I’ve been quiet of late on this blog. One of the reasons has been that my mother was in the last stages of a fourteen year battle against cancer. She died on 23 October. I’m quite similar to my mother – always know the right way something should be done and with a volatile temper – so we often had a fractious but loving relationship. It was only when I sat down after her death to think about her that I began to realise how much else she has given me. Below is the sermon I preached at her funeral mass on November 5 in St Agatha’s Church, Sparkbrook, Birmingham. I hope it stands as some small token of love and understanding of what a part she has played in my life.
FUNERAL SERMON: Margaret Ann Greatrex
Revelation 21:1-7; John 6:51-58
The last time I was allowed into this pulpit was to dust it. In fact, the last time I participated in a service here was over twenty years ago when I was thurifer for my grandmother’s funeral. In those days I had a slim figure, high hopes and a ginger moustache.
Today I no longer have the moustache, or the figure, but I do still have a sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, which is why it is a solemn privilege to be standing here, today, in this pulpit, not just to offer memories of Margaret, my mother, but also to share with you the love and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, returning.
Margaret was a fully paid up daughter of this city, never moving more than five miles from this spot, apart from the two years she spent at college in Cheltenham. Her bones were built of Birmingham clay and Birmingham City was her football club. Football is a sport I have never understood. But even I can still surmise that supporting City so trenchantly and so unwaveringly, must indicate something special in Margaret’s character – an ability to see hope in even the most hopeless of causes.
It certainly tells you something of her loyalty. And the place to which she was all her life most loyal, was here, St Agatha’s, her spiritual home.
Baptised here, married here, had her children baptised here and now we come to her funeral. St Agatha’s has been a constant in Mum’s life, the place to which so much of her energy and her devotion has been dedicated. St Agatha’s has been the focus of her faith, the hallowed ground where she has brought her creativity, her passion, her joys and her triumphs, her troubles and tears, her belief in both order and beauty. And it is the place to which she brought her family, first Quintin, then me and Elizabeth. She taught us to love this place as our own second home, and here she received much blessing and support from so many people. Support which I hope Dad will continue to find in the years to come.
I think it is fair to say that Mum found order important. Things had to be done properly. She needed to be in control of a situation. Fourteen years ago the diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma cut that sense of order open, and took away the certainties of a relaxed retirement for both Mum and Dad.
However, Elizabeth and I have been in awe at the ways in which they have rolled with and fought against the cancer. They adapted to a new rhythm of chemo and medication but also stuck to their guns to get out, have holidays, visit family, enjoy their garden and continue their commitments here. By their determination to keep doing the things that matter to them they have shown that Mum’s life is not to be defined by her cancer.
There was much more to Mum than illness. But I’m not going to unpack her life and put it on show for all to see. Instead I’m going to tell you four things – four threads, as it were – which I think she, and Dad, have given me and for which I shall ever be thankful.
The first is a love of books and learning. I’m a bookseller through and through, and when everyone else is reading text on their Google glasses I shall be carrying a book with me everywhere I go. Right up until her last weeks Mum was still reading, reading for pleasure as she had all through her life. Being taken to Hall Green Library on Saturdays to change our books was a moment of great enjoyment for our family, opening us up to different worlds, different authors, different experiences.
When, at Midnight Mass, I stand in my own church, and read the wondrous prologue to John’s Gospel:
‘In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God.’
Then I’m not just thinking of Jesus Christ, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the word that spoke creation into existence. I’m thinking also of all the words and all the knowledge that have been handed down to us through the centuries teaching us about God, the world, ourselves, about the beauty of language and the joy of learning. That is a legacy which had been passed on to me by both Mum and Dad and it is something I have tried in my own life and work to pass on to others.
The second thread which I’ve gathered from both Mum and Dad is a love for nature. In Mum’s case her identification skills were not quite perfect. The flocks of oystercatchers which she assured us were flying around Canon Hill Park turned out to be black headed gulls, but they were still a pleasure to see. There was always food for the birds in the garden, there were continual days out visiting the wild places of the region – and the Lickey Hills – and we were encouraged to make scrap books of the wild flowers we found on our holidays. To be able to see the beauty of the natural world on and beyond your own doorstep is a great gift to have been given.
Thirdly Margaret was immensely creative. If you walk around Mum and Dad’s house you will find the walls filled with her creations – pictures in blackwork, whitework, bobbin lace, embroidery, tapestry, machine embroidery. Displays in every nook and cranny of posies of flowers constructed out of icing or lace. Then there were all the aprons and oven gloves and stuffed elephants and other sundries she sewed and made with her mother to sell on church bazaars. Not to mention her baking, jams and Christmas cakes, all made to raise funds for St Agatha’s.
Encouraged by Fr Boyd she began sewing vestments for here and elsewhere. You only have to look at the banner of St Agatha and the hanging and frontal that used to grace the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to see the devotion and skill she put into such work. She made my alb, ordination stole and the vestments for my First Mass. A small hoop of tapestry was by her bedside right up until the end.
Elizabeth has directly inherited Mum’s creativity – she also shows great skill and imagination with machine and needle – I more obliquely so, but for both of us there is a constant need to create, to reflect upon the beauty of the world, and to find our own ways of expressing it. In everything we produce there is a little part of our mother.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mum and Dad gave us their faith which became our faith. Mum brought us here while we were still mewling and straining in her arms. Her spiritual home became our home, this sacred space was the focus for a big part of our week and our worship was centred on the act of brokenness and self-giving that is the Mass.
I think that Mum was like me in that she did not find prayer that easy. We are Martha’s, not Mary’s, we would rather do than be. To still ourselves in a quiet room and pray is something that does not come easy to us – there are too many distractions in our minds, too much that needs to be done.
But to go on pilgrimage to Walsingham, to be with friends, to sing hymns, make our devotions together, follow the Way of the Cross around the gardens, now that was prayer for Mum, it gave her a vital mix of worship and companionship, action and silence. Which is why the real focus of her faith, right through her life, was the Mass.
The Eucharist on a Sunday morning is the time when all activities, all skills, all that is practical and artistic, come together with one great purpose. There is linen to be starched and pressed, vestments to be laid out, music to be practised, charcoal to be lit, readings to be rehearsed, conversations to be had about who is ill or troubled and in need of prayer, there is a sanctuary to be swept, water to be boiled, welcomes to be made. And all this so that Christ can be made present in word and sacrament: so that Jesus can be found walking among us at the reading of the Gospel, so that the Son of God can be briefly glimpsed in that infinitely small and eternally vast moment of silence, when the Sanctus bell is rung and the white disc of the consecrated host rises above the witnessing clouds of incense reminding us that God is with us.
God is with us. Now and always. Jesus in our Gospel says:
‘For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person.’
When we stand before the altar and receive bread and wine then what we take and eat is much more than a token of Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection – his giving of his life to give us life. It is also symbol of our acceptance that God is in us. When we say that ‘This is the bread of life’, then we acknowledge that Christ lives in us.
Christ lives in us. We may be irascible, grumpy, self-conscious, fearful or proud, but Christ is there with us, in us, using all that we are – sometimes the bad as much as the good – to make his love grow in the world.
And when we feel worn out by all that the world throws at us, when we feel, as Margaret may well have felt, that our sufferings are a punishment for our imperfection, then the bread and wine of the Mass are there to remind us that Christ is in us suffering with us, that his arms are always around us, that he will never, ever stop loving us and that the Cross was the moment when mercy overwhelmed punishment irrevocably and eternally. He is God with us.
He is God with us even now, especially now, when we feel the pain of loss, when we are remembering those things we should have said and the things we should have left unsaid. He is the God who has drawn Margaret home to him and he is the God who has also cried out with the same cry of grief as strikes us now. The cry of desolation he gave when he witnessed the death of his own dear Son.
For Margaret the world of the past has gone. Where before she might have only been able to see her life as the back of an embroidery – a mess of tangled, cut and knotted threads, now in faith we pray that our risen Lord will be showing her the other side in all its matchless, priceless, peerless, eternal glory. And he will point out for her to glimpse the tiny panel that she herself has stitched with silver wire and gold kid, with all that she has been and all that she is, into the vast and unending tapestry that is the ever-loving, ever-lasting Kingdom of God.
Now it is our turn to pick up the threads which Margaret has left us, the threads which Christ has gifted us, the threads we’ve acquired throughout our lives, and to weave them together into something beautiful for God.