I loved the play and the film by Alan Bennett, ‘The History Boys’ with that rather wonderful definition of history at its consclusion, in rather too direct language for this blog – but I’m sure you can remember it. But whereas for some history is the dry remembering of things long gone, for others history is living and exciting. One of the wonderful things about living alongside the Globe Theatre is being able to see so many of the plays. I recently went to see the production of ‘Julius Caesar’ that is currently playing. Shakespeare had a way of bringing history alive for the people of his own generation as well as the subsequent generations who continue to see his plays performed.
It’s not just Shakespeare who keeps history alive however – the church also does a good job and this week has been a prime example of doing that – bringing the past into the present.
This years sees the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of KIng Olav of Norway (or Olave or Olaf) in Rouen Cathedral. Before he arrived there for that moment in his life which lead to the christianisation of his realm, Olav saved London from the Danes and helped secure the crown for Aethelred the Unready. So on his feast day, 29 July, we were joined in the Cathedral by the Norwegian community in London who were also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Norwegian church abroad.
In a local way the memory of St Olave continues and principally through our schools foundation which supports St Olave’s School in Orpington and St Saviour’s and St Olave’s School on the Old Kent Road. In addition, the image of the saint looks down on us from the Great Screen behind the High Altar.
That was 1000 years. The tradition of Lammas Day is perhaps even older than that. We revived it this year in association with our local bakery, Bread Ahead, in the Borough Market. The tradition is that to mark the new harvest a loaf is baked using flour milled from the new grain and is brought into church as a thanksgiving for God’s goodness. It’s presented at the altar and then used as the bread of the eucharist.
So that is what we did. On Thursday I went to see the grain milled to produce a wonderful quantity of real wholemeal flour and then on Lammas Day, 1 August, went into the bakery to bless it for the coming year and to receive the loaf which was then brought in procession into the Cathedral.
Some may see it as a quaint tradition but I think it is much more than that. We are too easily separated from the source of our food. A place like the Borough Market helps us to reengage with the producers of food and the processes involved and this feast certainly does so in relation to bread. So it felt like ‘living history’ and because of the connection with the Mass, a real engagement with the way in which broken bread is the principal way in which we engage with the Living God, Jesus Christ.
Lammas means ‘Loaf Mass’ and every Mass is a loaf mass but often the real connection between daily bread and daily sacrament is lost or obscured. Thinking about it I was reminded of a poem by Charles Causley, ‘The Ballad of the Bread Man’. It opens with this stanza
Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in through the window.
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.
Through the town he went walking.
He showed them the holes in his head.
Now do you want any loaves?
He cried. ‘Not today’ they said.
When I first heard it as a child I thought it was shocking – but it’s worth reading again and from this perspective of the loaf and the Lammas and the bread Jesus offers to the world – himself – whether people want it or not.
Now we are on the edge of another act of remembrance, of commemoration, as we commence the centenary of the First World War. This is big history to remember and it will be interesting to see how we do it as a nation over these four years. One way we will be marking it in Southwark Cathedral is by praying for all of the fallen from the diocese. The names from all the war memorials in our churches and communities are being collected and each day the names will be prayed for, aloud, in the Cathedral. It will be a tremendous act of remembering over the four years and will shape our prayers in a particular way and bring the past into the present.
Of course that is the particular way in which the church always remembers, through anamnesis by which the past is folded into the present and not least in the eucharist. As we take the bread that Jesus offers we are brought in a real way into a past event that becomes our present reality. As St Thomas Aquinas wrote
In this sacred banquet,
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
Whether the event happened yesterday, 150 years, 1000 years or 2000 years ago the past is brought into life as we remember in the presence of God who in
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13.8)
Lord of time and eternity,
bless our remembering of the past,
our living in the present,
our hopes for the future.