward; the Greek word for fish is ‘icthus’ which incorporates the initial letters of five Greek words which describe the character of Christ (Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr - Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).
Some symbols are easily explained; some are cloaked in mystery, and visitors to the Church of the Holy Trinity in Long Melford will come across an example. This grand 15th century ‘wool church’ contains some beautiful medieval stained glass. One of the most curious features is a small roundel depicting three hares chasing each other in a circle; even curiouser, each ear is shared by two of the hares, so only three ears are visible.
I’d never seen this symbol until we visited the church but have learned that similar designs exist in medieval churches around Europe, including many in Devon. I was intrigued to learn that an apparently pagan symbol should appear in so many churches and at so many sacred sites. The mystery deepens with the knowledge that it’s also been adopted by other faiths; the link to Christianity is that it symbolises the Trinity.
Our own dear Hertford URC can’t match Long Melford’s antiquity but it too houses an interesting decorative feature; among the carvings on the pulpit there’s a pelican! More erudite readers may be nodding knowingly, but it was new to me. It appears that the pelican has been a Christian symbol since the 12th century. In legend, it pecks at its breast to feed its young with its own blood when food is scarce – and so it symbolises unselfish love, charity and sacrifice.
In my career I was lucky enough to travel around Europe and visited Milan several times. Once, having a couple of hours to spare, I decided to take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’. I made my way to its location - Santa Marie Dell Grazie - and was deflated by a sign to the effect that the church was closed; I would not get to see the painting! To the left of the church’s façade was another sign, in front of a small building, reading simply: ‘Art Gallery’ - a classic understatement as I would soon discover.
Passing through a series of airlocks I emerged into this ‘gallery’ which was, as perceptive readers will have guessed, the Friars’ old refectory, across the end wall of which Leonardo had painted his masterpiece. I was transfixed; my casual, slightly disappointed demeanour transformed. The painting had begun to decay almost before it was completed and has been in a perpetual state of restoration ever since. But Leonardo’s enduring genius for composition, scale and perspective is such that the viewer is drawn into the great drama which is unfolding; stand in the middle of the refectory, raise your view to meet Christ’s eyes and you are ‘present’ at the Last Supper. The Dominican monks who dined there were effectively seated with the thirteen.
Was theirs, half a millennium ago, and mine, a truly spiritual experience? It felt like it, but of course it’s just a painting. Just as the pelican is simply a carving; the three hares merely a design in stained glass. The cross, the dove, the great cathedrals, the amazing ceiling of the Cistine Chapel, all those symbols are not God, but works of man. But they can help get us closer to knowing His presence as we contemplate what has been divinely inspired or steeped in centuries of belief and tradition.
Elder at Hertford
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Journeying through Lent
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils’…
Familiar words from William Wordsworth’s famous poem, written after taking a walk with his sister around Ullswater in the Lake District. And perhaps a familiar sight too. Daffodils accompany us throughout the time of Lent; appearing in gardens, parks and byways at the beginning of spring; gifted to mums on Mothering Sunday; planted in Easter gardens on Good Friday and then decorating an empty cross on Easter Sunday.
Daffodils are beautiful, reflecting as all flowers do, the beauty of God the creator. Flowers evolved 140 million years ago. Fossil flowers found in Portugal show the initial stages of evolution, since when flowers have diversified into the many species we see today. However, the reason plants evolved to produce flowers is not for our benefit, but in order to reproduce, by transferring pollen from one to another. Beauty and practicality combined.
As we journey through Lent towards Easter daffodils can symbolise for us those two aspects of God’s character – beauty and practicality. In the book of Deuteronomy the Israelites are reminded by Moses that – ‘the Lord your God is God’. God is glorious and holy. God is our God, beyond our imagining, quite beautiful. God is also a practical God, working out the best for creation, of which we are a part. That is why the Easter story, though harrowing in parts, culminates in the beauty of the resurrection.
As the season moves on daffodils fade and their beauty returns to the bulbs, hidden in the ground. But come next spring that beauty will be on display yet again, adding a sparkle to life – in words from the poem
…‘my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.'
In the same way we reconnect to the Easter story every year, rediscovering the core of the Christian faith. Luke in his Gospel tells the story of Emmaus, when disciples of Jesus had their ‘eyes opened’ to the meaning of the resurrection and, in a sense, began transferring pollen - the seeds of the good news - to others, a process that continues unabated today. From tiny seeds God enables eyes, hearts and minds to be opened to the beauty of faith.
Happy Easter ! Jill
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We have been awarded a Bronze Award for our work, as a church, to promote care for God's earth.
Now we plan to work towards a silver award!
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25 February – 10 March 2019
For two particular weeks each year, we can celebrate those people who grow our food, and especially farmers who live in some of the poorest countries in the world and who are often exploited and badly paid. This year the Fairtrade Foundation is focusing on those who grow cocoa.
Almost all cocoa farmers in West Africa live in poverty. £1.86 is the amount a cocoa farmer needs to earn each day in order to achieve a living income. Currently, a typical cocoa farmer in Cote d’Ivoire lives on around 74p a day. For women the situation is even worse. They plant and harvest on the farm, look after children, carry water, collect wood, cook and clean for the family, and transport the cocoa beans to market but often with fewer rights than men. That is why the Fairtrade Foundation is campaigning for a living income for cocoa farmers in West Africa and is working with governments, chocolate companies and retailers to achieve it.
One of the simplest ways to support cocoa farmers around the world is by buying Fairtrade chocolate and cocoa. While this doesn’t immediately solve all the issues, keeping up the demand allows farmers to sell more of their cocoa on Fairtrade terms thus increasing their income. You can also watch out for, and sign, the Fairtrade Foundation’s petition to the UK government. Or you can follow the campaign on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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From Jill @Cheshunt Free Church
When I started out as an early years inspector, one of the checks I needed to make was to determine whether children had sufficient opportunities to experience ‘awe and wonder’ in their learning. I was reminded of this at a recent lay preachers’ conference, when we were encouraged to enable people in our churches to experience the awe and wonder of knowing God, through word and/or image. Both are important. You might look with awe at the earliest written Gospels, immaculately decorated on each page with wonderful imagery illustrating the words. You might listen in wonder to an exposition of a well-known Bible story, hearing details you had previously missed, helping you to create your own images. In learning, the words enhance the images and the images enhance the words.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (2.10), describes God as an artist. We can see God’s artistry in the created world, which is beautiful and diverse, but also in the incarnation – the coming of Christ into the world – when God created a link between the human and the divine. Artists of faith have produced numerous pictures of the event, including a wonderful diversity of ‘Madonnas’. The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth hosts a collection of Madonnas created by artists all over the world, each showing the characteristics of their particular culture. Artists are inspired by their own cultural and faith traditions. They help us to see Christ in different contexts and also to recognise that Christ is universal – he came to all peoples everywhere.
At Christmas we can experience the awe and wonder of worship in fellowship with Christians all around the world. We need not feel restricted to our own ‘little patch’. In churches everywhere, people will hear the same story and be exposed to the same familiar images of the nativity, centring around a starlit stable in Bethlehem. However, the Indian artist Sahi reflects his cultural tradition in a portrayal of Christ that is a little different. He represents Christ as a dancer, one who is dancing his way through creation, redeeming all peoples to God - Christ of the cosmos. Christ dances his way through incarnation, through death and resurrection, inviting all people to join in the dance.
We have a choice – either we can sit back in our ‘little patch’ and watch the dance, or we can get out there and join in the dance, experiencing the awe and wonder of belonging to a worldwide body of Christ. In a New Year of new beginnings I pray that we might be confident enough to refrain from watching Christ dance and get up and join in!
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he
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For the whole of this year, Advent 2018 - Advent 2019, the Lectionary (the preaching programme that takes us through the Bible) has as its focus the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke is in many ways unique amongst the four Gospels. It is sometimes known as the Gospel of Amazement, because many people in the Gospel accounts were amazed at what Jesus did. In fact Luke uses five different Greek words to describe their amazement.
Luke was a doctor and you’ll also find many references to medical ailments and miraculous healings. It’s possible Luke came from the slave community. He shows great concern for the marginalised people in society, including women and children. Perhaps most importantly, Luke was a Gentile, not a Jew. So he writes from the perspective of one who came to faith by another route.
Luke includes various songs in his Gospel and obviously believed in the power of prayer. He writes about Jesus praying, often, and has a notably short Lord’s Prayer, often known as the Lukan Lord’s Prayer. Luke understood the spiritual life as a journey and his Gospel can be seen as merely the story of a journey for Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. But it was a fascinating journey!
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Walking the way of Jesus, as we are encouraged to do more actively and more positively, is a lifetime journey. The Bible can help us find the right way. In the Old Testament, the leaders of the faith gave the Israelites three instructions – as you journey remember what God has done, make a choice to stick close to God and be a witness for God. There are always distractions along the way, obstacles to get around and cross ways, where decisions need to be made. But the important thing is to recognise that, in difficult places, we learn and eventually come through to a better place. Then we have much to tell about God.
In the new Testament, Paul reminds us to keep our eyes on Jesus. He is the way. If we stray he brings us back. His is a way of love, justice and peace, a way that we should all take care to follow closely. It is a way that encourages us to serve and to witness too. As we follow his way we grow closer to God. We might stop growing physically, but we continue growing in our relationship with God. That never stops. And the more people we can encourage to walk with us, the more enjoyable and blessed our walk becomes.
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