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Fr Ray Hemingray has shared his thought for today, Sunday 6th December 2020.

‘Piety’

Now there’s an uncommon word –‘piety’! It came into my head earlier this week, so I decided it would be this week’s challenge for me to say something about it. We very rarely use the word in everyday speech, and we don’t often see it in print. If you were to list all the words in the English language in order of frequency of use, I am sure ‘piety’ would be nearer the end of the list than the beginning.

Speaking of the frequency of the use of words, here’s a quick pub-style quiz question for you: Which are the five most-used words in written English? Any ideas? Try writing down now what you think they are, before I tell you. Give yourself a point for each one you get right. Well, according to some research into the Oxford English Corpus, which is a collection of texts comprising over 2 billion words, the most-used word is ‘the’ (no surprises there), followed by ‘be’, ‘to’, ‘of’ and ‘and’. If there are two or more of you in a household who are trying this, here is a tie-breaker, if needed: There is only one number in the top 100 words. What is it? Answer at the bottom.

I can understand if some of you reading this are asking yourselves a question like: why has he chosen to talk about a word we never use? Well, stick with me, and I’ll tell you. Along the way I will say a little about (1) the Latin origin of the word, (2) a large bird, (3) some words of Jesus and (4) a calendar.

First, the Latin word. The word ‘piety’ comes from the Latin word ‘pietas’ (pronounced ‘pee-ay-tass’. A Latin dictionary might tell you that it means: piety (unsurprisingly); but also, it means sense of responsibility, sense of duty, devotion, kindness and loyalty. There is a corresponding adjective, ‘pious’, which denotes the qualities of the noun ‘piety’, and comes from the Latin ‘pius’ (pronounced ‘pee-uss’), which can also mean god-fearing, godly, holy, sacred, good. I think, actually, that the word ‘pious’, in the way that some people use it, has given it a bad press. They think it means something like ostentatiously religious. But I think it means the opposite. There is more of a sense of humility before God about it. (See the words of Jesus in my third point below.)

Second, the bird I was referring to above is the pelican. There is an ancient legend, that in times of famine a mother pelican would pierce her breast with her beak, so that her young could feed on her blood. A variation of the legend was that, if the young pelicans died, the mother pelican, pouring her own blood on to them, could bring them back to life. The pelican thus became a symbol of self-sacrifice. The image of a pelican feeding her young on her own blood (and usually referred to as ‘the pelican in her piety’) was adopted by the early Christian Church to symbolise the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (because he gave his blood for others) as well as the Eucharist (because it represents Christ’s blood and provides spiritual nourishment). If you like visiting churches, keep an eye out for ‘the pelican in her piety’, which you will sometimes find in stone carvings or stained glass windows.

Third, some words from Jesus: ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6, v5) To me, this sense of quiet one-ness with God gives a meaning to what piety is all about.

Drawing together my first three points, I come to the fourth that I mentioned: a calendar. The calendar I am referring to is the Church’s calendar, which starts, not on the 1st of January, but on the fourth Sunday before Christmas – Advent Sunday, which this year was 29th November. The period of Advent, from Advent Sunday to Christmas, is, by tradition, regarded as a period of spiritual preparation, as we await with anticipation the time when we will celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Advent is also by tradition a ‘penitential’ period, during which early Christians would fast, confess their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Very few people fast nowadays, but the Church encourages us to use this special time for prayer and reflection, for self-examination and to ask for God’s forgiveness for the things we have done wrong. It’s a time, as Jesus said, to ‘go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret’, to be more at-one with God, to acknowledge our sense of responsibility, our sense of duty, loyalty, and all the other attributes of piety mentioned above. And it’s also a time to give thanks to God who sent his Son into the world, that he might pour out his blood for us (just like the legendary pelican), in order that we might have new life, both in this world and in the world to come. Amen

Fr. Ray

The answer to the question, which is the most common number in written English, is: ‘two’.