The Advent Message

Romanesque Angle in Priestly Vestments
Romanesque Angel in Priestly Vestments

We are very close to mid-Advent. Tomorrow, Gaudete Sunday, the church will be a riot of rose vestments, music and incense. For some, it will be an anticipation of Christmas, for others, a mildly bewildering interruption of the “normal” sequence of events.

Advent is a mystery, rightly so since it is a preparation for the most wonderful event in human history, the birth of Christ. Mystery can only ever be hinted at, never fully explained or articulated because human language cannot express all the levels of meaning inherent in it. This beautiful romanesque sculpture from Hungary, however, seems to me to convey much of what Advent is about.

The Christmas story begins with an angel and a young Jewish girl’s acceptance of her vocation to be the Mother of God. It ends, if it can be said to end at all, with Christ the Eternal High Priest interceding for us before the Throne of Grace. In between these two we have, here and now, the sacrifice of the Mass which we pray “your angel  (i.e. Christ) may take to your altar in heaven.”

An angel wearing priestly garments and holding in his hand the sign of Christ’s triumphant death: here, surely, is the message of Advent. We are preparing for something, or rather someone, that goes far beyond our human imagining, that unites heaven and earth and gives us, even now, an eternal hope.

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Rioting in London

Those who benefited from the student grants of old have probably had mixed feelings about the proposed changes in university funding and, in particular, the financial burdens being placed on students of the future. When we were young, universities were fewer, student numbers were fewer (can you believe, when I was at Cambridge only one undergraduate in ten was a woman?), and our expectations of the State were lower; but we knew we were immensely privileged and wanted as many as possible to share that privilege. Education was worthwhile: it meant hard work and sacrifice and laid obligations on us which we cheerfully accepted. It made idealists of us.

Looking at what happened in London yesterday, my own idealism began to slip. I thought I understood why the Government proposed the changes it has; I thought I understood how the scheme will work; and I thought I understood why so many people are angry; but I sat on the fence because I thought I also understood the wider economic argument. The violence and vandalism we saw yesterday are completely unacceptable. They show the argument has been lost, and in losing the argument we  have lost something greater still, the sense of what higher education is.

Long ago, a charming and brilliant friend who had devoted her life to the W.E.A. mused aloud, “education is too good to be wasted on the young.” I don’t agree; but I do think education is too precious to be wasted. Breaking windows and throwing paint are like Xantippe’s piss-pot. I hope they will not distract us from the serious matters we need to address.

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Starfish

This article about starfish on the BBC web site caught my attention this morning. Anyone who has sarcoidosis or asthma or even plain old arthritis will recognize at once the potential here hinted at. When the body’s immune system rages out of control and inflammation levels rocket sky-high, the only available therapies have unpleasant side-effects. (That michelin-man look may be prednisolone- rather than Macdonald’s- induced.)

It’s a striking reminder how much we have still to learn about the natural world. The number of endangered species on the planet is frightening. We lament, rightly, what their loss would mean in terms of biodiversity and beauty. What we tend not to consider is how much our own species stands to lose. Many of us are still too hung up on energy to consider the wider implications of species loss: possible medical benefits and the like.

The Christian Churches do not have a united response to ecology questions but there is in the Rule of St Benedict a guiding principle we can apply. The cellarer of the monastery is to treat all its goods and property “as though they were sacred altar vessels”. There couldn’t be a clearer statement of our responsibilities towards the natural world or the material things we use. What God has created is good and should be treated in a good way because everything in creation is of interest and concern to him and ultimately for our good, too.

To put it another way: it isn’t only every sparrow that has been counted, it’s every starfish, too.

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Tota pulchra es, Maria

Murillo: The Immaculate Conception
Murillo: The Immaculate Conception

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is often misunderstood. What the Church teaches is that Mary was “preserved exempt from all stain of original sin by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race.” That means that Mary’s sinlessness is a direct consequence of the redeeming work of her Son. Put another way, Mary was as much in need of a Redeemer as any of us, although she was without sin.

So many people think they have somehow to earn God’s favour and are cast into gloom every time they sin. Perhaps today’s feast can therefore be offered as an encouragement. Sinlessness does not equal redemption. We are redeemed by grace; and God’s grace is wide enough and deep enough to embrace us all, no matter how badly or often we sin. That doesn’t mean we should sin with impunity, so to say, but it does remind us to drop, once and for all, any of our lingering  ideas of D.I.Y. salvation.

It is a pity that Mary has inspired so much bad art and, dare I say it, lazy theology. Once we have grasped that everything the Church believes and teaches about Mary is meant to help us focus on her Son, all makes sense. The Syrian Fathers, in particular, are lyrical in her praise, but they, too, want us to look beyond her to God himself when they call her “all-inviolate spotless robe of him who clothes himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate”. To him be all glory and praise for ever. Amen.

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Comfort

Not the comfort of a warm fire and a good meal but the comfort of which Isaiah sings in today’s Mass reading, VNKEARQ7ZXZF. Most of us know that forgiveness is a rare gift. When we have offended, or even more, when someone has offended us, “forgiveness” tends to mean being put on probation. It is all a bit half-hearted, a rather grudging acknowledgement that there is the possibility of reform, but with something of the thought that it is really rather unlikely.

God knows no such half-measures. When he forgives, he forgives utterly and we are recreated by his love. It is precisely because God forgives so completely that we are able to start afresh. It is worth re-reading chapter 40 of Isaiah as a test of our own forgiveness of others and the joy we could release in them.

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A Little Light-heartedness

Monk tasting wine from a barrel
Sneaky Goings-On in the Cellar

Today is St Nicholas’s Day, so tonight Quietnun will be making toffee for our sweet-toothed friends. She doesn’t know that yet. It will be a nice  surprise for her (pity there’s no way of conveying irony in type).

Monks and nuns have always understood that a little light-heartedness in the cloister is a very good thing. There’s a charming letter from St Boniface in which he refers to giving a barrel of wine or beer “for a merry day with the brethren”. That’s exactly the right spirit. Advent is a time of preparation but its penitential character is sometimes exaggerated. There is a kind of “aching joy” about it all: we are joyful in hope, but experiencing the “not-yet-ness” of things means the joy is not complete.

Digitalnun is experiencing aching joy of quite a different kind. We rolled out the first phase of our revamped web site at the week-end. Most of it is working well, but the carefully crafted headers and quotations are not appearing as they should. Somewhere between trial and release the @font-face arguments ceased to work as they should, and one page is stubbornly refusing to enable links properly. We’ll try to get all that right before we  move on to the second phase.

In the meantime, thank you for comments about iBenedictines. One reader finds our minimalist design a little too bleak so we may revisit that in due course. Just don’t expect anything too soon!

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Humility and Assurance

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist

On the Second Sunday of Advent our eyes are on John the Baptist. What a strange mixture of humility and assurance he is. Or rather, how his humility confounds our ideas about both.

It was precisely because John was so humble that he could be so assured. Like Moses in the Old Testament, he was “the humblest man on earth”; and his humility and assurance came, like Moses’, from his sense of the nearness of his God.

One who is close to God tends to see as God sees, and that perspective is utterly transforming. John looked at the world, saw the beauty and holiness of its Creator and wanted everyone and everything to share that transforming vision. Hence his passion and his joy, his severity and tenderness. He could not contain himself, so near was our salvation. If he were silent, the very stones would speak. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

This Advent the grace of sharing that transforming vision, of repenting, of turning again to God, is offered to each of us, if we will but accept it. Only the molehills of pride and self-sufficiency stand in the way, but we know how easily we stumble over them. Let’s ask St John the Baptist, with his humility and assurance, to show us the right path. For, as he himself would say, there is no other Way but One, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Waiting in Hope

There is a sentence in the first preface of Advent that never fails to make me shiver. In our current translation it reads:

Now we watch for the day,
hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours
when Christ the Lord will come again in his glory.

Surrounded by the commercialism of the “Winterval” being celebrated in our shopping malls or the flurry of Nativity plays and special Services that already dominate our church noticeboards, it is only too easy to forget. We are not awaiting the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas, as though it were something that has not yet happened (although we shall recall that event through our liturgical remembrance of it); we are awaiting those two comings of Christ of which St Bernard wrote: his coming now to our souls by grace and his coming in glory at the end of time.

Christ coming now to our souls by grace is all right, rather nice in fact; but that bit about coming again in his glory is more problematic. We are jerked into an awareness of the danger of presumption. As the preface says, we are “hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours”. We cannot take it for granted, yet in practice most of us do.

How many of us are thinking about the final coming of Christ this Advent? If we do think about it, how many of us are eagerly awaiting it? I suspect that many of us think of the Final Coming as an event far distant in the future, which might not even happen. Perhaps it would be worth thinking about what we really mean when we pray the preface at Mass. It might possibly transform our Advent.

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Shame on a Salisbury Street

Yesterday an elderly man fell in a Salisbury street and lay there, in freezing temperatures, for nearly five hours before a passer-by called an ambulance.

I don’t, for one minute, think that the citizens of Salisbury are any more callous than the citizens of anywhere else, but this incident does highlight something of the bleakness that has crept into society. We are afraid to get involved. Much safer to pass by on the other side rather than deal with someone who may be drunk or on drugs or otherwise a “danger” to us.

It won’t wash, of course. Like it or not, we are our brother’s keeper. It may seem a huge task, to keep our humanity when society urges us to “look after number one”, but is there any other option? Advent is about bringing light into darkness, and there is no greater darkness than that which we find in our own hearts, the darkness of fear and selfishness which makes us shrink from the Light and cripples our humanity.

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A new blog for a new world

Long ago, when printers still made books using paper and ink, we began a blog called Colophon because it appeared at the end of our web site and told people something about what made up our lives as nuns. Four and a half years later, it has become unwieldy – probably because contemplative nuns let their keyboards run away with them, given half the chance. Not only that but the blog engine we used has been superseded technically and it’s now possible to craft a typographically more attractive site without finding that Internet Explorer users are facing a blank screen. The world has changed, and so have we.

Advent is a time for new beginnings, so we have archived our old blog and begun this new one which you can get to either by coming straight to this address or, after the week-end, by going through our community web site. The RSS feed has been burned with Feedburner, so we’ll see how that works out.

Our web site makeover is nearing completion (quiet alleluias from Digitalnun) and should be online within 48 hours. There are bound to be teething problems but patience is often described as being the fourth Benedictine vow. Maybe we’ll end up making Benedictines of all our readers.

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