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Brigid 1500 – sermon by Canon Alison Joyce

Canon Joyce, Bishop Pat Storey, Bishop Denis Nulty, and Dean Isobel Jackson participating in the service.
Canon Joyce, Bishop Pat Storey, Bishop Denis Nulty, and Dean Isobel Jackson participating in the service.

Canon Alison Joyce, from St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, was the guest speaker at the special ecumenical service in St Brigid’s Church of Ireland cathedral in Kildare – ‘Celebrating St Brigid. Brigid 1500: A Service of Thanksgiving’ – on Thursday, 1st February 2024.  Her sermon at the service is in full below:

In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

It is such a joy and delight to be with you here today, to share this very special celebration of St Brigid’s 1500th anniversary with you. I bring with me the greetings, the love and the prayers of my own church, St Bride’s, Fleet Street, which stands in the very heart of the city of London.

My church is most famous today for its unique ministry to journalists throughout the world – but our roots are far more ancient.  We were founded in the sixth century by Irish religious – and given that our dedication is to Brigid of Kildare, it is extremely likely that our origins lie here, and that this cathedral is in fact our true mother church.  

At St Bride’s we are incredibly proud of our Irish roots, and the rediscovery of our Celtic spiritual heritage continues to be a source of inspiration, vision and hope.

And how very timely this celebration of Brigid 1500 is for us all: because our world has never been in more urgent need of Brigid, and of all that she represents.  Hers truly is a voice for our age.

Human beings are extraordinary, marvellous, and deeply complex creatures: we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, capable of infinite creativity; breathtaking artistry; acts of extraordinary love and compassion.  We are designed to flourish in contexts of peace and harmony.

Tragically, we are also unparalleled in our capacity to wreak destruction and havoc, desecrating God’s wonderful creation; wilfully plundering its precious resources; committing untold acts of injustice, cruelty, and barbarity against our fellow human beings.  It is a terrible irony that only a human being is capable of being inhuman.

The story of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament, nails this timeless truth with profound insight.  For it is when we aspire to be as gods, forgetting that we are part of God’s Creation; it is when we have everything we could possibly need – but put that at risk when envy tempts us to reach out for still more; it is then that the forces of chaos are unleashed into our world and spiral out of control: bringing violence; mistrust; dysfunctional relationships; guilt and shame in their wake.

The Christian story tells how all of that was thrown into reverse, when God in Christ divested himself of all power, and in utter vulnerability accepted all of that hatred and rage to himself: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’  But that alternative truth then had to be taken up and lived out by those who followed him – which is precisely where Brigid comes in.

Brigid is, of course, an elusive figure, whose story weaves together fact and embellishment in ways we can no longer disentangle.  But the core features of all that she represents remain timeless and changeless.

So we see Brigid’s connectedness with Creation and the natural environment.  She was renowned for her love and respect for animals; and it is wonderfully appropriate that her cross is traditionally woven from straw or rushes, from the very fabric of the earth.  We need that healing of our relationship with Creation.

She was legendary for her gift for hospitality – which entails embracing the stranger – the very person whom we regard as ‘other’; the one who is not like us; the one whom we might so readily regard with suspicion and enmity.  We need that healing of relationships with one another.

And in her own day, a world in which women had no legal status, few rights, and little voice, she earned the respect of all who encountered her – an authority that would have been hard won.  It is so significant that here in Ireland you are now recognising her as your Matron saint alongside St Patrick, because the rich and creative complementarity of masculine and feminine enriches us all – and, by extension, blesses all human relationships that are vehicles of love and joy and hope.  We need that healing, too.

And Brigid is a sign of peace and reconciliation.  Violence is easy.  Committing ourselves to striving for peace and reconciliation with those from whom we are divided is unimaginably hard.  Because true peace–making can never be achieved by ignoring or underplaying our divisions – particularly when those divisions are generations old, and mired in centuries of bloodshed, injustice, and mistrust.

Rather, as Christ showed us, it is only by opening ourselves up to the reality of that darkness, and by embracing the pain of the other, that we can begin to walk the path of peace.  It is a costly business – but Christ’s command was to Love your enemy; to pray for those who persecute you; to do good to those who hate you – just as the Good Samaritan bound the wounds of a man who would have been his persecutor.

At noon today, in my church in Fleet Street, we shall be observing the ‘pause for peace’ alongside our Catholic brothers and sisters from the Irish Chaplaincy in London, as well as members of L’Arche Ireland.  Brigid pre–dates everything that now divides our traditions by very many centuries – so in that sense we are united in and through her – because she belongs to us all.

The medallion that I am wearing is the badge of our Guild of St Bride, which was formed in 1375, as a parish guild dedicated to St Brigid, and re–founded 70 years ago.   At its centre is a Celtic cross, and around the perimeter a circle of flame: symbolising the perpetual fire of St Brigid.  The symbol of Brigid’s fire here in Kildare, continues to speak to us today of the light of Christ that shines on in the darkness – a darkness that cannot overcome it.

Every day, in the morning office of the Church of England, we offer a prayer which includes these words:

‘As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you.’

And may God in his infinite love and wisdom touch us anew with the fire of St Brigid, and inspire us by her example, that we may take her passion, her light, and her fire out into the world that so desperately needs it. Amen.

A recorded livestream of the service is available to view here.

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