This time yesterday, I was standing outside St Albans Abbey, wearing church robes and a huge grin, surrounded by others similarly attired. I had just been ordained a priest by the Bishop of St Albans who, with others, had laid hands on me - an ancient tradition going back to the earliest church and beyond - and called down the Hoy Spirit to fill me and equip me 'for the office and work of a priest in your church', as the prayer put it. It was an overwhelming moment, a moment which I received as pure gift - the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the church, a gift so immense that its only apt response is grateful receiving. Before this service, I and my fellow-ordinands had spent two days in prayer, rest and reflection, during which time I had read this book, a very powerful and profound examination of what it really means to say that we believe in Jesus. Of its many gems, one sentence stood out to me as particularly meaningful:
'Human life has no other meaning than to be a response to the God who calls us to love.'
So there I was, outside the Abbey, allowing the truth of this to seep into my soul, when one of the Bishops who had laid hands on me knelt in front of me and asked me to bless him. As my heart leapt into my chest cavity, it was a bit like one of those Andy Warhol-inspired pop art cartoons in which several speech bubbles appear over a person's head all at once. The first speech bubble said 'I can't bless you! You're a Bishop!' The second said 'But this is the gift that you've just been given; this is to share with others.' The third said 'But I don't know what words to use to bless a Bishop WhatdoIsaywhatdoIsaywhatdoIsay?!' The fourth said 'Oh, for heaven's sake, get on with it!' And in that moment, the words came, just as they have when I've prayed with so many people. It was an overwhelming moment.
As I say it here, it sounds as though it could so easily be a nice bit of ecclesiastical showmanship, a gimmick, like a politician kissing a baby's forehead (do they still do that in these angst-ridden days?) But it wasn't gimmicky or showy. It was a genuine moment of giving and receiving, of openness to God and trust in God. As I was recovering from this, my first act of priestly ministry, one of our wonderful churchwardens popped up and asked 'Would you like an ice-cream?' Oh, would I!
Later that evening, after a very nice meal, I trailed around a near-deserted supermarket, thinking about what to contribute to the church's celebratory 'Bring and Share' lunch, and buying some essentials for home, as I'd been away for a few days and could count on there only being half a wilted lettuce and a half-filled jar of lemon curd in the fridge. It struck me then, as it had in the restaurant earlier on, that eating together - the giving and receiving of food - is essential to human life, essential to community and to the building up of families and friendships.
The other book I'd read on retreat, Take This Bread, had given me (pardon the pun) much food for thought as to how the central, essential act of Christian worship, the celebration of Holy Communion, speaks to all our lives. The ice-cream I'd been given, the bread we'd broken in the restaurant, the cheeses I was buying to share with my church family and the bread and milk I was buying for my children - all, in their humble ways, were an overflow of love, a giving and receiving, an occasion of openness and trust.
So this morning, for the first, second, and third time, I celebrated that meal that sanctifies all meals. It was an overwhelming moment, again and again. Feeding and blessing, being fed and being blessed, giving, receiving, openness, trust. In such things does Heaven break through to earth. 'Human life has no other meaning than to be a response to the God who calls us to love.'