In a dark, still Chapel, Sisters and Oblates move prayerfully into their seats; a single bell rings out, signalling that it is 5 minutes to midnight. The bell counts down the minutes till the stroke of 12, when 100 peals herald the start of a new year, commemorating the time that our Foundress, M. Lavinia, made her vows. To a background of fireworks, a Sister begins Morning Prayer – ‘O Lord open our lips’ … we sing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ to the lesser known tune, as the service follows through. At the finish, we sit, silent, until 12.30, when we file out. Another year is over, a new one begun.
This was always a very special service, although honesty compels me to admit that it didn’t always happen quite like that. I was responsible for ringing the hundred bells some years, and I tended to get lost in the middle. Sr Winifred could have told me whether I managed exactly 100, but I’ve always suspected that it may have been 99 or 101. I rang the New Year in at St Michael’s once, and found it impossible to get a single stroke from that bell, so that year we had 2 strokes in the run up to midnight…
Many of us will have treasured ways of seeing the New Year in. This particular one came to an end in 2017; now we are dispersed, we no longer gather at Midnight, while New Years’ Day remains special for the Community. This year, many found themselves having to re-evaluate how to celebrate the New Year in the midst of a pandemic, with the restrictions currently in place, and our inability to gather together in person.
While most of us hope that we will be able to meet at some point in 2021, for the thousands who have lost loved ones, there will be someone missing. They will not have been able to gather with extended family and friends to mourn them. I attended 2 funerals last year, one pre-lockdown and the other during the first lockdown. The difference has increasingly struck me, as I realise how important to the grieving process it is to be able to gather with other mourners, for a service (however that happens) and for time together afterwards. That is impossible at the moment, with the risk of passing Covid 19 on all too real.
I don’t want to go through the good and bad points of 2020, or imagine what 2021 is likely to bring. Most of you can do that yourselves as effectively as I can. I want to acknowledge the pain of those who have lost loved ones during the Pandemic, whether directly from Covid 19 or not. My memory of Midnight Lauds is primarily of those dark, silent moments in the lead up to midnight, the darkness emphasising the stillness of the Chapel. It is still possible to find these still moments; maybe this January we can make some space to ponder all we may have lost and gained during the past year, and take a few moments to remember those who have died, whether we knew them or not. Then, as we move into 2021, with all its possibilities, may we hold on through these winter months, keep the restrictions, and do what we can to keep each other safe.