Skenfrith 2nd February 2013
What a propitious day for us all to be gathered together to welcome back to Skenfrith, after its restoration, this famous and magnificent cope. Yesterday was the feast of St Bridget, to whom this ancient church is dedicated, a saint venerated not only in her native Ireland, but all over Europe, including the Orthodox Churches of the East. And today is the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the fortieth and last day of Christmas. Popularly it has always been known as Candlemas, for on this day we bless the candles to be used not only at the Easter Vigil but throughout the year. It is also the halfway mark between the shortest day and the Spring equinox. No doubt the original dedication of this church was to Our Lady and St Bridget, a reminder that Wales too and not only England was truly Our Lady's Dowry.
I mention the Blessed Virgin because on the Skenfrith cope we find two images of Mary, at the centre her Assumption into Heaven, while on the hood that traditional image of the Virgin Mother and Child. If the cope itself is dedicated to Mary, then why is it dark red in colour? Well, in the Middle Ages, it wasn't the colour that mattered as much as the quality, the richer the material and the more intricate the embroidery, the greater the feast and the more important the person wearing it. Some of you will have seen a very similar chasuble at the Catholic Church of Our Lady and St Michael, Abergavenny, a church that has one of the finest collections of medieval vestments in the country. They were probably both part of a High Mass set that included a dalmatic and a tunicle and must have been made in the same workshop. It is such a tragedy that so much was destroyed, particularly by the Puritans, during the Reformation. Not even the Taliban in Afghanistan or El Qaeda in Mali has been responsible for so much destruction to our world cultural heritage.
But why those two images of Mary, one seated with the child Jesus in her arms, the other of her being taken by the angels to heaven? Simply, because they are the two most popular and theologically important ways of depicting and talking about Our Lady. It was the Council of Nicea in the year 325 that gave to Mary the title Theotokos, Greek for God-bearer, which in the Latin Church was translated as Mother of God, a title that give honour to Mary but, above all, tells us who Jesus is, God made man. Every feast of Mary celebrates her as the Mother of God and the liturgical year is punctuated with such feasts. However, the great feast of Mary, her feast day par excellence, is the 15th August, known in the West as the Assumption and in the East as the Dormition or Falling Asleep. It is the fullest expression of her participation in the History of Salvation and the logical outcome of her Immaculate Conception. She shares in the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, as first fruits of the Incarnation. Unlike her divine Son, Mary did not die, but was raised body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she was crowned Queen by Christ himself and sits with him at the right hand of the Father. Mother and Son are inseparable: without Mary there is no Christ. How very sad that this tradition too was to some extent lost at the Reformation. However, it is a great joy today to see how the reformed Churches have gradually taken back and put into place again what was abandoned during those turbulent times. The Ecumenical movement enables us to share once more the riches of our common, ancient theological tradition as well as to study together new insights into the Mystery of Salvation.
So it is today, that this magnificent cope of "opus anglicanum" depicting the glories of Mary, returns once more, restored, to Skenfrith, where I hope it will no longer be just a curiosity for tourists, but a source of inspiration and prayer, and an instrument for conversion to Christ. Our Lady always leads us to her Son, to his work of Redemption and to the truth of his Gospel. May she intercede for us today and bring us all ever closer to Him and in Him to each other. Amen.