Where do I belong?
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations
Before the mountains were formed or you brought forth the whole world
From everlasting to everlasting you are God.
Psalm 90 v 1-2
Ascension Thursday is the day for the tradition of beating the bounds of the parish, which, in the St Mary’s version, is a diverting mixture of the ancient: hitting walls with sticks to claim title and the modern: college porters holding up buses so that seventy people can straggle across the High Street singing a hymn while in pursuit of cornetto ice cream. As we meandered through various colleges with their hidden gardens, spacious halls and claustrophobic kitchen corridors it was easy to forget the dense network of tiny medieval streets and crowded dwellings that these boundaries would previously have contained. With only the most rudimentary systems of mapping or written title deeds in place, the annual marking of one's territory must have had real geographical and economic significance, from the paying of tithes to the locating of individuals by parish address. We hear the echoes of that in the reading of the banns of marriage where the couple are identified as being ‘of the parish of …..’
Beyond these practical realities is a meaning that we can all recognise, that has to do with the definition of one’s home place. This is the search for identity, for security, for meaning. To discover who we are is a strong drive. We look in various places: our family, our neighbourhood, our community. In other times these would almost certainly have overlapped. Today, in a mobile world, we are scattered beings, physically and emotionally. Walking the parish boundaries can be a way of saying that, for this day, we belong in a particular way to this little section of the world: to this group of people with whom we share a common search for God. Because, of course, our time in history is absurdly short, we are just passing through, a part of the human procession through the ages. Our true resting place is with God; from the unknown we come and to the unknown we return. In the unknown, in the sacred mystery at the heart of it all, in the love of God we find our identity.