Category Archives: Comment

Tramways de l’Aude – Fanjeaux to Saissac and Saint Denis

We started by looking at the most westerly line of the Tramways de l’Aude and the story of the line from Belpech to Castelnaudary can be found in two posts:

The next most westerly of the Tramways de l’Aude lines was that from Fanjeaux running north through Bram to Saissac and then east to Saint Denis. This is a journey along the route of that line seeking to find any possible remaining evidence of its existence.

Fanjeaux is located west of Carcassonne. Between 1206 CE and 1215 CE, Fanjeaux was the home of Saint Dominic, the founder of the Roman Catholic Church’s Dominican Order, who preached to the Cathars in the area. It is a small town of under 800 people. [1]

Fanjeaux is an important Cathar site. It was a major centre, and in the 13th Century was a significant citadel with a population of over 3,000. [2] It was then surrounded by a moat and defended by ramparts with fourteen towers (tours). Two entries serve as reminders of the medieval gates which controlled entry into the town. Like most Languedoc castra it had a large castle (Château) within its walls. Almost nothing of it remains today.

In 1204 Esclaremond de Foix received the Cathar Consolamentum at the Château here in the presence of her brother, the Count of Foix. The site of the Château hall where the ceremony took place is now marked by a Catholic Dominican chapel, supposedly marking the site of one of Saint Dominic’s miracles. You can trace the old city walls and surrounding dry moat, now marked by a road. An outbuilding belonging to the new Château (13th century) also survives and according to a dubious Dominican tradition once served as Saint Dominic’s Fanjeaux residence. [3]

Bram is part of the old province of Lauragais. It was a centre of Cathar belief and that heresy brought the intervention of Simon de Montfort who, besieged the town in 1210. He succeeded in three days and took revenge on resistants by cutting off the top lip of all his prisoners and gouging out the eyes of all but one. For the last he gouged out only one eye so that he could lead the others out of the town to the château of Lastours.

By the 17th century Bram had outgrown its walls and expanded in concentric circles. It population in the early 21st Century is around 3,100. [11]The citadel and old town of Bram. [12]

Saissac is perched in the foothills of the Montagne Noires (Black Mountains) at an altitude of 467 m and boasts stunning views of the Vernassonne Gorge as well as the valley plain which stretches between Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. It first appeared in history in the 10th century, the name originates from the Gallo-Romain Saxiago. The history of the village is strongly linked the Château built in the 10th century. [13]

The Château de Saissac is a ruined Cathar Castle on a promontory at the southernmost tip of the commune of Saissac, in the Aude département located north-west of Carcassonne.

Saissac is mentioned in a legal document (an Acte) from the Abbey of Montolieu in 958, and again in a text of 960. The village is typical of the Black Mountains and is built between the ravines of the rivers Aiguebelle and Vernassonne, just above their confluence. Things to see in the village include the porte d’Autan, a lavoire built in granite, a second covered lavoire and a fine echauguette. Vestiges of the city walls (enceinte) are still visible around the ancient village. These walls date from the Fourteenth century, the same period that the castle of Saissac was restored. [14]

Saint Denis is a village of less than 500 people. [15] It is located in the foothills of the Black Mountains between the valleys of Alzeau in the west and Linon in the east. It is a little to the east of Saissac.

The tramway provided for the sharing of agricultural produce between the plains and the foothills of the Pyrenees, and trains of wheat and maize from the Lauragais plain also crossed those of milk and butter produced in the pastures of the Montagne Noires. [4]

The journey commences at Fanjeaux. A sketch plan of the station is provided below. The station was situated below the town and was on a long thin site with its main buildings strung out along the hillside. This can be seen in both of the postcard images below the sketch. [5]

The station facilities focussed more on goods than on passengers. The goods shed features clearly in the adjacent picture with the water tower and engine shed beyond. The second image is taken from a distance showing the station in its place beneath the town. It shows even more clearly just how far apart the various facilities were.

The track layout at the station makes far more sense than that seemingly provided at Belpech. It seems to have been spread out to allow it to occupy a place on the steep slopes of the town. An additional postcard picture shows the station and the village of Fanjeaux. [16]My wife and I visited Fanjeaux on 6th September 2018 and I was able to take a number of photographs. The first shows the top of the access road to the Station – Avenue de la Gare.The second is taken below the retaining wall visible in the black and white pictures of Fanjeaux and its station. This is where the station used to be!When trams left Fanjeaux Station, they followed a circuitous route around the village. The station was to the Southwest of the centre of the village and trams headed west, then north, then east, before leaving the environs of the village. The route can easily be picked out on the modern satellite image of the village below.  This map shows one of the advertised footpath trails around the town. It uses the old tramway for over 66% of its length. The station was at the location that I have highlighted in blue. The line continued its journey away from Fanjeaux along the pink line to the right of the map. The tramway ran round the north side of the village. [17]

On 6th September 2018, my wife and I walked the route marked in red above. I took a number of pictures as we walked around the village. A few will suffice here to give an impression of the current state of the old tramway route.The first evidence of the tramway to the east of Fanjeaux is the slip road approaching the roundabout at Prouilhe. The slip-road follows the old tramway formation. Prouilhe was the first halt on the tramway beyond Fanjeaux. Its claim to fame was that it was the location of the mother-house of the Dominican order, ‘Notre-Dame des Prêcheurs’. Evidence of the tramway halt is nonexistent but the monastery and the Covent buildings attached to it are still very much present.From Prouilhe, the tramway continued northeast towards Bram alongside what is now the D4. It passed through Taurines and Villesiscle on the way. There are long straight sections of single- carriageway road with no evidence of the old tramway.The station area at Villesiscle is still a flat open space with little indication of its use as a tramway station in the past.Perhaps clutching at straws here, but the alignment of the boundary fence to the memorial garden suggests that the tramway album alignment dictated its location back from the road.

Heading out of Villesiscle thev D4 approaches the modern motorway. The road was diverted to bridge the motorway and the old road alignment is still visible and not surfaced. It s possibly a good example of what the road might have been like when the tramway was in use?The old road into Bram. The motorway which crossed it can just be seen in the far distance.

The tramway entered Bram along what is now Avenue Georges Clemenceau and Avenue du General de Galle. In those days, ‘Route de Fanjeaux’. Bram, Route de Fanjeaux. The tramway tracks are just visible on the left. [8]The view from almost the same location in 21st Century.

In the centre of Bram, the tramway divided. One branch headed north, the other provided access to the Midi Station.I have found no indication of the actual track arrangement for the Tramway in Bram. The pink lines sketched on the satellite image are indication of the routes which are evident on postcard pictures. The line going north made for Saissac and Saint-Denis and crossed the Compagnie du  Midi line, along with the road at a level crossing which is still in place in the 21st Century.The first of a few images of the line heading towards the level-crossing. [18]

Bram, Avenue de St. Denis. The railway crossing gates can just be picked out in the distance. The view is taken north looking away from the town centre. [7]Bram, Avenue de Canal du Midi, or Avenue de Saint-Denis (today’s Avenue Paul Riquet). This tinted image is taken from a point a little further out of the centre of Bram to the north. The crossing gates for the Compagnie du Midi mainline are more easily seen. It is also possible to make out a point with a branch off the tramway heading in the direction of the mainline railway station. As we have seen above this ward not the main tramway access to the Midi station. [8]This picture is taken from a blog about Saissac written in French by Jean Michel of Saissac. The image shows the arrival of a train from Fanjeaux. A triangular arrangement of tracks existed in this square in Bram. The second arm of that triangle can be picked out running to the left of the train and behind the trees in the foreground of the picture. [18]Bram, Jardin Public. The image above of the arrival of the train is taken in the square behind the photographer of this picture. The road directly ahead is the Avenue de la Gare. [8]Another picture of Avenue de la Gare taken from a similar position. [18]Avenue de la Gare. [19]Avenue de la Gare (above). The goods facilities at the mouth of the combined station yard are visible ahead. [19] On 6th September 2018, I was unable to take a photograph, but I could confirm that the goods shed is still there.The entry of a train from Saissac into the station yard at Bram. [8]

The Mainline Railway Station at Bram was/is positioned to the East of the town centre.Bram, Compagnie du Midi Station. The tramway branch which led into the station yard can be seen in the bottom right of this picture. [8]Bram, Compagnie du Midi, Station Forecourt. [9]Bram, Compagnie du Midi Station Train-shed, 1910. [6]Bram, Compagnie du Midi Station, Train-shed Interior. [6]The Station at Bram from the East. [19]

The overall shed roof is now missing in the 21st Century. The tramway buildings and lines are long-gone.

Returning to the tracks which headed north out of Bram, we cross the level crossing and head out of town. At this point the tramway was on the east (right) side of the road.As we leave Bram behind the road is flanked by an avenue of plane trees. As we approach them, I imagine, without much supporting evidence, that the tramway switches from the East to the West side of the road. If this proves to be incorrect, please forgive the excessive use of my imagination!The cycleway on the left, on the West side of the road, may be on the formation of the old tramway.

We are heading for Saissac, and as the journey continues we pass through a series of different stops – Montplaisir-la-Leude, St-Martin-le-Vieil, Cennes-Monesties, and Cap-de-Port. We also cross the Canal du Midi. We cross the canal just north of Bram.The tramway continues North. The countryside north of the Canal due Midi is relatively flat and it ius likely that the route chosen for the tramway was dictated by the desires and dictates of various landowners. The tramway ran on the western shoulder of what is now the D4. The road seems to have been designed to work with the tram. Long straight sections are punctuated by relatively smooth and generous bends.This OpenStreetMap excerpt shows the route. The Canal is visible in the bottom left of the image. The tramway and GC116 (D4) then crossed the River Fresquel and the present D6113. The first halt north of Bram was at this junction – Montplaisir-la-Leude. North of the River Tenten the tramway/road diverted around the edge of a field before heading for St-Martin-le-Vieil.

Things changed as the tramway reached its next stop in St-Martin-le-Vieil. This was the main village in Canton immediately North of the Canton of Bram.

To access the village the tramway/road crossed the River Lampy on an ancient masonry arch bridge. The picture below is not of the highest resolution but sows the bridge early in the 20th century, perhaps while the tramway was still working. The adjacent 1930s Michelin map shows the tramway crossing the Lampy on a separate bridge to the road. The lie of the land and the road alignment suggest that this is very unlikely. No evidence exists to suggest that the tramway diverged from the road over this length.The bridge is just visible in this modern view of the village.

St-Martin-le-Vieil is a historic Cathar site with three significant elements: the castle; the church and the abbey; and a series of caves excavated by hand in the 9th Century. Its origins go back to the 8th century. 

The castle is mentioned as early as 1180. It was donated by Simon de Monfort to the Abbey of Villelongue in 1213. It was ravaged during the wars of religion (1578 ), rebuilt in 1676 as shown by the date inscribed on one of the faces of the small tower. It seems that by 1759 it still possessed its moat and three towers, the stone from one of which was used in the 1870s to build the town hall and school. [20]

The abbey appeared first in the twelfth century (1152 according to some historians). It became of significance in the crusade against Catharism in the thirteenth century. In particular, Simon de Monfort granted it all the lands of Saint Martin le Vieil. It was plundered by the Protestants in 1568 and saw a slow decline until 1789 when there remained only two religious. It was confiscated in 1792 and auctioned off. It was turned into a farm. Later, in 1916 it was listed as a historic monument and now receives aroun 6,000 visitors a year. [20]

The parish church is dedicated to Saint Martin, it is dated to the 14th century. It was built in the Gothic style and remodelled in the 15th century. [20]

The tramway ran along the GC116 (D4) through the village and continued alongside the road and river until close to Cennes-Monesties.The road to Cennes-Monesties diverges to the left. The tramway continued to the right still following the shoulder of the GC116(D4). There was a halt at this location for Cennes-Monesties. I have been unable to find any details.

For most of its length the Saint-Denis/Saissac line followed the route of the existing roads, but because of the road gradients, 8 kilometres separate lines were created. [18] These next few paragraphs and photographs trace the line as it meanders away from the road over the length between Cennes-Monesties and Saissac.

The first deviation is significant both in direction and length, leaving the road for some distance to the south before swinging round to the north and then following the road, but at a distance to the East as far as the next highway junction. The satellite images below confirm the route which appears only as alteration to the color of the ground or crops along its length. At points it is impossible to verify the line but those parts which can be established indicate the route elsewhere. The tramway leaves the shoulder of the road at this point. The tunnel through the undergrowth marks its most probable line. From this point it curves away to the south.The tramway swings away from the road through shrub-land. Its route is approximately marked by a line of taller trees. Once arable land is reach the route of the tramway shows on the satellite image as a wide curve as marked by the pink line.The pink line is only approximate. In the image above, from the route through the open field the line curves back again towards the East and follows the edge of the elongated copse of trees in the field.

In the adjacent image the north end of we features at the bottom of the picture. The line of the tramway snakes through the open field towards the point at which the two roads in the image meet. The route is most clear at the top of the picture. A small copse appears at the top of this picture. It becomes a much larger copse to the north of the side road as can be seen on the next picture.

The route of the tramway crosses the D4 at a point where the road bends eastward. It is difficult to identify the point at which the tramway began to turn back eastward. One possible location, suggested by some marks in the field to the north, is approximately where the first lighter free trees are to the northwest of the D4. I cannot be sure.. However, the alignment to the north side of that field, as the tramway returned towards the D4, is clear.

The pink line is again only approximate and the actual alignment can be made out crossing the field and turning north. The next halt at Cap-de-Port was adjacent to the building in the bottom right of the next image, not far from the road.

The tramway continued north a distance west of the modern D4. It turned this way and that, seemingly mirroring the changes in direction of the road until, at another junction with a minor road, it struck off away from the present D4 (GC116) and curved round to run along the shoulder of the GC103 (the modern D103).



The OpenStreetMap plan below shows the route of the D103 (and therefore the route of the tramway) into Saissac. Its route out of Saissac is along the D408.

The route of the tramway through Saissac is well preserved as a street – the Allee de la Promenade. The route is again shown in pink on the adjacent satellite image of the town.

The route closer into the town is called the Avenue Georges Clemenceau. It was not suitable as the tramway roue because of the narrowness of the street on the west side of the town and the steep drop, west to east, into the town and then the climb, west to east out of the town-centre. The Allee de la Promenade is shown on the OpenStreetMap plan below.Two postcard images of the station are immediately below.

Saissac [10]The old station of Saissac was built around 1904. The first tram arrived in Saissac on 10th May 1905. The station grounds were first used, after closure in 1932 as part of a sports field (1940). at that time, the station room served as a locker room for Rugby and football teams, eventually the land was used for the present gendarmerie. [22]

The tramway route leaves Saissac on what is now the D408. It was once the GC103. The final leg of the journey to Saint-Denis is short – just 5 or 6 kilometres. Initially the tramway ran on the southern shoulder of the road. It then crossed to the northern side just before entering the valley of l’Alzeau and remained there until reaching Saint-Denis.The bridge in the two postcard views above, taken in the early 21st Century looking back towards Saissac.Looking forward from the bridge, the old tramway formation can be seen on the left.

Very soon after leaving the valley of l’Alzeau the tramway entered Saint-Denis. The remaining pictures in this post show the station at Saint-Denis.

The final picture shows the location of the station in the 21st Century. The site has private dwellings built on it. The main identifying factor is the church tower which appears on the first postcard above.


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Choices: John 6: 56-69; Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6: 10-20

The right to choose. …. That phrase has been used in a whole series of contexts over recent years. It has become one to the defining characteristics of our society. We are told time and again just how important it is that we have the freedom to make choices. And rightly so, because the ability to make choices to make value judgements is one of the distinctive marks of being a human being.

I am sure you can think of examples – but here are a few …

A Woman’s Right to Choose – I am not going to enter the very complex debate about abortion. It is enough to acknowledge that a woman’s right of choice is an important issue in the ethical debate that surrounds abortion. This is the context that we most often talk of a right to choose.

The Right to Choose – is the title of a government advice booklet to agencies dealing with involved with handling cases of forced marriage. Each individual has a right to choose who they marry and an inalienable right not to be forced into a marriage for whatever reason.

The Right to Choose has recently been extended in the health service to mental health patients as well as those suffering physical symptoms. We can increasingly choose where we are treated and when we are treated. The Heath system is changing slowly to focus more on the patient than the clinician.

The withdrawal of the right to choose is also significant: Right wing totalitarian regimes deny freedom of choice to their subjects. Difference is frowned upon. Left wing/communist regimes value the proletariat above the individual, subjugating individual freedom to the needs of the masses.

In a very significant way, when we lose the ability to choose, we become less than human. Freedom and choice are really as fundamental to our lives as the right to shelter, food and water.

Successive governments have been right to emphasise freedom to choice.

Some of us might want to question whether we really do have freedom to choose. … So often, the right to choose a school for our children is limited, or perhaps negated, by the catchment area of the school. … Patients’ choice in the health service is often limited by our ability to travel to a hospital. … It is often almost impossible for a woman in abusive relationship to make the choice to leave, she feels completely trapped by her circumstances.

Nonetheless I feel so much better when I’m treated as an individual and given a say in the things that affect me. When I am given the freedom to choose.

Freedom of choice is so important. … Yet putting the two words “freedom” and “choice” in the same phrase is perhaps misleading. … For the very exercise of our freedom to choose restricts our freedom. When we choose to join a club, we are choosing to be bound by its rules, if not we very soon find that we are no longer welcome. When we choose to marry, we commit ourselves to one person, we are not free to play the field.

Choice, by its very nature restricts freedom.

Our readings set for 26th August 2018 seem to focus on that ability to choose.

Joshua actually uses the word. … “Choose this day whom you will serve,” he says. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Paul in Ephesians encourages us to make the choice to stand firm under attack, to stand against evil, and he promises us that God’s armour, God’s resources are available to us as we stand firm.

Jesus presents his disciples with a choice. “If my words are too hard for you,” he says, “you don’t have to stay!” And we heard Peter’s response, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

All three passages leave us with a challenge: “What choice are we going to make?”

Are we going to do our own thing, follow our own instincts, in life? Or are we going to commit ourselves to God’s agenda? Are we going to stick with God even when the going gets tough?

God gives us the freedom to choose. He does not force us to accept him. Jesus doesn’t demand our allegiance. He offers himself to us as friend and as Lord, with every possibility of our turning our back on him.

Vulnerable love, love which was willing to die for us, love which does not impose itself on us but waits patiently for our decision. Love which is prepared to release us if we choose to turn away from him.

We are free to choose.  …. Yet as we exercise our freedom to choose, we make commitments which on the face of it restrict our freedom. We cannot make Christ ‘Lord’ and still give other things a more important place in our lives. Christ being ‘Lord’, means just that, Lord of our lives, our families, our work, our lifestyle. The free choice we have made, the one we continue to make as we commit ourselves to Christ each week in worship, seemingly limits our freedom.

And yet, here is perhaps the greatest paradox of all, when we commit ourselves to Christ as Lord we don’t feel trapped by our choices – we feel set free, set free to be who we really are. Here in the Christian family, when it is functioning as Jesus intended, we find our true freedom, our true dignity, our true equality as we worship the one who is worthy of all the praise that we can offer.

Contemporary society talks of human rights and ‘the freedom to choose’. In Christian worship, we confess that we cannot speak of ‘our rights’, for we have been given everything and forgiven everything and promised everything, not as of right, but of the loving grace of God who, as we freely give ourselves to him, as we chose his sovereignty, freely gives us all things.

When we come to Communion, we exercise our right, our freedom to choose, and as we take bread and wine into ourselves, we commit ourselves again to a choice to be God’s children and family. The end of August heralds a new cycle, a new academic year, it is a time for re-commitment re-commitment to God’s sovereignty in our lives. And as we make that renewed commitment we experience once again the release that comes from being who we truly are! … Those who are loved, accepted and redeemed, chosen ourselves by the grace of God.

Word and Wisdom – John 1:1-14, Proverbs 8, 1-11, Colossians 1:15-20

The first Christians were Jews. They came from a small back water in the Roman Empire. A seemingly irrelevant outpost in a bustling and cosmopolitan world. They faced a big question. How could they help people throughout the Greek speaking Roman world engage with Christian faith? How could a faith which was initially expressed in the framework of the Jewish culture be understood by people of very different cultures? Throughout the book of Acts we see people like Paul, Peter, Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, James and others struggling with these questions – they knew what Christian faith looked like for a Jew living in Palestine, but what should it be like for a Greek intellectual in Athens?

Their situation is much like our own. Just like they did, we wonder how we can make what we believe intelligible to people in today’s world who have little or no experience of Church and who see Christian faith as irrelevant, if not ridiculous.

Our readings today relate to struggle the early church faced: How could they convey the Gospel to the Roman and Greek world – the good news which was so bound up with Jesus’ divinity and humanity. … They had experienced Jesus as both divine and human. They could talk of him as the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. How could they explain that a divine being became human? How could they help people understand? As they reflected on this they realised that their scriptures – the Old Testament had at least a couple of ideas that would help them.

We meet the first idea in Genesis – in the story of Creation – God spoke and something happened. God only needed to say a few words and a whole world and universe came into being. Words for God were not just things to say, concepts to express or write down. Words were effective, they achieved something. God’s Word was God at work in the world.

The second idea comes in other parts of the Old Testament. There they found passages about Wisdom. Today’s reading is an example. Wisdom is spoken of as a personality, a person, who existed before the worlds were created. Wisdom at God’s side as he created. Wisdom as the crafts-person moulding creation and delighting in what was made.

As Jewish Christians were asked about Jesus by their Greek neighbours. As the first Christian theologians tried to explain how God was born as a baby in Bethlehem. They saw something in the Greek culture that would help them to explain better to Greek and Roman people, just what they meant by Jesus being the Word and Wisdom of God, both divine and human.

The word for ‘word’ in Greek is ‘logos’. Greek philosophers used that word ‘logos’ in a special way – by the time of Christ – they used it to refer to a kind of ordering principle of the universe. Sometimes they used ‘nature’ and ‘logos’ interchangeably. What they meant was that there was an something behind all of nature – giving it a purpose and meaning. The principle by which life held together – perhaps ‘wisdom’. And as Greek philosophers talked of the ‘logos’ it was as though they almost gave it a personality.

Christians realised that here was a way of explaining to Greek and Roman people just who Jesus was – and the first verses of John’s Gospel were born. John gives the ‘Word’, the ‘Logos’, a central place. He describes the ‘Logos’ as God, the Creative Word, who took on flesh as the man Jesus Christ. … ‘God active in the created world’ = ‘Logos’. … God’s Word expressed as a human being. It might sound strange to us, but those early Christians had successfully managed to translate the concept of the incarnation into a form that Greek and Roman people might understand

The challenge to us is similar. To find ways of expressing what we believe in terms and in ways that people in today’s world will understand. We cannot say, it worked in the past so it will work again. We cannot just do the things we have always done. We cannot continue to use only the words that we understand. We cannot continue to be just the church we have always been. Words and customs move on. Meanings change, hopes and fears change. The world is shrinking and ideas from the four corners of the world now influence the values of every society.

You only need to think of the way that the meanings of words have changed over the centuries. I have mentioned this before: The word,‘Comfort’ – what does that mean now? On the Bayeux Tapestry it means something completely different. Look out for Bishop Odo comforting his troops …….

‘Organic’ – until very recently that was a group of chemicals which contained Carbon – a mixture of different substances both noxious and benign. Now we use it to mean wholesome food, untainted by many of the chemicals which would naturally have fallen into the ‘organic’ grouping.

You’ll know many other words which have changed their meaning over the years. Those changes are like small snapshots on what has been happening in society – a process of change which is accelerating not slowing. And if we don’t change in at least some measure, we will be increasingly misunderstood and become increasingly less and less relevant – having little or nothing intelligible to say to people who need to know the love of God.

As we participate in a process of change we do just what Jesus did ….. The Word, Jesus, became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. God changed, God became human, God learnt new things, expressed himself in different ways, felt tired for the first time, experienced limitations for the first time. God changed so as to bring his love to his creation. The early church changed its rules, expressed itself in new and different ways, so that its mission to the Roman world might be effective. And we are called to do the same to look for new ways to communicate the Gospel to those who live around us but who have none of the history of Church involvement that we have.

Into 2018 with God! – Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – 7th January 2018

The authors of our lectionary placed the Old Testament reading alongside the Gospel reading for  7th January 2018 for a reason. They wanted us to see them in parallel.

In both cases God is doing something new.

I am not an expert in classical music, a bit of a Philistine really, but as I thought about these two readings from Genesis and Mark it seemed to me that they could be described as two different movements from the same symphony. I’m told that the classical composers used variations on the same theme to develop their composition and that if you listen carefully to the music you can hear the main theme being repeated. …..

Perhaps you can imagine a heavenly orchestra playing the first 5 verses of Genesis. Dark, brooding music portrays an overwhelming sense of chaos and darkness. I imagine that the composer would use discordant modern themes to convey a sense of disorder. Then over this music comes the main theme of the symphony – quietly at first, starting with flute and piccolo, and gradually engaging the whole orchestra. Like a wind gradually rising from a gentle breeze to a violent gale. God’s mighty wind (his Holy Spirit) sweeps across the universe. God is speaking, and his very words change the universe for ever. “Let there be light” and light appears. God saw that it was good, and Night and Day were born.

God breaks into the history of the universe with a powerful word of creation.

Our second reading comes much later in the same symphony. The main musical themes are now well developed – we=ve heard them over and again throughout the symphony. When John the Baptist appears we return to that same discordant, abrupt and harsh theme that we heard right at the beginning of the symphony. His harsh manner, his odd clothing, his strange habits all seem to echo the chaos and darkness of Genesis. The sound from the orchestra builds and noise of the crowds coming to John for baptism shake the concert hall and then John’s voice can be heard as a sharp solo, perhaps, by the oboe cutting through the surrounding noise.

Then quietly at first the main theme appears again. The theme that represented God at work as Creator gradually supersedes the chaos of the early part of this movement. Jesus has come for baptism. The Word of God, from the beginning of John’s Gospel, is beginning his work. And as Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism the whole orchestra joins the theme – the heavens are rent open, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and God speaks, a strong solo voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

Can you see the common themes in the two passages?

  • The milling crowd, longing for God to act in their lives; and the universe awaiting God’s creative action.
  • The wind of God, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of the deep and the waters of baptism.
  • The word of God bringing creation, “Let there be light”; and the Word of God, Jesus, God’s Son, whose ministry brings redemption.

God’s delight is obvious in both passages. Looking at creation, ‘God saw that it was good’. Looking down on his Son, God said, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”.

The theme from each movement of our symphony is the same. God creating his world and God redeeming that same world. All part of the same plan. In our symphony, both represented by the same theme.

And now, early in 2018, we are participating in what the Bible calls the end times, the days between Jesus’ first and second coming. We are participating in what we might call the final movement of the symphony.

In the first movement, God saw that everything was good. What does he see now, at the start of this new year, in Ashton, in our churches, in our families and personal lives? Where are the signs of new creation? Where are the dark, formless voids that still await God’s creative action?

In the later movement God expressed overwhelming pleasure at the baptism of his Son. What things in our world, our town, our churches or in our lives today, give God pleasure?

Where might we begin to hear that same musical theme of God’s intervention here in Ashton-under-Lyne? What do we long that God would do in our town and in our world?

How might the final movement of our symphony be played out? What should I do? What should we do to participate in God’s work here?

Timing is Everything – Luke 1:26-38

Today, Sunday 24th December 2017, is the 4th Sunday of Advent and it just so happens that this year it is also Christmas Eve. This evening and tonight we will be listening once again to parts of the Christmas story, but this morning, along with every church that follows the lectionary, we are remembering Mary and her role as a precursor, a witness, to the coming of the King and her role as mother of Jesus. Our fourth candle on the Advent wreath represents Mary.

Timing is everything.

The Gospel reading set for this morning is usually read every year on one particular date, the Feast of the Annunciation which falls on 25th March each year – unless its date clashes with Easter or a Sunday.

Timing is everything.

The liturgical and calendar scholars among us will have noticed that 25th March, is exactly 9 months before Christmas Day. Our gospel reading makes a lot of sense as part of the Christmas story, but seemingly less so in March at or around Easter time. However, most of us will recognise that when we are talking about pregnancy, 9 months is a very important time period. The feast of the Annunciation is very carefully placed exactly 9 months before the birth of Jesus – which suggests that Jesus was neither a premature nor a late baby!

I was born on 11th May 1960, 9 months was a very important period for me – for my parents were married on 1st August 1959 (9 months and 10 days before I was born). I count as a honeymoon baby – but if pregnancies were usually 10 months then there would be something different to say about my status!

Timing is everything.

So, around Easter time each year, just as we are today, we are reminded of Mary’s call to be the Mother of God. Mary hears words from the Angel Gabriel which cause her heart to miss at least one beat – called to be the God bearer, the Theotokos, called to co-operate with God in creating his Saviour, called to bear the stigma of being with child out of wedlock. Both gift and burden, both grace and shame.

As we move on through our liturgical year, through Christmas and on to the Feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas, we will be starkly reminded of Simeon’s words to Mary. For her, not only would the pregnancy be a long a difficult time of waiting – but the whole of her life was to be spent waiting for a painful end.

And as we travel towards Easter, we will be reminded even more starkly of Mary’s encounters with joy and suffering. On Good Friday, we will appreciate again that Mary understood pain – she bore in her body the pain of the cross – she felt the nails being hammered into the wrists of her son, she agonised as she watched him die the most painful of deaths. She had to release her child into God’s eternal care long before his time. And, as those things happened, she felt a mixture of all the emotions a mother can feel – anger, guilt, shame, and deep aching loss. Like any mother, her grief was to be unbearable.

Mary also understood the joy of motherhood – she watched her precocious child grow to be a wonderful man. She felt the joy of being part of the making of this special son. And on the first Easter Sunday she had her son returned to her alive – wonderful, exciting, tremendous … but then she too, along with all those who knew Jesus, had to realise that she could not cling on to her Son. He was returning to his Father in heaven.

Timing is everything.

Here today we are called, by our Gospel reading, to see the Christmas events and those events which follow in the spring-time of our church year through the eyes of a mother – the eyes of Mary. We are called today to encounter Mary’s confusion at the words of the Angel. We are called too, to encounter Mary’s pain alongside the suffering of Christ, and as we do so, the pain will be just that bit more tangible.

We are called to feel the despair and the loss of Good Friday as we sit with Mary at the foot of the cross weeping for the loss of her beautiful son. And, if we are prepared to weep those deep tears of loss; if, in just a little way, we endeavour to identify with all mothers who have lost those they love; if, at least for a few days at Easter, we refuse to rush on to the joy of resurrection, because we have learnt patience like a pregnant mother waiting for the birth of her child; if we stay with the pain. If we struggle to understand the overwhelming and crushing burden of the grandmothers who because of HIV/AIDs now are sole carers for many of the grandchildren. Our encounter with the joy of Christmas in the services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, will be all the more intense.

For we will have understood the burden of pain carried by Mary and we will encounter something of the release she felt from the pains of labour as she welcomed her son into the world as a helpless child at Christmas. We might even feel something of the unbelievable joy of holding God in our own hands and arms, just as Mary did on that first Christmas Day. We might even feel some of the pride that she felt at the birth of her child and something too of her overwheming desire to tell everyone about the wonder of the Christ-child and that faith that was born with him.

Timing is everything – not 9 months but less than a day before the birth – this is a very important day in our preparation for Christmas. Now is our chance to listen, … to focus on the Christmas story. Let’s not let it slip by.

Great is the Darkness …..

There is a song which is sung relatively often at St. Peter’s Church in Ashton-under-Lyne. It starts like this:

‘Deep is the darkness that covers the earth, oppression, injustice and pain. Nations are slipping in hopeless despair. ………’

While the song goes on to call on Jesus to: ‘Pour out [his] spirit on us today’, the first words of the song have always seemed to me to be a very negative beginning.

The song is based on the words of Isaiah 60:2 …… ‘See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you.’

Our experience of life over the end of May and beginning of June seems to be very appropriately summed up in the first words of the song. ‘Deep is the darkness‘ ….. This has been a very difficult time. The bomb in Manchester Arena killed 22 and maimed many more. Two attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan have killed over 100 people and left so very many injured. The attack on a church in Egypt was devastating for the Christian community there. Then came the van and knife attack in Central London. ….

Deep is the darkness that covers the earth, oppression, injustice and pain.

We feel unable to make sense of all that is going on, we feel anger and despair, we grieve for the loss of innocent young lives. Why does God allow these things to happen?

‘Why’ and ‘How could’ questions are important, often they challenge our faith. How could a God of love permit such atrocities to take place? Ultimately, however these questions don’t take us very far, especially when the darkness we encounter is the result of human actions.

We are sentient beings who make our own choices. It is only when we are free to make our choices that love can thrive. It is because we are not automatons that we are free to make mistakes, free to make wrong choices, but also free to love. Freedom allows us to place others ahead of ourselves.

Love, peace and joy are offered to us as we faithfully follow Jesus. It is when we look elsewhere for meaning, that we open ourselves up to the darkness.  It is when we think that we know best that we lose sight of the light and allow the darkness in.

The song goes on to say: ‘Come Lord Jesus, … pour out Your spirit on us today. May now Your church rise with power and love, [your] glorious gospel proclaim. In every nation salvation will come to those who believe in Your name. Help us bring light to this world. ….’

No doubt you watched some of the concert held at Old Trafford Cricket Ground on Sunday 4th June. The call from so many of the artists at that event was for love to triumph over darkness and hatred.

Just as darkness only thrives where there is no light, so hatred only wins where love is absent. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the 4th June was Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the first disciples. It is the Holy Spirit at work in each of us that enables us to love others, to place their needs first. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to be those who bring light into the darkest places. It is the Holy Spirit that reassures us that we are loved, that we are safe in God’s loving embrace. It is the Holy Spirit who sets us free to love others because we are sure that we are loved.

The better questions are not, ‘Why’ or ‘How could …’ questions. The better questions are ‘What next’ questions: What can we do to overcome hatred with love in our own communities? What can we do to shed light into the darkest places of our own lives and communities? What can I do to ensure that I do not act out of envy or hatred, but rather act out of love?

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.

L.R. Knost

Matthew 17:1-9 – The Transfiguration

transfiguration-2I have two brothers and a sister – all younger than me. Academically, three of us did pretty well: we could read well before we went to school, we passed the 11 plus and got into the local grammar schools where we lived in King’s Lynn in Norfolk.

One of my brothers was different (and I hope he does not  mind me talking about him here). He struggled with his reading, only really getting going when he was about 8 years old – he went to the local secondary modern, and for the first 4 years there achieved little more, academically, than propping up the class with his results. Nothing academic seemed to interest him.

At least that was true until he decided what he wanted to do with his life. He set his heart on being a policeman. He was told that he needed some basic CSEs to get into training college and he began to work, he worked his socks off. He scraped the CSEs he needed and got into Hendon Police Training College in London. He had found something he loved and he was transformed – when he graduated from Hendon he came top of his intake.

Dare I say that he was transfigured by his desire to be a policeman? You may know a similar story of someone you know being changed in quite a dramatic way.

Late in his life, the Cellist and Conductor Pablo Casals was full of arthritis, but even at the age of 90 whenever he picked up his bow and began to play his Cello he was transformed. He became agile and supple – the artist that he had always been – consumed by what he was playing.

Illness and incapacity have been part the experience of many great people – Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Florence Nightingale (she did most of her campaigning from her sick bed) – to mention just a few. For them, like Pablo Casals, when they were engaged in their most brilliant work, the limits which bound them just seemed to fall away.

You see, people can be transfigured in their experience of life. In some cases, out of pain, … beauty, humanity and ingenuity can be born.

And the more mundane of us – you and me?

Our lives too can be transfigured by finding our vocation, the thing that we do well. This is something that many people who have been called to be priests say, it is almost as though they have found themselves in a way that they had not done before. If you are interested, try asking one of us clergy, or perhaps someone else in one of the caring professions, perhaps even try reflecting on your own experience of discovering what you were going to do with your own life.

We’ve read today of Jesus’ transfiguration. … At the transfiguration, Jesus is revealed, as more than a carpenter turned Rabbi; more than a man whose legs ached as he walked round Israel; more than a preacher whose voice could fail after hours of speaking to crowds. More even, than one who could bruise and bleed when tortured and crucified. He’s revealed as God’s Son in human form, truly God and truly human.

We don’t know how Jesus= transfiguration relates to our perhaps lesser experiences of transfiguration. He was, after all, divine as well as human. But through his resurrection, and through our own baptism, we have been promised some share in his divinity. And simply by being human we have a capacity for being more … for being different. When our attention is held, much that’s negative in our lives, seems to get set aside.

It is possible to change, to be different.

Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. It is God’s work, and it is an essential part of the Gospel which we believe; that we are not trapped, not held captive by our past or by our present. This is a theme of our Gospel reading as we approach Lent. Transformation, transfiguration, is possible for us who follow Jesus. Not just momentary transfiguration, but transformation that will affect and change our future.

We know that this happened to Peter, James and John – cowering, frightened men became powerful proponents of the Gospel, fearlessly facing danger and death because they had been transfigured, transformed by the love of God. Jesus momentary experience became their permanent experience. The Gospels ask us to believe that the same can happen for us, as we let God work in our lives.