The Presentation, forty days after Christmas, is the big liturgical feast of February, when Jesus is brought by his parents to the temple to consecrate him to the Lord, and his significance is recognised by two elderly people, Simeon, a righteous and devout man on whom the Spirit rested, and Anna, a prophet. The Gospel devotes a paragraph to Anna’s background, her father’s name, her tribe, her early short married life, her long widowhood, her age and her current occupation: serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. It seems to have no relevance to the story, but surely nothing in the Gospel is trivial. Perhaps, in honour of Anna, February should be dedicated to the elderly, especially the elderly whose stories have been lost.
Within the last three years my parents have died, both ten years older than Anna. In one way we have adjusted quickly – we have completed all the practical things and are getting on with living without them. But integrating this loss, spiritually and emotionally, will probably take the rest of our lives. Our grief has made us realise that they had their own grief of losing their parents and siblings, which regretfully didn’t impinge on us much when we were growing up. And our grandparents had lost their parents; they too had had their own life stories, their talents, opportunities, joys, regrets, tragedies. But who knows anything about that now?
I am a little envious of cultures which pass down names, stories and memories of their ancestors, as in the Old Testament. The ancestors were real people with their own individual lives. Our culture tends to concentrate on the future, and races forward, often discounting the past and discounting those elderly people who are still with us. Despite that, family research has recently become popular as we realise that who we are is influenced by our ancestors.
In the last twenty or so years I have been researching our ancestors and writing the information into a story, starting with my parents who both wrote down their memories of growing up and early adulthood, and their stories have become part of ours. Our more distant ancestors have also become a little more real to me, with their experiences of pain and joy; a great-great-grandparent who went to Australia in the gold rush, his wife dying in his absence and his children brought up by relatives; parents burying their children; fishermen lost at sea. Our ancestors lived full lives; though the details have been lost to us, they are not lost to God.
There is a story about our lives being like a tapestry; we, who are weaving our lives day by day, see only the back of the tapestry, with the loose threads and the knots and the untidiness, but when we die we will be shown the other side, with our tragedies, mistakes and joys all woven together and illustrating our beautiful and individual life. When I die, I hope I will see others’ tapestries as well as my own, and heaven filled with colour.
“Save us, Lord, while we are awake; protect us while we sleep; that we may keep watch with Christ and rest with him in peace.”
Helen Granger Oblate of Minster Abbey.