Go into any monastery today and I wager you’ll find monks or nuns in various stages of happy exhaustion. The liturgies of the great feasts don’t just happen, any more than the festive meals in the refectory. Christmas requires effort, no matter how low-key our celebration, and we have twelve days of it in which to go on making more effort, not to mention the last ‘look-back’ at Candlemas. I’m sure most lay people can identify with this in their own way. But there is one aspect of the monastic Christmas that impresses me more and more as each year passes and it may not be so easily found outside the cloister: silence. Yes, we sing our hearts out in choir; and yes, we do relax the rule of silence on Christmas Day itself to engage in friendly community chatter, but in between times there is a rich, joyful silence that is very far from being emptiness. When the Divine Word takes flesh and appears among us, our human words fall away. Only silence can begin to comprehend the mystery. It forces us to our knees, loses us in wonder and adoration. Christ is born on earth and we dance with the angels for very joy (St Basil). If we cannot dance outwardly, let us dance inwardly. Rejoice!
‘Tomorrow, the sins of the world will be washed away.’ So says the responsory we sing at Lauds. It is as though the whole earth were holding its breath at the nearness of salvation. The birth we celebrate tonight took place two thousand years ago in a troubled country under less than ideal circumstances. I daresay the stable was dirty and smelly and Joseph terrified at the thought of playing midwife to Mary, while she was wishing her mother could be with her as she underwent this new and painful experience of giving birth. But God takes delight in working through imperfect situations, using imperfect circumstances and people we might think wholly unsuitable. The strange thing is, his purposes are always achieved, perfectly. Even sin is no obstacle to him, and that is part of the message of Christmas — an encouraging one for those of us who may not be feeling at our best or have a vague sense that we haven’t made as much of Advent as we might. God in Christ makes all things right.
I had hoped to write about the Christmas Proclamation or Martyrology but think this link will provide you with a much better account than I can. The only difference is that the living tradition of the community is less concerned with musical excellence (which we can’t achieve anyway) than with the prayer that it expresses. And for Bro Duncan PBGV fans, there’s this.
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster. O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, Desired of the Nations and their Saviour, come and save us, Lord our God.
A perceptive reader once described today as the Holy Saturday of Advent. Our strength is exhausted. We have reached rock bottom. Only God can deal with the mess we are in, bring light to our darkness and save us. Accordingly, today’s antiphon piles title after title on God, to make sure we miss none that has a claim on him, but ends with something like a whimper: come and save us, Lord our God. And there you have it. All those grand titles tell us something about God, but only as he is in relation to us — God-with-us, our King, our Law-Giver, Desired of the Nations, Saviour — because that is how God chooses to reveal himself to us: not as a being apart from us (though of course he transcends us utterly), but as one with us, as one like us. That is why the prayer we make in this antiphon is deceptively simple. When everything else is stripped away, we can acknowledge our need of God in the starkest terms. Our broken humanity cries out to his divinity. For the first time we address him as our Lord and God, and our plea is direct and uncomplicated as prayer wrung from the heart always is: come and save us.
I think there is a second reason for seeing today as being like Holy Saturday. Many people ask where was God when a tragedy occurs. Why did Jesus have to die? How involved is he in human suffering? Why did he not prevent the deaths of those three policemen who died yesterday in France, for example? That is to ask a question of history, and can even reduce God to an interventionist fairy godmother. Instead we have to ask the much bigger question, where is God? Just as on Holy Saturday, we see only part of the picture and have to trust for the rest. God’s seeming inactivity is only our view of things. The Incarnation can be sentimentalised to the point of parody, but if we allow the wonder of what we celebrate to sink in, we learn something important about God and ourselves. We cannot fear God or think him unapproachable when we know that in Christ he has taken human flesh and blood and been born, just as we are, just as dependent as we are. He cannot undo that — he has bound himself to us for ever and is with us to the end of time. He is far from indifferent to human suffering. He shares with us our pain and loneliness and frustration at the way things are because he wills to be united with us, if we let him. To ask where is God, therefore, is to pray and enter into a relationship with him here and now. It is to allow God to be with us — surely his heart’s desire as well as ours.
For scripture, I suggest Isaiah 7.14, Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66 and think about the illustration to this post: Lion of Judah or us complaining to God?
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. O King of the Nations, for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of two one, come and save mankind whom you made from clay.
Every year I hum and haw about how to translate this antiphon. Do I smooth over the awkwardnesses, to produce something easy on the ear but not quite true to the original? Do I opt for a more literal version, in the hope that it will jerk the casual reader into awareness of some of the complex references in the text? Or do I compromise, allowing some ungainliness but still aiming at an acceptable level of clarity and comprehension?
The problem is that many of the themes to which the antiphon alludes are no longer popular. Kingship is an alien concept to most, and even those — perhaps especially those — with a knowledge of kingship in the Ancient World may baulk at the idea of God as king. Absolute authority makes us uncomfortable. Much better the transient authority conferred by social media and the search engines. At least that passes! But Israel always wanted a king, to be like the other nations, and only gradually came to see that God alone could adequately fulfil that role. For us today the chief significance of the phrase is that gentile Christians are now welcomed into the Covenant and share with Israel its privileges, above all its ‘special relationship’ with God. But what about that Desideratus earum, the desired of all nations? The context is the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: ‘I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour’ (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). Can we genuinely make a claim for the universality of Christ? This phrase questions how we understand the Messiah and each of us must answer for him or herself.
With the next few phrases we are on happier ground. We know how fragile and divided the world in which we live is. We call on God to save us. He is the corner-stone, the rock on which we can rely. But he is also the potter, the creator who loves us into being. Clay is malleable in a way we often resist. The idea of being re-shaped, re-formed, is not an entirely attractive one until we think where it leads. I was tempted to illustrate this post with a black and white photo from the monastery kitchen: it shows Christ creating Adam, perfect in beauty. The loveliness of the image always leads me to prayer, but sometimes beauty can be luxuriated in for its own sake. Perhaps the image of the potter’s hands, caked with clay, almost at the beginning of his work, is more eloquent. There are infinite possibilities open to him. Amazingly, there are infinite possibilities open to us, too: I am all at once what Christ is, ‘since he was what I am, and This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond. (G. M. Hopkins)
For scripture, I suggest Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians (anywhere)
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis. O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.
At about 4.30 to 5 o’clock this evening, on the shortest, darkest day of the year here in Britain, if we look to the south-west, we may be able to see a bright light: the grand conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that many think may have been the star of Bethlehem which led the Magi to Jesus. How fitting, then, that we should be singing O Oriens at Vespers. For the first time since we began the sequence of O antiphons, the coming of God as Saviour and Redeemer is hailed with three different titles, all of them luminous: Morning Star, Splendour of Eternal Light, Sun of Justice.
With all the current talk of Christmas being ‘cancelled’ and the sheer misery of being separated from those we love or seeing them suffer, it is hard not to think of the world as being very bleak and very dark. But today’s antiphon is a reminder that light will always overcome darkness. God will deal with it in his own way and his own time. Christmas has not been cancelled, though much that we associate with the celebration of the feast is going to be off-limits this year; hope is not diminished though we may find it more difficult to hold onto. We can and should rejoice at Christmas because the Son of God has chosen to be our Morning Star, our Light in the darkness, our source of justice and healing. Salvation is still the gift he offers us; we are still loved infinitely, tenderly, far beyond our human imagining.
Of course, there is another kind of darkness many are experiencing, the interior darkness of distress and mental confusion we associate with this time of year, and made worse by months of COVID19-induced anxiety and isolation. It is a prison, a shadow, an all-enveloping gloom causing much pain and suffering, horribly intensified when it cannot be shared with anyone. Loneliness makes any kind of wretchedness much bleaker, and frequently there is a sense of failure, too, because, of course, no one actually wants to be ‘down’ or out of step with the season. It is easy to say that from this too Christ comes to redeem us, but although that is true, it is not a truth everyone accepts. Add to that the moral darkness and confusion we see in the unceasing violence and corruption the news headlines reveal to us day by day and we can argue that despair is understandable. Understandable, perhaps, but not an option for a Christian. We continue to hope; we continue to trust — not blindly, nor against all the evidence, so to say, but because we have placed our hope and trust in One who never disappoints and will never let us down.
I’d like to end with something I’ve said before because I think it expresses these ideas as well as I can. Today’s antiphon turns them into prayer:
Sometimes in the early morning, when I go into the oratory to pray, everything is dark, as only a house in the countryside can be dark. Gradually, there is a little glimmer of greyness that marks the beginning of dawn. Then slowly, beautifully, light begins to flood the room until everything is transformed. Even the dust sparkles. Our lives are like that. For some, in this life, there is only darkness and the light will come later; for others, probably the majority, the light begins to shine even now, but uncertainly, by fits and gleams; and for a few, a very few, life is irradiated with sunshine from the very first. What we have to hold to is this: the light will come. ‘His coming is as certain as the dawn.’ Indeed, yes: come, Lord Jesus.
As scripture, I suggest reading Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6. 12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2
Blog subscribers: the update to WordPress 5.6 has broken the plug-in used to send out automatic notifications. I’ll try to sort it out when we come to the end of our Silence Days.
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.
With today’s antiphon we move from the general to the particular, from the plural to the singular. We can hide the truth no longer. It is we as individuals who plead for salvation, we who are sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, locked up in prisons we have created for ourselves or to which we have been condemned by others. Then there are the prisons in which we incarcerate other people with our harsh judgements and refusal to forgive. They too contain souls Christ came to save, but that thought can make us uneasy. Salvation for us, yes; but for them? All at once we begin to see that we have been guilty (ever so slightly and quite unintentionally) of usurping the place of God, deciding who is or is not worthy of salvation. It can be a shock to realise that God may see things differently, may be much more generous and merciful than we would like him to be in respect of those others; and because we desire mercy and forgiveness for ourselves, we are forced to think anew.
Sometimes world events have the effect of concentrating our minds. As the COVID-19 pandemic moves into a new phase and leads governments throughout the world to impose ever more severe restrictions, the reality of the darkness we face strikes home. At its best, that awareness can lead to greater neighbourliness and a desire to ease the burden for others, but it can also lead to greater selfishness, so that the darkness becomes blacker still, the prison a dungeon. This morning, I think we face a stark choice. Will we allow the Key of David to free us or not?
The image of the key is a compelling one. To be locked up, even for a short time, with no means of escape other than that provided by the keyholder is an unnerving experience. (I was once forgotten by the archivist at Santiago de Compostela and spent several hours locked up in the muniment room while he went off for a leisurely lunch and siesta. To be locked up for life, how dreadful that must be!) In such circumstances, we soon realise how limited our physical freedom actually is, how dependent we are on others. But we have a way of turning this round and pleading our lack of freedom as an excuse for all the shortcomings we see in our lives. We blame our genes or circumstances over which we have no control for everything we regard as wrong or unsatisfactory. In effect, we construct the prisons we rail against out of fear or disappointment rather than anything more substantive. Only grace enables us to see that the prisons we make for ourselves can be comfortable and allow us to avoid confronting that which is unpleasant or challenging.
Darkness cannot be permitted to have the last word. It is no accident that on the day we sing O Clavis David we also read the gospel of the Annunciation and hear again how a young Jewish girl, a daughter of David’s royal line, consented to be the Mother of God and in so doing set us free from all that had bound us hitherto. Jesus is the Key but Mary’s flesh provides the lock and wards, so to say, that enable the key to work. Her faith, her generosity affect us all. St Bernard pictures the whole world on its knees before Mary, begging her to give the word that would give us the Word. It was a moment of unequalled faith. Had she refused, had she chosen to stay with the familiar, safe and predictable, our lives would have been very different. Her courage is a reminder that we co-operate with grace; we are never forced. We are led from prison, we are given freedom. How we use it is up to us.
As scripture to ponder, I suggest in addition to today’s Mass readings, Isaiah 22.22; Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock.
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare. O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!
Who does not love those beautiful medieval images of Jesse and the great tree of descendants springing from his loins — in stone at Christchurch, wood at Abergavenny (as shown above) and glass and stone in the window at Dorchester — and the genealogies of the gospels which all end with the birth of Christ? Jesus has a human ancestry as flawed and imperfect as our own. The way he looked, the way he spoke, the way he walked were a very human mixture of genes and upbringing. He is, so to say, of the earth, earthy, and among his ancestors are some very dodgy figures, including some non-Jews. Yet before him, the humble Galilean, kings stand silent and gentiles come in search. He, and he alone, can set us free from everything that binds us and lead us into the Promised Land where all is peace and joy. That, surely, is Jesse’s dream, a long, long dream down the centuries. I hope it is not too fanciful to see a connection between our modern word ‘dream’ and the Old English ‘drëam’, meaning ‘joy’ or ‘music’. The serenity of Jesse’s features suggest, to me at least, a man who gazed into the future and rejoiced at what he saw: a graceful flowering of all that he held most precious, a fruitfulness far beyond the ordinary.
Tempting though it is to linger among such images, we know it will not do. We cannot ask for freedom if we are not prepared to work at it, sacrifice for it, share it with others. Most of us are probably a little afraid of the chains that bind us, the sins we don’t quite see as sin, the comfortable accommodations with secular values that are a little selfish, a little self-indulgent maybe, but not really bad. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can be dangerous. Without falling prey to scrupulosity, we need to recognize that, as Christians, our way of acting should be different from that of others. If we are truly rooted in Christ, we must grow to be like him; and that is always going to be demanding. We are, of course, inclined to set limits. We don’t mind being a little stunted, a little pot-bound, it’s more comfortable that way. So, for instance, I’ll love other Christians, but I draw the line at loving those outside my comfort zone, Muslims/atheists/blacks/whites/conservatives/liberals (complete as appropriate). Hmn. I’m not sure about that, are you?
There are several scriptural texts we could ponder today (e.g. Isaiah 11.1; Isaiah 11.10; Jeremiah 23. 5-6: Micah 5.1; Romans 15. 8-13; Revelation 5.1-5; Revelation 22.16) but I am constantly drawn back to that silent, dreamy image of Jesse. Silence is characteristic of the men involved in the Infancy narratives, and I have often wondered why. Today, for example, Zachariah is struck dumb (Luke 1.5-25); Joseph will remain silent when instructed by the angel. We, by contrast, tend to rush into making observations or sharing our opinions with others. Perhaps we need to make some silence for ourselves today, so that we can reflect on the use we make of our own freedom — and the limits we impose on the freedom of others by the way we talk and act. Then we can make the prayer of the antiphon our own.
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento. O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm!
With this antiphon, my favourite of all the Great ‘O’s, which reveals the unutterable holiness of God’s name, we are back with Moses in the desert, ‘the humblest man alive’. With him God speaks ‘face to face, as with a friend’, but the Holy One chooses to reveal himself to him at a moment of his own choosing, in his own way. There is no presumption, no casualness about the meeting; no suggestion that they are on equal terms. God is a God of infinite holiness.
Did sheer curiosity lead Moses to the Burning Bush, or did he look more closely than we do, who might easily pass by the sight with some banal remark about how bad the wildfires are this year? Would we dare to go into the dazzling darkness of the mountain and hear God speak, or would we be more likely to think a stormy day not the best time to climb its slopes and so put off till tomorrow what God invites us to do today?
And if we did see the Burning Bush, and if we did receive the tablets of the Law on Sinai, would we realise their significance? Would we see that the whole earth has become holy ground and the divine law is inscribed on the tablets of human hearts — that everything has changed and redemption become possible? Finally, would we make that prayer, asking God to redeem us, to do what we cannot, confident that he will hear and answer?
I think this antiphon contains the secret of holiness: Moses looked at God, not himself; and he was so filled with what he saw that we are told the very skin of his face shone. Does our face glow with holiness? Do we make people happier, more determined to be charitable, kind, neighbourly; or do we leave them brooding over other people’s shortcomings and all that’s wrong in the world?
At this point in Advent when the spread of COVID-19 is having a negative impact on many people’s lives, it is worth asking ourselves whether we contribute to the general gloom or is our faith, weak and wobbly though it seem to us, one on which others can lean and draw strength. We all have ‘down’ moments, and it can be difficult to be supportive of others when we feel drained. What we have to learn, again and again if my experience is anything to go by, is that it doesn’t all depend on us. If we think it does, if we are consciously trying to make superhuman efforts, we are indulging in heroics, not cultivating holiness, and it is likely to end badly. It was when Moses forgot God and tried to do things his own way that disaster struck — yet he could argue that his intentions were good, as ours always are, aren’t they?
Today’s antiphon reminds us of Moses’ modesty, his friendship with God and his receptivity to God’s holiness. I suggest reading Exodus 3; Isaiah 11.4-5; Isaiah 33.22 and thinking about the way in which we conceive of God and our relationship with him. Do we ‘waste time’ in prayer; do we let God be God in our lives and the lives of others? The recording is of the antiphon sung in Latin.
Tonight, as the skies change from dark blue to inky black, the community will gather in the chapel for Vespers, but with a heightened sense of excitement, for tonight until 23 December, we sing the special series of Magnificat antiphons known as the ‘O’ antiphons. They are a sign that Christmas is close and our joy at the nearness of salvation intensifies.
No one is quite sure when they were first used. Boethius (fifth century) mentions them, and by the eighth century the abbey of St Benoît sur Loire had elaborated a solemn ritual most Benedictines still use today.
The antiphons are intoned by different members of the community (usually the seniors), and ‘care’ is taken to ensure that certain officials receive antiphons appropriate to their office. Thus, the gardener is thought a good choice for O Radix Jesse, while the cellarer (bursar) is considered a fitting match for O Clavis David.
A specially grand book is used for the antiphons and the singing of them is accompanied by the ringing of the church bells. In former times there were pittances (extra snacks or small treats) in the refectory to mark the day. Thus, the gardener might give the community a few dried plums or raisins; the cellarer might add an allowance of wine, and so on. The intention was to mark these days out as days of proximate preparation to Christmas, at once solemn and joyful.
At present, there are seven O antiphons in use. Each addresses Christ using a Messianic title drawn from the prophecies of the Old Testament. Read backwards, the initials of each title in Latin form the words Cras ero or ‘Tomorrow I shall be (with you)’.
Sapientia (Wisdom) Adonai (Holy Lord) Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse) Clavis David (Key of David) Oriens (Dayspring or Morning Star) Rex Gentium (King of the Nations) Emmanuel (God-with-us)
In the Middle Ages not only were different melodies sometimes used (the Worcester Antiphoner, for example, has some very elaborate settings for the antiphons) but even the number of antiphons varied. According to the Sarum Use, eight antiphons were sung so the whole sequence began a day earlier and ended on 23 December with O Virgo virginum. That made the initials read Vero cras. ‘Truly tomorrow (I shall be with you).’
The structure of the seven antiphons we now use is essentially the same. After the invocation of Christ as Messiah comes the plea: come and show us the way of prudence, come and save us with outstretched arm, and so on, and all the antiphons follow a similar musical pattern.
17 December O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ. O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of prudence.
I suggest having a look at Isaiah 11.2-3; Isaiah 28.29 and thinking about the parallel between Wisdom and the Word of God, endlessly creative. There are times when we are tempted to despair. Folly seems to be prevalent in the world but the idea of prudence as an antidote is not particularly attractive, is it? It is virtue in its stiffest Victorian dress. But we must remember Benedict saw prudence as the mother of all the virtues, so in itself prudence must have more to commend it. Perhaps if we were to see prudence as compassionate and generous, a caring virtue, we would see why it is identified with divine Wisdom — and be encouraged to practise it. As you listen to the recording of the antiphon (sung by men, not us), try to make the prayer your own.
A member of the community has opined (such a glorious word, ‘opined’) that it is about time I wrote a serious, deeply theological or liturgical post rather than regaling readers with what she clearly regards as mere flim-flams. How dare she, I thought, what a busybody! Of course, most of us love giving others the benefit of our opinion, and provided we do it kindly or wittily or even flatteringly as in the case of my dear sister in Christ, who ended her remarks with ‘You’re not as stupid as you look!’, who could possibly take umbrage? Whether the subject be politics, COVID-19, the Church, or anything else of current moment, we are happy to think we have insights others don’t and are generous in our sharing. Sometimes we can even make our prayer a sustained exercise in telling God how to order things better.
Today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 45.6-8, 18, 21-25 , is perfect for busybodies like us. It reminds us just how small we are in the scheme of things, how imperfect is our grasp of anything. That is not to crush us with a sense of our own insignificance, far from it. It is to allow us to see more clearly the true wonder of our own being and the wonder of God. Salvation comes from God alone, the creator of all that is, and what a God he is!
I am the Lord, unrivalled: there is no other god besides me. A God of integrity and a saviour: there is none apart from me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God unrivalled.
There is a lot to think about in that passage, but one word stands out for me. We hear it again and again during Advent: integrity. There is something about integrity that matters to God and should matter to us. At the root of the word is the idea of wholeness, consistency, and in Isaiah it is closely allied to honesty and salvation. In fact, I think we could claim that integrity provides us with an Advent programme in itself, making it possible for us to receive the gift of salvation offered to us in the Incarnation. People of integrity do not often lead easy lives themselves, but they make life easier for others. We know they can be trusted, that their opinion and advice is worth having, but there are no short-cuts to becoming a person of integrity ourselves. It means hard work, renunciation of self in both large and little things, and perseverance. The busybody flits from one thing or person to another, delighting in the sunshine of attention and sometimes upset; the man or woman of integrity is more like a quiet river, moving steadily but unshowily to the journey’s end. I know which I’d rather be, don’t you?