Creating a stir!
Stir Up Sunday was a reality in the kitchens of my mother and her four sisters – it was more like a stir up week! Towards the end of November the raisins and sultanas and citrus peel would be assembled. All the family would be pressed into the business of turning the mincing machine as the dark brown ‘strings’ became jars of mincemeat to be made into mince pies later in December. The Christmas pudding bowls and the steaming cloths would come out and there would be a great weighing and mixing and stirring. Sometimes small silver coins would be hidden to be found in some lucky person’s Christmas lunch. Everyone from oldest to youngest got the chance for a stir as the Christmas puddings got mixed. The kitchen would fill with steam as the ‘puds’ bubbled their way to the desired state and got stored ready for reheating on the big day. The Christmas cake too was part of the stir-up process.
It’s hardly surprising that with all these traditional Christmas preparations going on in their kitchens, some Victorian(maybe!) churchgoers praying after communion on the last Sunday before Advent made a connection when their heard. ‘Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously rewarded...’ Stirring up puddings and stirring up wills. Stir Up Sunday had arrived!
This coming Sunday, the prayer will be said again in some churches. But like the business of home cooking all your own Christmas food, some of its words of the prayer may seem a bit old-fashioned. ‘Good works’ aren’t exactly common currency. To be ‘full of good works’ today often seems to be closely connected with being an unwelcome ‘do-gooder’ – defined as ‘a well-meaning but unrealistic or interfering philanthropist or reformer.’
Before I consigned the ‘Stir Up prayer’ to history, I decided to think a bit about stirring up the will. Is it important? I don’t stretch to mincemeat and puddings any more. But I’ve actually been making my Christmas cake this week and asking myself: if I want to be one of the ‘faithful people’ that the ancient prayer describes, how and why might my will need ‘stirring up’ as I think about the first advent of Jesus in the coming weeks.
Endless words have been devoted to the mysterious role of the will in the life of the spirit. I’ll just add how I see it in November 2019. ‘Making choices’ and ‘simply exercising some willpower’ still have their place. But these days I believe less in the value of the gritting of teeth and the clenching of the jaw which I grew up thinking might help me to do good things. Instead, I believe that, faced with the choices that my life presents, I need to open up my will to be stirred not by appetite or control, not by greed or ambition – not even by spiritual ambition - but by the generosity and love and grace of God. I need to be stirred by those qualities to honesty and self-awareness about who I am and what I really want. One of the most stirring questions is ‘am I being willing or am I being wilful’.
I’m not sure whether they had ‘Stir up Sunday’ in his day but I think St Augustine had this sort of process in mind when he said, ‘Will is to grace as the horse is to the rider’.