We are told that life begins at 40. That’s very good news, although, of course, in these terms I’m still considered to be in my infancy. So hopefully there’s much more of this life still to come.
But when does life begin? I think this is a very complicated question for Christians. It’s complicated because Christians have always believed that there is a human life before point of birth, though quite when is a matter of disagreement. So we wrestle with all sorts of the questions about how ‘unborn’ life should be treated. But it’s complicated, too, because Christians have also always believed that there is another birth after birth. There is a clear message in the New Testament that every human life requires a new beginning, a moment when life truly begins.
On Sunday 15th September 2019, we celebrate the feast of our patron St Eustachius, the patron of our Church. Tavistock Parish Church is over seven hundred years old. It is a place of prayer and worship – a place where life can be transformed. St. Eustachius, and the early church, present us with another way of understanding how life begins in Christian terms.
The vast majority of churches in the Church of England are dedicated to one or more people. Most are dedicated to a single ‘patron saint’, such as Saint Peter or the Virgin Mary, or one of the persons of God, such as Holy Trinity, Christ Church, or The Good Shepherd. Others commemorate Christian events, for example, the Ascension of Jesus. All churches are dedicated to God, but by the fourth century it was common practice to dedicate a Christian place of worship to one or more “patron” saints. No single set of rules governed the choice of patron saint for a church, but existing and historical dedications show a pattern, which suggest how patrons were often chosen. In terms of numbers of dedications, the most popular saints chosen show the influence of Rome on the history of English Christianity, and also that major characters from Scripture were also selected, with the most popular being St Mary, St Peter, St Michael, St Andrew, and St Paul.
Our patron saint is St. Eustachius. It was a vision that converted him to Christianity. We know the story well. He was a Roman general called Placidus, who converted to Christianity after having seen a vision of a stag with a crucifix lodged between its antlers. At his baptism, he took the name Eustace, which literally means “steadfast”, only for the members of his family, and his wealth, to be taken from him in a series of disasters. Despite many trials, and much suffering, he remained faithful and gained the reputation of being a “Job” of the Christian tradition. He and his remaining family are thought to have been martyred, on the instruction of the Emperor Hadrian, in the early second century.
When St Eustachius clearly saw the cross of Christ, it was a moment of insight, a moment of conversion, a moment when new life began. It was, without parallel, an absolute turning point in his life, signified by a radical change in his attitude towards Jesus Christ and his followers.
For some people the Christian life begins at a decisive moment, a moment that changes everything. But for most of us, I think, there are moments, when we are given, by grace, some insight into God’s great plan for us, – perhaps a word spoken to us by someone else, perhaps that inner sense that we are being prompted or called to do a particular thing, perhaps a growing awareness and understanding of God’s great love for the world, of God’s kingdom of justice, peace and joy, that is being revealed around us.
The Patronal Festival Service begins at 9.45 am on the 15th September in the church of St Eustachius, Tavistock. The president and preacher will be the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt. Revd Robert Atwell, and everyone is very welcome to the service. Afterwards, there will be a “bring and share” lunch in the Parish Centre to celebrate the Patronal Festival. Again, everyone is welcome. Nearer the time, there will be a sign-up sheet at the back of Church to offer help with the catering arrangements’ if you are able to do so. In the evening, at 6pm, Festival Choral Evensong will be a sung in Church.
On the 15th September, we give thanks for St Eustachius who, despite many difficulties in his life, remained faithful and steadfast, and who shows us all how life begins, again and again, in the company of the one whom, when we follow him and place our trust in him, is life itself, Jesus Christ.
With my love and prayers,