Last Sunday, Remembrance Sunday, seemed to me to be the ideal day to hold our annual Service of Light. For those of you unfamiliar with this act of worship, it is a simple service of words and music and which finds its focus in candle-lighting. It is a service aimed at and tailored for those who have lost loved ones in recent months - the newly bereaved if you will. We had scripture that spoke of Christ's triumph over death and music that took them on a journey from grief to hopefulness. It is also the second time this year that, in this church at least, I read the names of the faithful departed (first time being the night of All Souls). It is a service suffused in silence, some gentle chanting from the Taize corpus, the calling of the names, and the short procession to the front for that specific act of remembrance in the lighting of a simple tea-light. Some came, lit and paused. Some came, lit and fled in tears. Some came, lit and helped the next person with their candle. In itself, the lighting of candles was an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold.
My preparation for the service was simple. I wrote to all the families for whom I conducted funerals, and on the day provided simple tea/pastries refreshments. We are blessed with controllable lighting, so the scene was set for the service to begin. The candles were the focus, not the halogens that normally carry the burden.
I noticed two things this year. First was that we doubled numbers from the previous year. Second was how many families came along - not just the 'next of kin' individually (as I had expected, and who had received the letter).
After the service, I took the valuable opportunity to get around as many people as I could. It was clear to me that a good number of those present had travelled long distances, much as they had on the day of the funeral in question. Digging a little deeper, it became clear that these families had (it may seem obvious in hindsight) spent the day together with the Service as their 'excuse'. In one case, I heard from a lady whose family had, on that day, committed to see more of her and they had resolved to gather monthly.
When we priests/ministers conceive of these special services, it is easy to see them as the end and not the means to a greater end. Yes, the opportunity to light a candle, say a private prayer, to re-member whoever had died from their lives - all important. But not half as important as some of the unexpected behaviours. It, like our beloved Eucharists, was a family event. I grant you that, with one exception, it was a child-free service, and perhaps there is something to be taken from that (as most of these families will have had kids who themselves will have grieved these same deaths). In any instance, it was clear that God's purposes may have been slightly different to mine, and as always, in the very best of ways.
(Oh, and most of them had, previously, claimed to be 'not really church going people')