Tomorrow, 1st February, is the feast day of our patron saint, St Bride – Bridget of Kildare. It’s a pity that her own saint’s day tends to be overshadowed by a major Christian festival that falls the following day – the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas, an occasion that we are marking today, as this is the closest Sunday. I sometimes feel that St Bride ends up being a little short-changed in the Church’s calendar, and we seldom seem to celebrate our patronal festival, focussing on St Bride herself, as perhaps we ought.
So the least I can do in her honour is to speak about her this evening, on the eve of her special day, and reflect on the continuing significance of all that St Bride symbolises for us as a community of faith.
St Bridget (Bride) is said to have been born sometime between the mid to late fifth century just outside Kildare in Ireland, the daughter of an Irish king and a Christian mother who according to tradition, was a slave. It is variously claimed that either her mother, or Bridget herself, was baptised by St Patrick. Bridget became a nun and eventually an abbess – and according to one legend, she was consecrated a Bishop by the local Bishop, Ibor – although perhaps predictably, various attempts were subsequently made to discredit this event, claiming either that it was a complete mistake or that the Bishop was drunk at the time. And as is so often the case with these early Celtic saints, many of the legends associated with her have the ring of folk tale about them – I referred a couple of weeks ago to her spectacular capacity to turn bathwater into beer.
Members of our own Guild of St Bride, an organisation whose members pledge themselves to the glory of God and the service of this church, particularly in supporting our worshipping life – wear a distinctive Guild medallion, which features various symbols, two of which are of particular significance for us today.
At the very centre of the Guild medallion is a Celtic Cross, reminding us of our links with the ancient Celtic Christian tradition, and the Irish religious who probably founded this church, perhaps as far back as the sixth century.
On the medallion the Celtic Cross is surrounded by a ring of fire. It is said that in pagan times in Kildare, a ritual fire was kept permanently alight, to invoke protection on cattle and the harvest. And the story goes that when St Bridget built her monastery there, she continued the custom of preserving that perpetual fire, but this time to represent the light of Christ – the light that shines on in the darkness, that no darkness can ever overcome.
The Guild of St Bride was originally established back in the year 1375. Its original purpose, the records tell us, was to maintain a light burning before the statue of St Bridget the Virgin (St Bride). Each member of the Guild was required to pay four pence a year to pay for it. Eventually this annual subscription rose to the princely sum of two shillings and tuppence, in order to fund a chaplain to celebrate communion before the saint’s statue, and also to provide for two lit torches to be carried at the procession accompanying each Guild member’s funeral.
So the theme of keeping light alive is very much woven into the story of St Bride, and of our ministry here – and it also provides a very obvious link with the theme of today’s service – the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
In our Gospel reading this morning we were reminded of the story of the aged Simeon in the Temple, who immediately recognises the infant Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and lifts him joyfully in his arms. Simeon declares that he can now die in peace knowing that he has at last seen the Christ child. His words are now integral to our service of Evensong, in the form of the Nunc Dimittis:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Given the extent of the global crises and challenges that we continue to face in the present day, we have never been in greater need of light; of even the merest glimpse of new hope that light can bring.
As many of you know, since the first lockdown back in March last year, I have kept a candle alight before the altar here, as a sign that the light of Christ and the spirit of St Bride’s, are still very much alive in this church, even though our ministry has had to take some very different forms in recent months.
When I started doing so each day, the candles that I lit were the candles that we had originally intended to give to congregation members to use at our Dawn Service on Easter morning. Sadly, our doors had to be closed, so we were unable to hold that service in church. But each time I lit one of those candles, day by day, before the altar during lockdown, it really did feel as if, instead, I was able to help to keep alive that little fragment of Resurrection hope that each candle represented. And in a strange way I was also continuing the ministry exercised by those first members of the Guild of St Bride, back in the fourteenth century, who also committed themselves to keeping alive a light here in this church day by day, during a historical era that was every bit as turbulent as our own, if not more so.
Having eventually used up all those Easter candles some time ago, the candles that I am currently lighting here every morning have come from a different source. These are the candles that were originally used here at our All Souls’ Service on 1st November. It is the service at which we remember friends and family members who have passed away. We read their names aloud and we light a candle in memory of each one of them here on the altar. By the end of that service there are dozens of living flames flickering on the altar here.
And so each morning I now take one of those All Souls’ candles that had been lit on 1st November, and pause for a moment to hold before God the soul of the person commemorated (I can’t tell precisely whose candle it was originally, but I am sure that God knows!); and I find myself aware of a different kind of connectedness when I do so: our connectedness with the Communion of Saints. It is a reminder that however lonely we may sometimes feel, particularly these days, when we are all cut off from those whom we love, nevertheless, in our life of prayer we are never actually alone, because our prayers join with those of the host of heaven, and with all those souls who are now held safe in God’s loving arms. I sometimes feel that same connectedness when hearing the recordings of our congregational hymns in these services, knowing that amongst the voices we hear are the voices of faithful members of our congregation from former times, who are sadly no longer with us in person.
So this evening, as we mark the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and honour the memory of St Bride, let us give thanks for that gift of light; for that gift of hope; and remember, particularly in those times when we feel desolate and close to despair, that we really are never, ever alone.