Choral Evensong at Nelson Cathedral on a warm summer evening. A Festival of Christmas Trees nudges us to think of peace and goodwill; each tree decorated differently by local organisations and community groups.
Creative, inspirational, imaginative gifts of life and light proclaiming the goodness at the heart of creation: the Christ Child, Emmanuel, God with us.
A Memory Tree invites visitors to write a loved one's name on a star and hang the star on the tree. There are many stars and many names. I write, 'Joe'...remembering my father who had a beautiful spirit and a passion for justice. He died five years ago.
Christmas for Dad was always about Mary's song, The Magnificat. The proud and unjust being brought low, the rich sharing their wealth, the overcoming of evil, our lives being opened up like a gift. Looking forward. Refusing to give up hope. The most courageous trust. The deepest love, and compassion, and challenge.
I write 'Maureen' on another a star. My husband's mother died eighteen months ago. I think of her gentleness, her grace, her love of her son. We will miss Joe and Maureen at our table this Christmas. So too, will many others miss the ones they love and whose love is cherished forever.
Light from a setting sun streams through only one stained-glass window in the Cathedral. Bartholomew and Philip, disciples of Jesus, feel the sun on their backs again. It is the same sun, which shone on them as they sat by a lakeside, eating a fish supper with Jesus and sharing stories of their friend in Mesopotamia, Persia, India and Greece. A stream of living memory flows and returns.
Chorister, Helen Baker, sings Isaiah's prophecy from Handel's Messiah,
“How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.”
Good news, peace and restoration do not come easily.
Returning home, I look at an icon of a black Madonna and Christ-child, sitting on the bedside table, bought in the St. Nicholas' Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice, France. Holding her child close to her heart, mother and infant embody a vulnerability, a rebelliousness, a poignancy, a deeply loving tenderness.
A visit to Soweto in South Africa some years ago, led me to an evocative work of art, The Madonna and Child of Soweto. Painted by Larry Scully in 1973, it hangs in the Regina Mundi Catholic Church there. The child holds a cross in his left hand and two fingers of his right hand make the shape of a letter, 'V'.
The South African journalist, Mpho Lukoto described the painting as,
“one of the most poignant reminders of the past…beneath the image of the Black Madonna, Scully painted an eye, with the different images in it giving meaning to the picture. The pupil of the eye represents the township. The two black forks that run across the eye toward the pupil represent the pain inflicted on black people. And in the centre of the eye, representing the church, is a cross with a light that illuminates the pupil.
It struck me that in the midst of all the painful memories, the painting is a symbol of the hope, like the church itself, that was in the heart of the people. I like to believe that it was that hope that makes it possible for us to celebrate 10 years of democracy.” (The Star, March 23, 2004)
Built in 1964, Regina Mundi still echoes with the sounds of the pain and discrimination of apartheid. Murmurings of resistance, justice and words of peace and reconciliation can also be heard. This was truly a church where Christ's gospel was lived, where risks were taken on holy ground.
A marginalised community, anti-apartheid protestors, prophetic clergy gathered over many long years, to pray, sing, read, share, discuss, listen, act. It is a place of memory, transformation, hope and when apartheid was finally overthrown, it was here that The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held some of their hearings.
Such was the presence of this church in the lives of the people and the nation that Regina Mundi Day was declared on 30th November 1997 by the father of the nation, Nelson Mandela, who said,
“Regina Mundi served the greater Soweto community in times of need. It opened its doors to anti-apartheid activities when all other avenues were closed to the majority of the oppressed...Regina Mundi became a world-wide symbol of the determination of our people to free themselves....a church that refused to allow God's name to be used to justify discrimination and repression.”
Tradition and ritual, a love that never dies, sharing food with friends, creative courage, a mother and her child and a freedom of the spirit. Magnificat moments. Christmas stories.
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.”
© Hilary Oxford Smith
Image: Interfaith Mary