... Holy Days this month

      (from Parish Pump, UK)

High Days & Holy Days for May 2022

 

SUNDAYS IN MAY

1st        Third Sunday of Easter (Philip and James transferred to 2nd May)
8th        Fourth Sunday of Easter
15th      Fifth Sunday of Easter
22nd     Sixth Sunday of Easter
29th      Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension Day)

1                      May Day
2                      Philip the Apostle/James the Less
2                      Athanasius  
8                      Julian of Norwich
9                      Pachomius
10                    Comgall
14                    Matthias the Apostle – called by lots
16                    Caroline Chisholm
19                    Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury
20                    Alcuin of York, Abbot of Tours
21                    Helena, Protector of the Holy Places
22                    Rogation Sunday
24                    John and Charles Wesley 
26                    The Ascension
*NEW  26th May:        Where did Jesus go at the Ascension?
26                    Augustine of Canterbury
30                    Joan of Arc
30                    Josephine Butler, social reformer 1906
31                    The Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth

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1st May:          May Day and unbridled merriment

May is the month when the ancient pagans used to get up to ‘all sorts’! The Romans held their festival to honour the mother-goddess Maia, goddess of nature and growth. (May is named after her.) The early Celts celebrated the feast of Beltane, in honour of the sun god, Beli.

For centuries in ‘Olde England’ the people went mad in May. After the hardship of winter, and hunger of early Spring, May was a time of indulgence. One Philip Stubbes, writing in 1583, was scandalised: ‘for what kissing and bussing, what smooching and slabbering one of another, is not practised?’ 

Henry VIII went ‘maying’ on many occasions. Then folk would stay out all night in the dark rain-warm thickets and return in the morning for dancing on the green around the May pole, archery, vaulting, wrestling, and evening bonfires.

The Protestant reformers took a strong stand against May Day, and in 1644 May Day was abolished altogether. Many May poles came down - only to go up again at the Restoration, when the first May Day of King Charles’s reign was ‘the happiest Mayday that hath been many a year in England’, according to Pepys. 

May Day to most people today brings vague folk memories of a young Queen of the May decorated with garlands and streamers and flowers, a May Pole to weave, Morris dancing, and the intricacies of well dressing at Tissington in Derbyshire.

May Day is a medley of natural themes such as sunrise, the advent of summer, growth in nature, and - since 1833 - Robert Owen’s vision of a millennium in the future, beginning on May Day, when there would be no more poverty, injustice or cruelty, but harmony and friendship. This is why, in modern times, May Day has become Labour Day, which honours the dignity of workers. And until recently, in communist countries May Day processions were in honour of the achievement of Marxism.

There has never been a Christian content to May Day, but nevertheless there is the well-known 6am service on the top of Magdalen Tower at Oxford where a choir sings in the dawn of May Day.

An old May carol includes the lines:

The life of man is but a span, it flourishes like a flower
We are here today and gone tomorrow - we are dead within an hour.

There is something of a sadness about it, both in words and tune, as there is about all purely sensuous joy. For May Day is not Easter, and the joys it represents have always been earth-bound and fleeting.

**

2nd May:         Philip, the apostle with common sense

(Transferred from 1st May)
Is there someone in church whom you respect for their spirituality and common sense combined? Someone you feel easy about approaching to ask questions? That person’s patron saint should be Philip.  

Philip came from Bethsaida and was a disciple of Jesus from early on. He knew how to lead others to Jesus; he brought Nathanael (or Bartholomew) to Him in a calm, kindly way. He knew how to do some financial forecasting: at the feeding of the 5,000 it was he who pointed out that without divine help, even 200 pennyworth of bread wasn’t going to feed that crowd. He was the one whom the Greeks approached when they wanted to ask Jesus to show them the Father, but didn’t quite have the nerve to approach Jesus directly. People had confidence in Philip’s spirituality, common sense and kindliness.   Such a person is a gift to any church! In art, the Apostle Philip has been represented either with a cross, or with loaves of bread.

**

2nd May:         James the Less, quiet son of Alphaeus

(Transferred from 1st May)
One thing for sure:  the apostles were not self-obsessed. In fact, many a church historian has wished that they had left us just a few more personal details about themselves in the New Testament.  James the Less is an excellent example. 

This is the name we give to James the son of Alphaeus, but beyond that, who was he? Sometimes he is identified as the James whose mother stood by Christ on the cross.  Sometimes he is thought to be the James who was ‘brother of the Lord’.  Sometimes he is thought to be the James who saw the risen Christ. He has also, and often, been called the first bishop of Jerusalem. And finally, sometimes James the Less has been thought of as the author of the Epistle of James. 

But who really knows? If none of these identifications are correct, we know practically nothing about James the Less. So perhaps on this day we can simply recall ‘all’ of the James’ above, and thank God for the mother who stood by the cross, the brother that supported Jesus, the apostle who saw his risen Lord and gave his life to proclaiming the truth, the first bishop of Jerusalem, and the author of the marvellous Epistle of James.   Whether it was one James or several, they were all faithful to Jesus, and proclaimed Him as the Messiah. So perhaps that should make them James the More!

James the Less has been given an unusual iconographic emblem: a fuller’s club. Tradition has it that he was beaten to death with one, after being sentenced by the Sanhedrin in AD62. In England there are only 26 churches which are dedicated to James the Less. 

**

2nd May:         Athanasius, the theologian who gave us the Nicene Creed

This is the name behind the Athanasian Creed. Athanasius (296-373) was born into a prosperous family in Alexandria in Egypt, studied in the Christian school there and entered the ministry. He was 29 years old when he accompanied Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, to the Church’s first ecumenical Council, at Nicaea in 325. 

Although Athanasius could not take part in the Council’s debates because he was a deacon and not a bishop, Alexander consulted him on the meaning of biblical texts and theological distinctions. With Emperor Constantine sitting as President, 300 bishops argued about the Person of Christ. How is He the Son of God? Is He God or man or both together? Did He exist before He was born? If we worship Him, does that mean that we are worshipping two Gods? 

The young Athanasius saw that some bishops wanted to impose the teaching of Arius on the Church. Arius was a popular preacher in Alexandria who taught that Christ was not eternal but was a ‘Saviour’ created by the Father. Athanasius worked with his bishop, Alexander, in framing what became known as the Nicene Creed. Our Lord’s full divinity was safeguarded in the words, ‘eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father.’

When Bishop Alexander died in 328, Athanasius succeeded him as Bishop by popular demand. For the next 45 years Athanasius’ devotion, scholarship, and forceful leadership established the Nicene Creed in the Christian Church. His enemies, both in Church and state, conspired against him, and he was exiled five times from the See of Alexandria and spent a total of 17 years in flight and hiding. It was his uncompromising stand for Nicene theology that gave rise to the familiar saying, Athanasius contra mundum, ‘Athanasius against the world.’

Athanasius’ name will always be linked with the triumph of New Testament Christology over every form of reductionism. Of his many writings the most significant was his great study on the person and work of Christ; On the Incarnation of the Word of God, written before he was 30 years old. The whole Church of Christ is always in need of bishops, leaders and theologians in the mould of Athanasius.

**

8th May:          Julian of Norwich, voice from a distant cell

Julian of Norwich was born in 1342 and wrote at the end of the 14th century, when our modern English language was slowly emerging from its origins in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English.

We know little about Julian’s early life, but when she was 30, she fell ill and was near death when suddenly her pain left her, and she received 16 visitations. Julian wrote these down, in what became known as the ‘short text’. 20 years later she extended this to become her ‘long text’.

She was an anchoress – someone who had committed herself to a life of solitude, giving herself to prayer and fasting. St Julian’s, Norwich was the church where she had her little ‘cell’.

Julian taught that all things depend upon the love of God for their being. Her spirituality was focussed on the cross, and she wanted to share the sufferings of Christ. She believed that humanity is separated from God by sin, but redeemed through Christ, who reunites us with God. Julian also emphasised Christ as mother, but within a clear Trinitarian understanding of the godhead.

Her masterpiece, Revelations of Divine Love, reveals a mystic of such depth and insight that it is still read by many thousands of Christians today. One of the notable features is that her theology determined her experience, rather than the other way round.

She is honoured this month in the Lutheran and Anglican Churches, but although she is held in high regard by many Roman Catholics, her own Church has never felt able to recognise her as a ‘saint’. This is probably because she spoke of God as embracing both male and female qualities. Revelations is an account of the visions she received in her tiny room, which thousands of pilgrims visit every year.

Her most famous saying, quoted by T S Eliot in one of his poems, is ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words have brought comfort and strength to many a soul in distress.

**

9th May:          Pachomius, the patron saint of administrators

Have you ever worked for a disorganised organisation? You know the scene: your boss lives in a mild panic, your goals and deadlines keep being changed, your colleagues whisper darkly in corners, emails contradict each other, meetings lead to more confusion... and you go home each night with a headache.

Pachomius should be the patron saint of administrators everywhere. For back in the 4th century, without a computer or even a mobile he managed to run 11 separate monasteries like clockwork. 

Pachomius was born into a pagan family in Upper Egypt at the end of the third century, and as a youth conscripted into the army. On his release in 313 he became two things:  a Christian and a hermit (probably craved some peace and quiet!). But Pachomius was no loner, and when other monks gradually sought him out, he did with them what he did best: he organised them. By 320 he had founded his first monastery.

Pachomius seems to have had exceptional powers of administration, no doubt perfected by his years of disciplined army life. By the time of his death in 346, he presided over nine large monasteries for men and two for women. Each monastery was divided into houses, according to its craft, such as agriculture, tailoring or baking. 

Pachomius knew how to delegate: each house had its own leader. He knew how to keep in touch: he held team leaders’ meetings twice a year. Pachomius knew about supply chains: food and drink never ran out. Pachomius knew about marketing: he found buyers for their produce in Alexandria. Pachomius knew about delivering a vision: a daily pattern of work and prayer and sleep was set in place to make sure that the monks and nuns could devote themselves to God for hours each day in prayer, and in memorising the Psalms and other Bible passages.

Pachomius knew how to help people get things done. No wonder his Rule went on to influence that of Basil and Benedict. Certainly, the gift of administration is listed by St Paul as a genuine gift of God, and prudence and clear forward planning are highly prized in the Proverbs. 

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10th May:        Comgall, the saint for those in education

Here is a great saint for all teachers, head teachers and principals of educational institutions, and indeed anyone whose vocation is to train and equip others. For Comgall (c 516 – c 601) was founder and first abbot of Bangor, which became the largest monastery in Ireland. And large means LARGE – for including several daughter houses, the total population is reckoned to have been 3,000. 

If you have ever run an educational institution of 3,000 pupils (!), you will know it takes a special kind of person to cope with that, and Comgall seems to have been perfect for the job. A biographer at the time called him ‘the outstanding father of the monks in Ireland, known for his insistence on study and strict discipline.’  

Comgall’s rule had what it took to succeed. It was ‘strict, holy and constant’, both ‘graced with the hope of salvation and made perfect in love’, according to the 7th century writer Antiphoner of Bangor. Above all, followers were to love Christ, and reject the love of money. 

Comgall also had a gift for friendship, for on the death of a close friend, he wrote in grief:  ‘My soul-friend has died and I am headless; you too are headless, for a man without a soul-friend is a body without a head.’    

Like heads and principals today, Comgall knew a lot of important people. He had trained Columbanus and knew Columba, whom he visited on Iona. They even preached the Gospel together in Inverness, to the pagan chieftain Brude.

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15th May:        Matthias the Apostle, called by lots

Have you ever happened to be in the right place at the right time, with certain qualifications, and suddenly realise that God is singling you out for a special task? If so, Matthias is a good patron saint for you! 

In Acts 1 (15 – 26) the apostles had a task to do: Judas had betrayed Jesus and died, and so a new apostle needed to be chosen. He had to have been a follower of Christ from the Baptism to the Ascension, and also a witness of the Resurrection in order to qualify.  In the event, the choice fell to one of two: Joseph Barsabas and Matthias.  

Lots were drawn, and Matthias was chosen. How confident he must have felt in his calling:  what encouragement that would be when the going got rough in later years!  Matthias is thought to have ministered in Cappadocia and even Ethiopia. His emblem is usually an axe or halberd, regarded as the instrument of his martyrdom. His supposed relics were translated from Jerusalem to Rome by the empress Helena. 

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15th May:        St Matthias, the replacement apostle

If you’re saying to yourself, ‘Who?’ you’ll be in good company. May 15th is the feast day of St Matthias the Apostle, and in describing him thus we have said just about all there is to know about him. He gets just one mention in the Bible, in the first chapter of Acts, immediately prior to the day of Pentecost, where it tells us that he was elected to take the place in the ranks of the twelve apostles recently vacated by the betrayer Judas Iscariot.

Eusebius, in the fourth century, says in his history of the apostolic era that Matthias was one of the 70 disciples sent out by Jesus (Luke 10:1), and that seems reasonable. When it was necessary to fill the vacancy among the apostles it would be natural to turn to someone who had followed Jesus from earlier years, as well as being a witness of the resurrection. Two names were suggested and prayed over. Then the apostles cast lots, following the Old Testament practice of the high priest’s Urim and Thummim, one assumes. When they did, ‘the lot fell on Matthias’.

Casting lots to fill vacancies on committees or councils, or even to appoint bishops, might seem to us to be rather risky. The Victorian preacher Campbell Morgan even suggested, that the 11 acted in haste and pre-empted God’s choice of Saul (later known as Paul), who at that time was busy persecuting the Church, arresting Christians and having them thrown into prison. He hadn’t yet travelled the Damascus Road.

Be that as it may, Matthias was elected, and for us he can stand for all those excellent, consistent, reliable and faithful servants of Christ who never make a headline, not even in the parish magazine. Yet still he was chosen because he could be a ‘witness’, and so are we.

Doubtless he fulfilled that responsibility admirably, without, as we say, ‘setting the Thames on fire’. Let’s salute him on his day - the ‘Unknown Apostle’.

**

16th May:        Caroline Chisholm, helping the emigrants to Australia

If you want an example of someone who can show you their faith through their works, Caroline Chisholm is a saint for you. This doughty little 19th century English woman had such a compassionate heart that she helped tens of thousands of people, from India to Australia.

Caroline was born in Northamptonshire in May 1808. Her father William was a pig dealer, and already had 15 children, by four wives. When Caroline was about five, her father brought a poor maimed soldier into the family home and urged his children to look after the wretched man well, as he had fought for their freedom. This disinterested compassion for a poor struggling ‘outsider’ would become the lodestar of Caroline’s life.

In 1830, when Caroline was 22, she married Captain Archibald Chisholm, of the East India Company Army. Out in Madras, Caroline grew alarmed for the young girls growing up in the barracks. She founded the Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers, to provide a practical education.  

After having two sons and working on the Indian subcontinent for a number of years, Captain Chisholm was granted a two-year furlough in 1838 on grounds of ill health.  The family moved to the sunshine of Australia, near Sydney. Here Caroline was appalled at the conditions that faced emigrants, especially female, arriving in the colony. Many ended up working the streets, just to survive. 

Caroline stayed for seven years in Australia, placing more than 11,000 people in homes and jobs, and in all, her Female Immigrant Home helped more than 40,000 people.  Highly respected by the government, she gave evidence before Legislative Council Committees, but accepted money from no one. When Archibald left the army in 1845 he and Caroline toured Australia at their own expense, collecting more than 600 statements from emigrants that detailed the truth about the problems of emigration. 

Back in England, the statements caught the attention and respect of Charles Dickens, the House of Lords Select Committees, Lord Shaftesbury, Sir Sydney Herbert, Wyndham Harding FRS and even Pope Pius IX. Caroline and Archibald went on to help more than 3,000 people safely emigrate to Australia, before moving back there themselves, where they both died in 1877. In his novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens is said to have partly based the character of Mrs Jellyby on Caroline Chisholm.

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19th May:        Dunstan, the abbot who restored monastic life in England

Dunstan (909-988 AD) stands out as an example of what just one person can achieve when they follow the call of God on their life. 

Dunstan was born near Glastonbury, of a noble family with royal connections and church connections; his uncle was Archbishop of Canterbury. But in 935, at the age of 26, he was accused of ‘studying the vain poems of the pagans’ – and expelled from court.  He nearly married, but instead made private monastic vows and was ordained a priest by Elphege, bishop of Winchester. Dunstan felt God’s call on his life and responded.  That decision was to shape English history.

Not at first, however. For Dunstan began his priestly life by simply returning to Glastonbury and living as a hermit. He painted, embroidered and did metalwork. But when in 939 Edmund became king of Wessex, he recalled Dunstan and made him abbot of Glastonbury. The monastic life of the country was all but dead; the Danish invasions and the hostility of local magnates had seen to that. Dunstan set out to change all this, and went on to restore monastic life in England, under the Rule of St Benedict.

Down the years, Dunstan saw kings come and go: Edmund, Edred, Edgar, Edward.  Under King Edgar Dunstan was made bishop of Worcester in 957, bishop of London in 959, and Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. Thus was born a fruitful collaboration between King and Archbishop which was to reform the Church in England. Monastic orders began to thrive once more. After the Conquest, the days of Dunstan would be looked back on as the ‘golden age’.

Dunstan was zealous for the faith. He taught, prayed, fasted, repaired churches, acted as judge, inspired national laws of the land, made sure taxes were paid, and encouraged his monks in their manuscripts and prayers. He remained active right to the end of his life:  he preached three times on Ascension Day 988, and died two days later, on 19 May, aged nearly 80.  

They wrote of him:  he was without doubt “chief of all the saints who rest at Christ Church” (Canterbury). It has been well said that the 10th century gave shape to English history, and Dunstan gave shape to the 10th century. 

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20th May:        Alcuin of York, Abbot of Tours, a teacher of genius

Here is a saint for all primary school teachers who have a passion to help children learn to read and write.

Alcuin was born near York in about 735. His family were of noble stock, and they sent him to York Cathedral School, which had the best teachers in the land. They soon realised that Alcuin had a genius for learning, and within a few years he had become master of the school himself. Under his guidance, the fame of the school grew, with more pupils and an ever-increasing library. 

In 781 Alcuin visited Rome, where he met Charlemagne, then King of the Franks, who persuaded him to move to Aachen and become master of the palace school – in effect his minister of education.

Alcuin did a magnificent job – he went on to establish a primary school in every town and village, and because the teachers were the clergy, he saw to it that their own literacy and education were improved. But Alcuin did much more – he set up scriptoria for the copying and preservation of ancient manuscripts, for which we owe him the survival of many classical authors. He is also credited with inventing cursive script – or as we know it, ‘joined-up writing’ – as an aid to speedier copying.

Alcuin also revised the Latin liturgy, wrote nine biblical commentaries, revised the Vulgate Bible, and supported the orthodox doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. 

By 796, Alcuin was over 60 and ready to retire. Charlemagne appointed him Abbot of St Martin’s at Tours, and here, in his declining years, he built up a model monastic school as he had done at York and Aachen. He died in May 804, but his influence lives on today, and affects hundreds of millions of us – all of us, in fact, who use joined-up writing!

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21st May:        Helena, Protector of the Holy Places

Helena should be the patron saint of all mothers who help their sons achieve great things.

Helena was born at Drepanum in Bithynia about 250. Although only a stable-maid or innkeeper’s daughter, she caught the eye and affections of a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, while he was stationed in Asia Minor on a military campaign. She bore him a son, Constantine, in about 272.

But Constantius was ambitious, and when he became co-emperor (Caesar) in the West in 292, he abandoned Helena in order to marry the stepdaughter of his patron. Helena and her son were sent to live in the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia, where Constantine grew up as a member of the inner circle. Helena never remarried, and lived close to her son, who was devoted to her. 

Then, in 306, Constantius died, and Constantine became Augustus of the Roman Empire.  He brought his beloved mother to live at the imperial court. 

When Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome, Helena also became a Christian. She was devout, dressing modestly, and giving generously to churches, the poor, and to prisoners. But soon Constantine had other plans for her: they agreed that she would help him locate the relics of Judeo-Christian tradition in Palestine. To aid her, Constantine gave her the title Augusta Imperatrix, and unlimited access to the imperial treasury.

And so, from 326-28, even though she was very old, Helena explored the Holy Land on behalf of her son, the Emperor. She went to Bethlehem and founded the Church of the Nativity. She went to the Mount of Olives and founded the Church of Eleona. She went to Calvary and tore down a temple built to Venus over the tomb of Jesus. Constantine then ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Helena also seems to have founded the chapel at St Catherine’s Monastery.

Helena died in 330 in the Holy Land, with Constantine at her side. He brought her body back to Constantinople and buried her in the imperial vault in the Church of the Apostles. 

We owe to this special mother and son the preservation and honouring of the most famous sites of Christianity. 

**

22nd May:       Rogation Sunday (Sunday before Ascension)

Rogation means an asking of God - for blessing on the seed and land for the year ahead. It is appropriate in any emergency, war, plague, drought or foul weather.

The practice began with the Romans, who invoked the help of the gods Terminus and Ambarvalia. In those days a crowd moved in procession around the cornfields, singing and dancing, sacrificing animals, and driving away Winter with sticks. They wanted to rid the cornfields of evil.

In about 465 the Western world was suffering from earthquake, storm and epidemic.  So Mamertius, Bishop of Vienne, aware of the popular pagan custom, ordered that prayers should be said in the ruined or neglected fields on the days leading up to Ascension. With his decision, ‘beating the bounds’ became a Christian ceremonial.

Rogation-tide arrived in England early in the eighth century and became a fixed and perennial asking for help of the Christian God. On Rogation-tide, a little party would set out to trace the boundaries of the parish. At the head marched the bishop or the priest, with a minor official bearing a Cross, and after them the people of the parish, with schoolboys and their master trailing along. Most of them held slender wands of willow. 

At certain points along the route - at well-known landmarks like a bridge or stile or ancient tree, the Cross halted, the party gathered about the priest, and a litany or rogation is said, imploring God to send seasonable wealth, keep the corn and roots and boughs in good health, and bring them to an ample harvest. At some point beer and cheese would be waiting. 

In the days when maps were neither common nor accurate, there was much to be said for ‘beating the bounds.’ It was still very common as late as the reign of Queen Victoria. Certainly, parish boundaries rarely came into dispute, for everyone knew them.  (Do you know yours today?)

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24th May:        John & Charles Wesley, evangelists & hymn-writers

John and Charles Wesley were the founders of Methodism. Two of 19 children born to Samuel and Susannah Wesley of Epworth Rectory in Lincolnshire in 1703 and 1707, their father was the local rector, while their mother was a spiritual inspiration to her many children.

Both John and Charles went to Christ Church, Oxford (1720 and 1726). John was ordained, and Charles and some friends formed a ‘Holy Club’ while still at college. It consisted of men who dedicated themselves to Bible study, prayer, fasting and good works. Such regular disciplines soon earned Charles the nickname ‘Methodist’. The name stuck.

Both Charles and John felt called to the mission field, and so in 1735 they sailed to Georgia. Their time among Indians in America was not a success – they struggled for any real spiritual authority in their ministries. Feeling failures, they returned to England in some depression. John summed it up: “I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh, who shall convert me?”

Then the Wesleys made friends with some Moravians. They stressed that salvation cannot be earned, but must be received by grace through faith in Christ.  Charles was the first to experience this ‘true’ conversion, when on Pentecost Sunday, 21st May 1738, he wrote that the Spirit of God ‘chased away the darkness of my unbelief.’

Only three days later, on 24th May, 1738, it was John’s turn. As he wrote in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.”

John and Charles Wesley then devoted the rest of their lives to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. In doing so, they turned England upside-down. When the established Church threw John out, he took to the fields, preaching to coal miners and commoners. His itinerant evangelism took him 250,000 miles on horseback and to preach over 40,000 sermons.  His small ‘societies’ attracted some 120,000 followers by the time of his death.

Charles became the most prolific and skilled hymn-writer in English history, writing hymns that are sung widely today, such as ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.’ In all, he wrote more than 6,000 hymns.
The legacy of the two brothers lives on. As well as Methodism, their teaching has widely impacted the holiness movement, the Pentecostal movement, and the charismatic movement.

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24th May:        The hymns of the Wesleys

by Canon David Winter

Later this month the Church calendar celebrates the lives of John and Charles Wesley.  John’s great gift to the Christian cause was the little matter of founding the world-wide movement known as Methodism. His brother Charles had an equally profound impact through his hymns. He actually wrote over 6,000, most of which aren’t sung nowadays, but among the ones we do still sing are all-time favourites – ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’, ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’. ‘Jesu lover of my soul’, ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ – and scores more.

40 years ago almost everybody knew quite a lot of hymns, but sadly that’s no longer true. Traditional hymns aren’t usually sung at school assemblies, not even in church schools, and while the audience for ‘Songs of Praise’ on BBC TV is substantial, most of those watching are over 50.

With only about ten per cent of the population even irregular church-goers there is inevitably a lack of familiarity with hymns of any kind. Christmas carols are an exception, as is ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Amazing Grace’, because they are frequently heard outside church.

Singing hymns is a wonderful experience at its best – just ask a Welsh rugby crowd singing ‘Bread of heaven’! It seems a pity to lose it.

It’s not a bad idea to take ten minutes and think about what is your favourite hymn, and why – ancient or modern doesn’t matter. Then try singing it in the bath or under the shower – a very purifying experience!

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26th May:        Ascension Day, 40 Days with the Risen Christ

40 days after Easter comes Ascension Day. These are the 40 days during which the Risen Christ appeared again and again to His disciples, following His death and resurrection. (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; and John 20.)

The Gospels give us little of Christ’s teachings and deeds during those 40 days. Jesus was seen by numerous of His disciples: on the road to Emmaus, by the Sea of Galilee, in houses, etc. He strengthened and encouraged His disciples, and at last opened their eyes to all that the Scriptures had promised about the Messiah. Jesus also told them that as the Father had sent Him, He was now going to send them - to all corners of the earth, as His witnesses.

Surely the most tender, moving ‘farewell’ in history took place on Ascension Day. Luke records the story with great poignancy: ‘When Jesus had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, He lifted up His hands - and blessed them.’ 

As Christmas began the story of Jesus’ life on earth, so Ascension Day completes it, with His return to His Father in heaven. Jesus’ last act on earth was to bless His disciples. He and they had a bond as close as could be: they had just lived through three tumultuous years of public ministry and miracles – persecution and death – and resurrection!  Just as we part from our nearest and dearest by still looking at them with love and memories in our eyes, so exactly did Jesus: ‘While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven.’ (Luke 24:50-1) He was not forsaking them, but merely going on ahead to a kingdom which would also be theirs one day: ‘I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God...’  (John 20:17)

The disciples were surely the most favoured folk in history. Imagine being one of the last few people on earth to be face to face with Jesus, and to have Him look on you with love. No wonder then that Luke goes on: ‘they worshipped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.’    (Luke 24:52,53)

No wonder they praised God! They knew they would see Jesus again one day!  ‘I am going to prepare a place for you... I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’ (John 14:2,3) In the meantime, Jesus had work for them to do: to take the Gospel to every nation on earth.

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*NEW  26th May:        Where did Jesus go at the Ascension?

In Salvador Dali’s picture of Jesus’ ascension all you can see are his feet! As we celebrate the event this month, it prompts the question ‘where did Jesus go?’ Peter says Jesus ‘has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand’ (1 Peter 3:22). However, the New Testament tells us three things about what Jesus is doing at the Father’s side.

At Pentecost Peter said that Jesus is ‘exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear…“The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand”’ (Acts 2: 33-4). Peter is affirming Jesus’ position of authority and power at the heart of the universe.  By pouring out the gift of the Holy Spirit upon us, Jesus gives us a foretaste of the life of heaven ie eternal life, forgiveness, healing, release and God’s provision for our lives.

When Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was being stoned to death by the Jewish authorities he points out, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ (Acts 7:56). Our experience of heaven is only ever partial, as we live with the reality of suffering and setbacks. However, Jesus is still on the throne! We are called to trust him daily.

The Bible also tells us that  ‘Christ Jesus who died….is interceding for us.’ (Romans 8:34, cf Hebrews 7:25). Even when we don’t know how to pray, we have the assurance that Jesus is already praying for us! He knows our needs even better than we do ourselves, so when we feel condemned or defeated in our Christian lives, we have somebody on our side!
The Ascension reminds us that the risen Jesus lives in the immediate presence of God, and both transcends and embraces our present experience. This truth lies at the heart of the up language used to describe the event.

‘Heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the One who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on the earth to find Him.’ (Tom Wright).

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26th May:        Augustine of Canterbury, apostle to the English

Augustine, a 6th century Italian prior, holds a unique place in British history. He became the ‘apostle to the English,’ although it was with great reluctance.

In 596 Augustine was chosen by Pope Gregory to head a mission of monks whom he wanted to send to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine was not a bold man, and by the time he and his band of priests reached Gaul, they wished to turn back. But Gregory would not hear of it, and he bolstered their confidence by sending some more priests out to them, and by consecrating Augustine bishop. Finally, the little party, now 40 in number, landed at Ebbsfleet, Kent in 597. 

It would be fascinating to have a detailed description of that first meeting between Bishop Augustine and Ethelbert, powerful King of Kent. Whatever Augustine said, it must have been effective, for Ethelbert granted the 40 priests permission to stay in a house in Canterbury. He even allowed them to preach to his people, while he himself considered their message of Christianity. His wife, Bertha, was a Christian princess from Paris, but she does not seem to have played any role in the conversion of Kent.

By 601 Ethelbert and many of his people had been baptised Christians. The mission to the English was well underway. More clergy, some books, a few relics and several altar vessels arrived from Rome. At Gregory’s wise urging, Augustine decided to consolidate the mission in one small area, rather than try and reach all of Kent. So, Augustine stayed in Canterbury, where he built the cathedral and founded a school. He left only temporarily to establish a see in London.

Also, at Gregory’s wise urging, Augustine did not destroy the pagan temples of the people of Kent, but only the idols in them. In this way, familiar rites were taken over and used for the celebration of the Christian feasts. Meanwhile, before his death in 604, Augustine helped Ethelbert to draft the earliest Anglo-Saxon written laws to survive – and so influenced British law for centuries to come.

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30th May:        Josephine Butler, social reformer for women

Josephine Butler is the ‘saint’ for anyone who believes in social justice.  This remarkable 19th century clergyman’s wife became a renowned campaigner for women’s rights and for putting a halt to human trafficking.

Josephine was born in Northumberland in 1828, the daughter of a wealthy family of liberal politics and committed Christian faith. They had already been deeply involved in the abolition of slavery and the extension of the franchise.  Such notions of equality instilled into Josephine a passionate desire to combat social injustice.

In 1852 Josephine married George Butler, the son of the Headmaster of Harrow, who shared her views. George was ordained in 1854 and they moved first to Oxford and then to Cheltenham. In 1863 tragedy struck when their daughter Eva fell to her death.

Josephine’s grief found expression a few years later, when in 1865 George had become Headmaster of Liverpool College, and the couple were settling in Liverpool. Josephine was horrified at the lives of destitute women in Liverpool, and so she founded a ‘home’ to care for them, as well as a hostel to train them for suitable work. In 1869 she agreed to head a campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act of 1866, and by 1871 she had addressed a Royal Commission, explaining how this Act brutalised these women, already trapped in the slavery of prostitution. She got the Act rescinded.

By 1882, when George had become a Residentiary Canon of Winchester Cathedral, Josephine had not only founded a refuge for recovering prostitutes in Winchester, but she had also begun to fight sex trafficking across the world. This included freeing British girls from Belgian brothels.  By 1885 Josephine had exposed the white slave trade in London, and had got Parliament to increase the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16, and to penalise those engaged in the transport of women for profit. 

In 1890 George died, but Josephine continued her work until retirement to Northumberland, where she died in 1906. 

All in all, Josephine Butler’s deep Christian compassion transformed the lives of many tens of thousands of suffering women. She has been described as one of the most important early members of the feminist movement.

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30th May:        Joan of Arc, saving France from the English

How far would you go to respond to God’s call on your life? When, as the daughter of a peasant family in Champagne in 1426, 14-year-old Joan heard heavenly voices calling her to ‘save France’ from the English, she decided to obey the call, no matter what the consequences. 

Teenage girls who want to rescue their country from foreign troops were considered every bit as crazy back then as they would be now. But Joan eventually came to the notice of the Dauphin (Later Charles Vll) who decided to make use of her obvious ability to inspire people – in this case, the French, to fight. And so Joan, dressed in white armour, rode at the front of the French army when they relieved Orleans in April 1429. 

Her presence and belief in her divine calling to get rid of the English, did wonders for the morale of the troops, who loved her even more when she sustained a wound in the breast, and made little of it.

A campaign in the Loire followed, and then in July the Dauphin was crowned at Rheims with Joan at his side, carrying her standard. More battles followed that winter, until Joan was captured and sold to the English. They attributed her success to witchcraft and spells, and so imprisoned her at Rouen. She was brought before judges, where her spirited and shrewd defence were outstanding. 

But the judges declared her false and diabolical, and she was condemned to die as a heretic. She was burnt at the stake in the marketplace at Rouen on 30th May 1431. Joan died as she had lived; with total faith in God and certainty that she was obeying His will for her life. She died with fortitude, looking at a cross and calling on the name of Jesus. Her ashes were thrown into the Seine.

Joan’s integrity and courage are what shine down the centuries. Here is a patron saint for you if you feel that God is calling you to do something extraordinary: something that is way, way beyond your comfort zone; but something that could right wrongs and make a difference in the world. Are you up for it?

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31st May:        Mary, the Blessed Virgin, visits Elizabeth

Mary – the virgin mother of Jesus. For centuries, the eastern and western churches have considered her pre-eminent among all the saints.

In the gospels, Mary makes her first appearance as a teenager. Nothing is known of her childhood, and what we do know of her is found mostly in Matthew 1 – 2 and in Luke 1 – 2.  If you read both accounts, you’ll notice that Luke’s account seems to give the story from Mary’s standpoint, whereas Matthew concentrates more on Joseph’s side of things. In both accounts the virginal conception of Christ is clearly stated. Mary’s quiet devotion to God and her total acceptance of His will shine forth.

Her visit to Elizabeth, when both were pregnant, is a moving and poignant account of two humble, ordinary women, suddenly caught up in a great event that would shape world history. Their trusting faith in God and acceptance of His will, shine through.

After Jesus is born, Mary fades into the background, and makes few appearances: when the family visits Jerusalem and she loses her son on the way home; when she urges Him to help the wedding party in Cana with its wine problem; and when Jesus gives her into the keeping of the beloved disciple when He is dying on the cross. Mary’s last appearance is in Acts chapter one, just before Pentecost. 

Mary obviously joined the early Church, but her role was never one of teaching and preaching, and indeed she remained so much in the background that nothing more about her is known for certain. Both Ephesus and Jerusalem have claimed to be the place of her death.  

Mary, chosen to be the mother of Jesus Christ, one who is both God and Man, holds a unique place in the history of mankind. Down the centuries that have followed, the Church has paid special honour to Mary – and well deserved it is.  “All generations shall call me blessed…” 


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