I begin by sharing with you this photograph I took many years ago, on a mountain walk, of an anemone growing out of the terraced Lebanese hillside; as we consider today holy lives and their continuing effects among us, let the anemone with its fragility ( meaning “plant of the wind” because of the way its petals are readily scattered ) speak to us of endurance and of hope. Let this message be both for those suffering in Beirut, and for us in our very different contexts.
We find today grouped for commemoration three figures from English church and social history that do not naturally seem to sit alongside one another. That is the result of the church calendar being constructed around “the day of their death” or rather in traditional church terminology, “heavenly birthday.” Though this term may sound a little twee, it is not, we trust, just a euphemism or an ecclesiastical fiction. I am reminded of how I used to preside at the eucharist for the Benedictine Sisters at Saint Mary’s Abbey, West Malling, and at the end of the intercessions we frequently prayed for the name of one who was described as “ the newly presented servant of God.” At first I was a bit mystified, but then I was told that this phrase was always used by the sisters of a faithful person who had just died.
Behind these phrases “heavenly birthday” or “newly presented servant of God” lies the profound Christian belief that death is not just a terminal tragedy at the end of our years spent on earth, but the beginning of a new chapter, of a life which is now in the hands of God our creator and our redeemer. Orthodox Christians speak of the death of a Christian as their “crowning.” It is something to look forward to in hope, not to shrink back from. And so we remember the saints and all those who have led holy lives not by their days of birth, but by their days of new birth.
These thoughts are particularly apposite when we consider the first of our names to be commemorated today, Jeremy Taylor (1613 -1667 ) was a priest of the Church of England who, like many others, was deprived of his living during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. During the Commonwealth period, he produced a two-volume work, “Holy Living” and “Holy Dying.” While “Holy Living” instructs on living a full Christian life, “Holy Dying” advises on how the soul may be cleansed and prepared for the life which is to come. It follows in a great tradition of Christian writing which was not afraid to reflect on death in the light of our faith. We may see evidences of that tradition in some of the memorials from the 17th century or earlier in our Cathedrals, where the death-experience is presented to us in a way that future more squeamish generations took care to avoid. Taylor has sometimes been referred to as the “Shakespeare of Divines” for his poetic style of writing. His works were later to be an influence on John Wesley.
Florence Nightingale (1820 -1910 ) is the most widely known of our names among the general public today, as evidenced by the name given to those large state-of-the-art hospitals that have sprung up in London and elsewhere to cope with the possible influx of patients suffering from the Covid 19 virus. ( I can’t help thinking that Florence was blessed with a delightful and musical surname: if she had been named “Edith Crump” I doubt whether she would be being celebrated in quite this manner !) However I must push such thoughts aside when I consider very briefly “the lady with the lamp.” She came to prominence during the Crimean war, when she made extraordinary efforts with her team of nurses to bring comfort to soldiers who were suffering, of whom many were dying. She used her fame and reputation to bring about a new respect for nursing as an occupation; previously it had been thought of as a lowly occupation for servant girls who could find no other employment. Through her influence, nursing became an honoured profession which could be undertaken by all classes of society, if not in her time by men as well as women.
It was Florence Nightingale’s profound Christian faith which impelled her to find ways of bringing comfort to those suffering, as well as her sensitivity as a human being to the fact that being present with empathy alongside others who are suffering is anything but a waste of time.
[The following website is a tribute to Florence Nightingale by the National Army Museum.
Of Octavia Hill, I must confess that I knew nothing until meeting her name in today’s calendar. But I rapidly discovered that she is certainly worthy of being remembered and celebrated.
Octavia Hill (3 December 1838 –1912 ) was an English social reformer, whose main concern was the welfare of the inhabitants of cities, especially London, in the second half of the nineteenth century.
She was a moving force behind the development of social housing, and her early friendship with John Ruskin enabled her to put her theories into practice with the aid of his initial investment. She believed in self-reliance, and made it a key part of her housing system that she and her assistants knew their tenants personally and encouraged them to better themselves. She was opposed to municipal provision of housing, believing it to be bureaucratic and impersonal.
Another of Octavia Hill’s concerns was the availability of open spaces for poor people. She campaigned against development on existing suburban woodlands, and helped to save London’s Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on. She was one of the three founders of the National Trust, set up to preserve places of historic interest or natural beauty for the enjoyment of the British public. [ information from Wikipedia. ]
As we give thanks for these three Christian witnesses belonging to the Church of England we have recalled how each of them lived out the Christian message of abundant life which is also eternal life, triumphing over death: “ Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me “
At the breaking of the bread
you come to me as fragment
reminding me that
though myself a fragment,
I can be
a bearer of your grace.