Before the lockdowns, there was a tradition when Canon Paul Richardson was our Rector at St John’s, Devizes, for a dawn Eucharist at 4 am on our patronal festival, the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, on 24 June. Midsummer is the perfect time for an open-air Mass at silly o’clock, after all, as long as the weather co-operates.
I agreed to celebrate and lead the service. Would anyone turn up, I wondered? These traditions are often very fragile and the pandemic has upended many previously valued practices. To cap it all off, the parishioner most enthusiastic about the service hadn’t been feeling too well in the days immediately before.
As I wheeled my bicycle into the churchyard at twenty-to-four, therefore, I was relieved to see a torch flickering at the end of the path. I would have a congregation of at least one, and could therefore celebrate the feast. Christ who promised to be present wherever two or three are gathered in His name, would be there too.
It turns out that I had forgotten the most important piece of equipment of all – my reading glasses! So I squinted mightily as I fiddled with combination locks and safes to get the Communion requisites ready, but the Flashlight app on my phone helped and we started more-or-less on time as the church clock struck four.
It was at that very moment the birds began to sing the dawn chorus in earnest. There were five of us gathered to celebrate the sacred mysteries around a tomb doubling up as an altar, as it turned out, including the Rector on his day off and the most enthusiastic parishioner.
Not a big congregation, but a special moment. The kick-off time, a matter of some debate, turned out to be perfect – the first breaking of dawn visible as we started, yet by the time we finished twenty minutes later, grey had replaced blue in the cloudy dawn sky and, even half an hour before sunrise our dark-adapted eyes meant it was bright enough to read reasonably comfortably.
We felt the presence of the angels, the archangels, and the Lord, with the Holy Spirit breathing down the backs of our necks.
Sadly, there were no coffee shops for us to decamp to after the dismissal. Most of us returned to bed!
The pandemic has often been cited as a grounds to stop doing things that had ceased to be life-giving, in church and in other contexts. I think here, however, we showed that some practices at risk of being lost are worth returning to. We also challenged the misconception that a service with a small congregation is somehow an inadequate version of a service with a large congregation.
Some moments in worship are intimate, especially in the context of a weekday Eucharist, reflections of that morning when the risen Christ shared breakfast with seven disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (John 21).The Rev’d Gerry Lynch