The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide
As I ponder this week’s readings, collects, hymns and prayers I am once again getting ready to be displaced, like so many of us over the last few years, who have found themselves detached from their familiar places, shut away indoors, protecting themselves and others from the Covid-19 virus.
The impact of this separation has resonated through communities, causing anxiety and distress, there is a need, a desire to belong. And place has an important part to play in that, we are, after all quite tribal in our attitudes and behaviours, we like our rituals and patterns and anything that disturbs this routine is approached with wary disdain, and yet change is inevitable. Back in March 2020 when we were first coming to terms with what the pandemic might mean for us Dr Rupert Beale, writing in the London review of books stated in his column that whilst life was by no means “normal”, and the need to social distance our best weapon against Covid-19, “humanity would survive, but we would need to be prepared for major changes in how we function and behave as a society, until we’re through the pandemic or we have mass immunization. (Ince 2021 Pg48)
One of these major changes has been in terms of our relationship to place.
Geographically Canterbury Christ Church University occupies a very specific space within Canterbury itself. It is located, outside the city wall, on the land of St Augustine’s Abbey, and is sandwiched between the historic sites of St Martin’s Church and Canterbury Cathedral. Each site is of historic significance, transforming the landscape not only on a local scale but both nationally and internationally, with Canterbury becoming the first Christian kingdom and St Augustine’s abbey an international centre of pilgrimage and learning.
For me, as for many this place, this university is important, professionally, personally and academically, it informs our practice and behaviour and for those who study here it is the backdrop of daily life. So to be asked to leave that behind is difficult and complex, but what
is it we are leaving behind, is it the security of the place, or the place itself. Is it the place that is special to us, or what happened in that place and does what happens in a place determine whether we associate it as good or evil, secular or Holy
At Christmas, “place” comes sharply in to focus the incarnate God, is born into the world in Bethlehem in Judea and he lives, works, ministers, and dies in a very small geographical location and yet as Christians we are not “required” to go on pilgrimage there, but there is no denying the importance of that place. And in John 2:20-21 where we read: “our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the only place where one must worship is in Jerusalem, Believe me woman, Jesus replied a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem” We are reminded that what is important isn’t really the place but the encounter that takes place within that space and that it is through that encounter that place takes on additional meaning and significance. And perhaps a certain eschatological significance.
To leave a place, to be separated from it is not to be separated from the encounter, but merely from the geographical location, its importance and meaning we take with us. As we move forward in our advent journey, I invite you to continue to ponder these reflections on place and to ask yourself how our understanding of place might influence our understanding of things like pilgrimage and what place might mean to not simply those displaced by covid-19 but to those who find themselves as refugees.