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The Christian Year in Story: "The Church's Year" by Charles Alexander

By Mary Willis Fife

I have often said since becoming Anglican that sanctification seems to me to be much more like erosion and much less like lightning. As the river runs steadily across rocks, wearing them down, so do Daily Prayer and the Mass and the Sacraments run over me, slowly rounding the rough edges of my heart. Since having children, I have found this sanctification to be true of them as well. The daily work of putting them back on the stool about a hundred times during family evening prayer and herding them in the pews, trying to pick them out from underneath the kneeler while maintaining the appearance of beatific patience on your face… eventually becomes small voices singing the Lord’s Prayer on pitch during Holy Communion, finding them kneeling quietly in front of crucifixes around the home, and their assumption that anyone wearing a veil in a classic painting is “Our Lady.”

The basic structure of the Church year for young families and young Christians is found in understanding the colors of the seasons. The purple of Advent becomes the white of Christmas; just as the purple of Lent becomes the white of Easter. And during the green of Trinitytide, we grow in Christ just like the green trees. This happens year after year. Neither my husband or I grew up attending churches that taught about the Church calendar, so we knew that we wanted something different for our children. We decided early on that we wanted to name each of our children after one of the saints and celebrate their name days each year, bringing these extra feast days throughout the year near and making them more personal to them. Not only are Christmas and Easter the big days of celebration in our house, but their own individual Saint’s Days are a thing to look forward to! This is a great entry point for children to understand the Church calendar not only as celebrating events in the life of Christ (such as Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost…), but the deeper level of celebrating His Saints in gentle rhythm within that Life (St. Mary, John the Baptist, St. Patrick, St. Nicholas.) Which leads me now to our book review!

As longtime lovers (and owners of an original copy!) of My Book of the Church Year by Enid Chadwick, we always have a copy open in our home oratory to the correct page for that month.

However, we wanted something to read as well each year, not simply a pictorial reference, for each of the saints’ days we celebrate. My husband, Fr. Kevin Fife, came across Charles Alexander’s The Church’s Year through a wonderfully curated traditional Christian bookshop, Star of the Sea Books, and knew immediately that it was perfect.

The Church’s Year was originally published in 1950 and is, as he says in the preface, “intended to give some information, especially to young people, about the festivals and saints commemorated in the Church of England." As any good traditional Anglican in America knows, resources that fit our 1928 BCP are very rare and precious. It often seems we are left to find children’s books published by the Roman or Orthodox Churches that fit us as well. That makes this book a treasure indeed. It is exactly matched to our Calendar and Prayer Book! The style as well is a treasure for its charm and earnestness. It reads with the fresh and pure frankness that is so beloved to children. Clear without being pandering, the stories of saints seem to highlight the kinds of things children want to know while also guiding them to notice their virtue. As the dust jacket says, “This is a readable, informal book, conveniently arranged for occasional reference or continuous reading.” It is accompanied by illustrations by Patrica M. Lambe, including a small scene to mark the beginning of each month.

We have two young boys, Alban and Hugh, each named for that great English Saint. It only seems fitting then that I share with you the entry for these two saints dearest to our home:

St. Alban: 22nd of June.

Our Alban is our oldest child at 3 years and was born within a few days of St. Alban’s Day! “St. Alban was the first English martyr,” Alexander writes, “and he should therefore be especially remembered by English people.” Alban was born in England in the early 300s, but educated in Rome before returning home. “He was rich, and his kindly and generous disposition made him popular. One day there came to his door a Christian priest called Amphibalus, who was flying from his persecutors, for at that time Christianity was an unlawful religion. Alban gave this priest shelter, and talked to him for many hours, till he came to accept the Christian religion and was converted and baptized.” The local authorities find out and come to seize the priest; “however, when the soldiers arrived, they found Alban in the priest’s clothes, while Amphibalus had escaped in those of Alban.” Alban offers himself up to be martyred instead, and “it is said that the man who had been appointed his executioner was so moved by his courage that he also declared he was a Christian, and was beheaded at the same time.” Each year on St. Alban’s Day we read this legend and tell our Alban that he too must welcome and protect the innocent, even if it is hard or at the cost of his own life.

St. Hugh: 17th of November

Our Hugh is only 9 months old and came shortly after his feast last year, which he celebrated from inside the womb! He is named after St. Hugh, who was bishop of Lincoln in the late 1100s. “He became well known for his ability and the way in which he could work happily with other men,” The Church’s Year teaches us. “He was outspoken in praising the good and condemning the bad wherever he found them, yet did it in such a true hearted way that even great men, who seldom like criticism, did not bear him grudges, while the common people loved him dearly.” Bishop Hugh was beloved of King Henry II even though he opposed him in favor of protecting the common people and poor. Most charmingly, “he had for many years at his palace in Stow Park a pet wild swan, which used to follow him everywhere, looking for food in his clothes, and even walking upstairs in the house.” As we look forward to reading this legend to him on St. Hugh’s Day this year, we plan to tell our Hugh that he too must speak peaceably to all people, being so wise, patient, and calm with his words that he can accomplish much for those who need his aid.

I have recommended this book now to many friends and many have successfully found copies at reasonable prices through used book retailers like Abe Books, eBay, or thrift books. If you would like a copy, I encourage you to hunt one down! It is a wonderful resource for any Anglican home and will serve your children well into adulthood.

Mary Willis Fife is Vicar’s wife at St. James On-the-Glebe in Gloucester, VA, where she lives in the historic glebe house with her husband and two young sons.


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