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A candle flicker, a silence and a claxon call to just get on with it!

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes:

Christmas Eve, strangely, felt as much like any other day as it could. Perhaps that is how it should be and our craving for magic white dust, neck tingling numinous sensations, twinkling stars and anything that will make us go ‘aw, aw’ is, in reality, an infantile fixation that is always doomed to be thwarted. Still, there is always next year!?

To be fair, we have had the occasional flicker of promised magic – a rare constellation of planets that glowed in the SE (sadly only visible through the cloud), a flurry of sleet this morning (but it didn’t stick), and jingling bells on doorsteps to summon the mood (well at least on some streets). In my experience, Christmas is always pregnant with sadness and joy. T. S. Eliot said as much in his masterful Journey of the Magi. Too much frivolity and even alcohol on the one hand but too much of some loved ones, too little of others and sadly too many memories of those no longer with us on the other. But ‘Ho, Ho’; I always was a bit of an Ebenezer Bah Humbug!

Of course, this year is even more bizarre – Coronavirus has seen to that. Family bubbles are reduced, travel in the UK curtailed, even shopping moved mainly online. And the Cathedral – well the Cathedral is absolutely freezing. Ski pants, (long johns really), ‘Damart’ vest, woollies, even Nordic socks are not enough. Still, taking a service there at the moment always provides an excuse for a noggin of my favourite Scot’s warmer. Of course, Carol Services, which are usually in their double figures at this time, have had to be curtailed though not completely obliterated. We offered some taster sessions or mini services, which proved popular and Midnight Mass was well supported. On Christmas day the Bishop of Newcastle was able to be with us, which was good – and wearing copes added a welcome extra layer. In a sense, the heating is all but ready for a switch on, or so I am told. However, the last bit of work proves to be the most technical and demanding and will take some time to complete. So, for now, it’s ‘Damart’ and whisky!

I really enjoyed the choir this Christmas. Perhaps even more than normal, as there was a particular poignancy in the air. True, the occasions had to be stripped down of pomp and ceremony, but that just allowed a space that we don’t normally have. At the Nine Lessons, I loved the excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, and as they were sung, I could gaze from my isolated vantage upon our wonderful crib set. I could let my eyes savour each carved wrinkle in the gowns, each curl of woollen fleece and the intricate detail of the faces carved so expertly (and lovingly) by my friend Jack in Bethlehem. With each flicker of the candle, I could offer a prayer for peace and justice in the Holy Land: the same prayers that have been offered for so many tortured generations.

The Cathedral’s wonderful crib set

The wonder of our crib set made me scan the Cathedral and think what other Christmastide artefacts we have, especially those I don’t always treasure perhaps as much as I should. Of course, the most obvious contender is our surviving piece of medieval glass in St Margaret’s Chapel. I’ve mentioned it before, but it is always worth a further mention. This small and rather beautiful roundel pictures Mary with the baby Jesus suckling at her breast. Some people like, affectionately, to refer to it as ‘The First Supper’ as opposed to the East Window depiction of the Last Supper. It’s a fantastic remnant that reminds me of how wonderful the medieval windows must have been. A rich blue that is reminiscent of York Minster glass with a serene detail. Of course, it hasn’t always been in St Margaret’s Chapel.

Leonard Evetts, himself a fine stained-glass window artist and expert, commented that it has always been somewhat peripatetic (sometime in the south aisle and another in the eastern aisle). He notes too that its eminently portable and saleable size could easily cast doubt as to its original connections to the church. Whatever, we have it now and its always worth a prayerful gaze especially at Christmas time.

A closer look near the High Altar today will reveal a much more recent addition to our Christmastide treasures. A lovely gilded Madonna and child icon stands to the south of the altar. It is part of a pair – the other depicts St Nicholas and usually stands to the south of the altar – presented to the Cathedral by former Head Verger, James Adams, in memory of his parents in 2005. The icons were prayed (or if you prefer painted) by Aidan Hart. Hart has undertaken many commissions throughout the world including for the Vatican and more than one for the Prince of Wales. Aidan was born in England but grew up in New Zealand. He was received into the Orthodox Church and for a time tried his vocation as a monk first on Mt Athos and then as a hermit in Shropshire. His deep experience of prayer infused his artistic skills, and he has developed as a wonderful iconographer. The classic Madonna framed in gold, that was given to us, is a precious statement of the incarnation.

While I’m waxing lyrical about Christmas objects there is a third that I must mention, but to be honest, while I admire its beauty I can find little information about its provenance. What’s more, it’s a little shy in that it hides behind the grand Reredos (in Uttoxeter stone) of the Quire which was part of the works installed when the church became a Cathedral. Of course, I am referring to the altar and reredos of the Incarnation Chapel. No doubt it made its appearance at some point around the 1880s. Prior to that, this was the site of the High Altar and the focal point of the so-called ‘long view’ through the blended light of the arches eastwards from the great West Doors. The newly installed Quire put paid to that the new reredos ‘floated’ so as to create a church within a church and make the east end chapel area as we know it today.

Three chapels mark significant events in the Christian calendar to continue an iconography of the life of Christ that begins in the Northeastern aisle. At this east end to the left is the Chapel of the Resurrection, to the right the Chapel of the Ascension and at the centre below the great east window is the Incarnation Chapel. Unlike the others, in this latter case, the Chapel is not identified by the window above but by a compact, gilded and elaborately painted altar with a triptych behind telling the Lucan story of the incarnation.

The altar in the Incarnation Chapel

You can find photos of it in most of the guidebooks but no explanation and though it proves very popular with visitors about it I can find very little information. The central panel is a painting of the Incarnation scene with Mary with the Christ Child, to the left the story of the Annunciation with extra side panels of the prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. To its right the Visitation to Elizabeth and further side panels showing David with his harp and John the Baptist’s father Zechariah.

Its style reminds my untrained eye of the late Victorian romantic paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I spotted a signature at the bottom of each panel. It reads C. Lane and then the word ‘pinxt’ which I think simply means ‘the one who painted’.  Maybe someone could enlighten us as to who this painter was, or knows someone who could, it would be a joy. I have scoured the internet without much success. A New Year’s challenge!

The mysterious signature!

I’m sure there are plenty of other Christmas mentions in the Cathedral, not least in other windows but the truth is you can’t come to the Newcastle Cathedral and not have your Christmas feasted in music, in word and in art. Not even COVID lockdowns could see to that.

There was for me one last gift that night. The lights had been dimmed ready for locking up. The last few folk remaining were tidying things away and for a moment … just before the Advent candles were blown out (for safety sake)… there was a perfect stillness save for the sight of my cold breath lingering in the air, and almost a defying silence. I breathed in and then slowly out – souffléd. The shrill, demanding noise of an ambulance siren broke the moment and then the inevitable police car that followed. The world refuses to stop, the circus goes on, and yet the stillness remained hanging in the air. I said a Christmas prayer for tomorrow before going home to a warm bed.

When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in sky is gone
When the kings and the princes are at home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among people
To make music in the heart.
(by Howard Thurman after Luke. 4 16-19)