Christmas morning holds a surprising turn for Father Timothy Clarridge
|The sickly sun, still tight bound in its Solstice swaddling, struggled to add seasoning to the insipid sky, which, long bleached by astringent Autumn gales of all it's rich Summer hue, was now weakly Wintery. The brittle beauty of a bitter frost, all intricate iced edged leaves and finger freezing stillness, was punctuated here and there, by the flutter of finches, bright amongst the berries.
As the Reverend Timothy Clarridge cycled the half mile from the Rectory to the Church of All Saints, his progress was punctuated by great expansions of blessed breath billowing about him. Huffing and blowing, red faced and pinched in the sharp frosted air, yet wreathed seasonally with a wide smile. A wholly innocent excitement fills him as he heads to morning prayer.
Spurning Bucephalus as pretentious, Timothy had instead Christened his faithful mount 'Bruce Willis'. Despite it's frequent tendency to slip gears painfully on even the gentlest gradients, and the occasional protesting squeak or squeal, it was still, in his opinion, a bike to die for, if a little hard to ride.
Timothy, as he pushed and puffed, went over last night's sermon, which, preached at Midnight Mass, he now intended to present again this Christmas morning, like today's turkey dinner, dished up again with fresh gravy on Boxing day. In truth he reflected, the sermon was not actually much different from the year before's, nor was there any real reason why it should be. The eternal message of hope and salvation was, by it's very nature, always relevant.
Last night the church had been if not packed, at least pleasingly filled, mainly with devout people who saw their annual attendance as a small sacrifice for their religion, and who, barring the odd birth, death, and to a much lesser extent these days, marriage, would not set foot in the place again till next Christmas. All had gathered and sung the hymns gladly, if occasionally badly, and coughed dutifully through Timothy's words. Then exchanging hearty hand shakes and smiles, they had shuffled off through the bitter night to their beds, satisfied in the knowledge of a tiresome task well done.
Clear and compelling, the church bell chimes out. Parking Bruce by the vestry, safely unlocked, the Vicar hurried in for Morning Prayer. His bike had only once been stolen, but the thief had cut his hand on the chain, (which inconsiderately fell off at the church gate), then barked both shins as the pedals slipped, before suffering an eye watering connection between the hard leather of the unforgiving seat and his rather important peripherals. Understanding divine chastisement when he felt it, the perpetrator had hastened to replace Bruce and slipped directly into the church to rather urgently make his peace with God, and the collection box.
Mrs. Blusher the Church Warden had many sterling qualities. She looked after the priestly vestments, ensured the flowers were kept fresh, lit or blew out candles as required, counted the collections, and in short helped the church to run efficiently. She was however seemingly impervious to variations in temperature. Winter or Summer, she wore exactly the same tweed suit and hat. Heating seemed to play no part in her life. The church was cold.
Timothy genuflected, then veering into the Vestry, flicked on the heating, before heading for his customary pew for morning prayer. Mrs. Blusher was already seated opposite him. And next to her was Mrs. Trubshaw, who had attended All Saints throughout her long life. Now in her nineties, Mrs. Trubshaw was known to never miss a Service, nor morning or evening prayers. Often, as was the case this morning, there were just the three of them at prayer.
The three stalwarts barely referred to their printed cue cards, as the words and plainsong were very much a part of them. Their worship and praise flowed bright and pure, a tributary of the torrent of Christmas adoration rushing heavenwards that day. When their words ceased, they prayed in silence, and Timothy, after remembering quite a list of those in need, concluded with Happy Birthday Lord.
“He says to thank you Timothy.”
The priest's head turned, startled to hear an audible response to an unspoken greeting. In the pew behind him sat a young woman. Timothy had not heard her come in, and was almost certain that she had not been there a few moments before.
“I'm sorry?” Timothy replied, flustered and confused. At that moment the sun, finding some inner strength, surged through the window engulfing the woman in a blinding light. As he held his arm up in involuntary protection he heard her clear reply.
"The Son of God thanks you for your birthday greetings Timothy. Do not be afraid."
He found he wasn't. Whatever was happening, and Timothy was not at all certain that this really was happening, or if he had slipped into a dream, but he was not afraid. Terrified yes, merely afraid, no. Timothy could swear that the stranger before him was surrounded by light.
Gathering himself he was about to ask the woman her name, and then by what right she thought she could speak on behalf of the Lord. Only he didn't, for he knew with some unshakeable inner certainty that she was so entitled.
She was smiling beatifically at him.
"Excuse me, only," Timothy stammered "I have to ask you understand. Are you an angel?"
Looking at her, he could quite believe that she was. Sophia was achingly beautiful, yet if someone had been so rude as to interrupt their conversation and ask Timothy what she looked like, he would have been quite unable to answer. In some way she seemed to him to express every possible beauty simultaneously.
"No Timothy, I am not."
He knew it was true, and if his position had allowed it, he would have at that point fallen to his knees.
"We have a job for you Timothy. It is a particularly important and difficult task and you will have to devote the rest of your life to it's fulfilment."
The priest heard himself say the words before he had time to think, only knowing they were true.
"I am a servant of the Lord."
Sophia smiled again.
"My daughter shall be here soon Timothy, take good care of her."
The vision, and Timothy had no doubt that it had been so, ended. He looked around at Mrs. Blusher and Mrs. Trubshaw, his face was wet with tears, and his heart was singing.
"Good gracious Vicar, are you alright?" Mrs. Blusher boomed.
He assured her that he was, wiping his eyes with a clean handkerchief that providence had placed in his pocket that very morning.
Morning prayer concluded, ordinarily Timothy would have returned to the Rectory for a couple of hours of seasonal music with Classic FM and perhaps a small(ish) glass of gin and tonic, it being a festival day and all. Today he made his way to the altar and lowered himself onto his knees and bowed his head. Something of vital importance was unfolding and he had been instructed to play his part. He felt bewildered, more than a little afraid and in great need of help.
As the small congregation sidled unobtrusively into the church they found their priest kneeling in silent prayer and taking their cue, slipped quietly into the pews to join him. Strangely, each as they knelt or lowered their head depending on age and infirmity, felt somehow uplifted. There was a shared feeling of calm, and of expectation.