“Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come.” Malachi 3:1
Canon John Barry died some fifteen years ago in 2006. He will be best remembered for the weekly column he wrote in the Church of Ireland Gazette for many years under the pen name “Cromlyn.” I remember no more than a few of the thousands he must have written, but there was one that made a particular impact upon me. It was one that made me reflect on what Advent was really about.
He wrote of an old lady who asked to keep the key of her parish church after it had been closed for worship. Amidst the decay and dereliction she struggled to preserve a sense of the holiness she had found in the place.
Eventually, she had died and the archdeacon of the diocese had gone into the church to give it one last inspection before the door was closed for the last time. There were signs of the lady’s efforts with a duster and scrubbing brush to hold back the accumulation of dirt and dust and cobwebs.
At the east end of the church, at a height that could be reached by a lady standing on a chair, in a hand that hand become unsteady with age, three words had been painted in red, ‘TILL HE COME’.
Cromlyn’s story in Advent of 1995, had helped me understand an experience I had had earlier that year.
One of the country churches of with I was Rector decided it needed a new Communion table. The table there was not presentable and the blue damask cloth that had covered it for 50 years was threadbare. A new cloth would cost £500 and a new table even more, not that you could have put a new table into the church. The woodwork was two and a half centuries old and was well-seasoned.
It was suggested at a vestry meeting that we might give a home to a Communion table from a church that had closed.
The diocese of Meath and Kildare had closed a couple of dozen churches around that time. I phoned a friend in Meath diocese I discovered that the Communion table from Clonmellon was lying in Athboy church. We wrote to various bishops and clergy and in June 1995, I travelled with two members of the vestry down to Athboy to collect the table.
After going to Athboy, the two vestry members decided we should go to Clonmellon to see the church from which the table had come. It was a sad sight; there were slates missing; panes of glass cracked; all the furniture had gone from the inside except a lonely wooden pulpit.
I stood in the church and stared at the ceiling and thought about the people who had worshipped there; the children who had been baptized; those whose lives had been joined in marriage; those who had followed the mortal remains of loved ones into the churchyard outside. What had kept them going?
I thought about the last two ladies, worshipping in a building that was gradually falling down; what had inspired them to come to this place Sunday by Sunday? What thought had gone through their minds as they stared at the widening patch of damp?
The table took four months to restore. The churchwarden spent hours and hours of love and reverence in the work.
It was transformed and on the second Sunday of October 1995 we placed it in the sanctuary of Ballee Church and celebrated Holy Communion. The table blended perfectly with the church.
I took a childlike delight in the table, but didn’t know why. Why was it so fascinating?
Maybe it was a reminder of the worship of the faithful in Clonmellon. What had this table been about? The passing years of Clonmellon church, the generations of worship, the faith of the people, what had it all meant? Was all that was left this derelict building and a graveyard full of weeds?
Cromlyn’s piece gave an answer to my question.
The church of the old lady in his story and the church at Clonmellon hadn’t been about the things of this world. It wasn’t about numbers or property or maintaining traditions, it was about Him. “Till He Come,” the lady had painted. The hope hadn’t been based on anything human, the closing of the church had not meant that hope had been in vain.
The real power of the church and the real hope come from the Lord for whom Malachi is waiting, the Lord who will come suddenly.
Sometimes we can become despondent about the church, sometimes we can feel that perhaps we’re the last of the line, but it’s not about us, it’s not about the church. It’s about the one who will come again on the last day as judge of the living and the dead. We can be confident because it’s Him who we are waiting for.
Like Cromlyn’s lady we wait, ‘Till he come.” What greater hope could we have?