Easter Tuesday 2021

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Every Easter Tuesday I try to say something new about Mary Magdalene’s meeting with the Risen Christ, and every year I fail. The failure is not because there is nothing new to say but because, like Mary, I find myself falling to my knees, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. The meeting between Jesus and Mary is one in which we all share — the moment our souls are touched by grace and we recognize him as our Saviour.

It is no accident that Mary sees her Lord through a mist of tears. The human heart must be washed clean if it is to see clearly, and it tends not to be the big, dramatic sins that obscure our vision so much as the little faults and infidelities we allow to become habitual. Mary’s gaze has the simplicity and freshness of the garden in which Jesus stands. For us, that may be more difficult to achieve but the great privilege of monastic life is to do our theology on our knees. It keeps us grounded, and I think it enables us to see what otherwise we might miss. The wounds in Christ’s feet, now channels of grace and healing, hold our gaze as they held Mary’s, and they make sense of what could easily be baffling: we have a God who is near, not one afar off; one who has shared with us the human experience of birth and death and now shares with us the divine gift of resurrection. Mary’s privilege will one day be ours, too. But there is more.

The post-resurrection gospels are full of women whom the Lord comes to meet. They have no need to climb mountains or prepare elaborate sacrifices to find him. He surprises them as they go about their ordinary tasks. This morning Mary is lingering by the tomb when she encounters Christ. There is that momentary lack of recognition characteristic of all the post-resurrection appearances, but then everything changes. Jesus is the same, but different, but how is he different? For Fra Angelico, there is no ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ to suggest a gardener, but Mary does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name. When he recognizes her, she is able to recognize him. There is something to ponder there. We think we must go in search of God and sometimes become sad and angry when we feel we have failed to find him, not realising that the initiative always remains his. He finds us; he names us; he calls us.

One further point. Look at the garden and what is beyond the garden. The trees outside are fairly uniform but within, what a variety! Where Christ is, there is always abundance. It was to restore the fullness of life to the world that God gave his only Son. This morning Mary experiences what that means, and she is charged with telling the Church in every generation. We have been redeemed by one who knows us by name and lives for evermore.

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Empty: Good Friday 2021

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

Today, just before 3.00 p.m., we shall go into the oratory and either prostrate or kneel before the altar for a minute or two before celebrating the Solemn Liturgy. That silence, that abandonment of our usual posture, expresses what could never be put into words: the utter transcendence of God and our complete reliance upon him. Today, of all days, that is brought home to us by our reverting to a primitive form of liturgy made up of long readings from scripture and prayers in which we pray for all the world’s needs. For us, there will be no Communion of the Presanctified. With the death of Christ on the cross we enter a world devoid of sacraments, a time of waiting, of radical emptiness.

And then? More emptiness. There is only the soft soughing of the wind as it passes over Calvary to remind us of the epic duel between good and evil we have witnessed, the unadorned cross in the oratory and a lassitude of spirit that goes beyond the ordinary. We are numb with shock and horror, yet even at this moment, we know that this is not the end of the story. As day passes into night, a great change is being worked but we are as yet unaware of it and its consequences. For us, there is only the waiting, and the emptiness.

Last year, I was drawn to write about the mothers of Jesus and Judas and their experience of the crucifixion. It may be worth re-visiting. If so, please click the link below (opens in new tab). There is an audio version at the end.

Lovely Tear from Lovely Eye: the Mothers of Jesus and Judas

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A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved. From the monastery’s collection.

Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.

Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.

Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.

It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.

*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.

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Lost: Wednesday of Holy Week 2021

Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash 

Many call today ‘Spy Wednesday’, the day when Judas finally betrayed Jesus and went in search of those who wanted him dead. Matthew’s account (Matthew 26.14-25 ) is a familiar narrative, but I wonder whether it is not a little too simple, too inclined to portray Judas as the arch-traitor beyond redemption. We know that despite the deal made earlier with the Chief Priests, there was still time for a change of heart, for a renewal of the old love and friendship between Judas and his Lord. But it didn’t happen, not then, at any rate, and we are left pondering the dynamic of what did occur. How we interpret that says as much about us as it does about Judas.

For generations, Christians have taken delight in placing Judas firmly in hell. We have off-loaded onto him all the betrayals and broken trust that has afflicted the world throughout the ages, and we feel safe doing so because what could be more villainous than to betray our Saviour for a paltry 30 pieces of silver? It is vicarious justification for actions that would otherwise seem harsh and unforgiving. But notice the image that stands at the head of this post. It is a lost toy, a sad little bear. It wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. 

To me the photo is a reminder that Jesus and Judas were friends, and Jesus never stopped loving him. What might that mean? There is an innocence, a playfulness, about friendship we often forget when we think of Jesus and the disciples. Judas, himself possibly a Zealot, may have been disappointed in Jesus’ failure to become the political leader he hoped for, but was Jesus disappointed in Judas? Did Judas’s company bring him joy right up to the end and that painful parting of ways? Was Judas a friend still, lost in some ways, but always close to his heart? In other words, is it possible that we see the relationship between Jesus and Judas in ways that fit our own narrative rather than what truly occurred between them?

We cannot answer such questions with certainty, but those words of Jesus, ‘Better for that man if he had never been born!’, suggest to me not the prospect of eternal punishment but of eternal anguish. If true, Jesus did not approve of what Judas had done but forgave him and grieved at the suffering that lay before him. That is an important point, because it leaves open the question whether Judas is condemned to hell for all eternity in the way we tend to assume. In any case, we must remember it is Judas’s despair of God’s mercy, not his betrayal, that has always been considered the greater sin. We can see why. Such despair is to doubt the very nature of God, his love, mercy and forgiveness.

That thought should make us uncomfortable. The way we see Judas says a great deal about how we ourselves see God and the trust (or lack of it) that we have in his love and forgiveness. God does not approve of sin, anyone’s sin. He does not endorse the wrong we do or pretend it doesn’t matter, but he does forgive — utterly. It is we who hold others (and sometimes ourselves) to account, we who say ‘I cannot forgive X or Y’ as though it were a virtue in us; and we habitually assume God is of the same mind. Perhaps today we might spend a few moments thinking about that. Jesus on the cross suffered and died for us while we were still sinners. How dare we be less merciful than he? How dare we make ourselves, or anyone else, to be lost? We are not discarded toys. We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes, and his desire is that we should be with him for all eternity.

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Preparing for Holy Week 2021

On the Eve of Palm Sunday

Today will be a day of hustle and bustle throughout the land as we prepare to celebrate Holy Week — with slightly fewer restraints than last year, but still with a number of restrictions. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has issued detailed guidance on what may or may not be done, and what it recommends should be done. You can read it here, and I would urge you to do so if you can (it includes the revised intercession IXb for Good Friday). It is a reminder that the liturgy is not a private possession, as it were. Whether we celebrate as one among thousands or on our own, we do so as part of the Church. Having the mind of the Church, acting in accordance with her precepts, her tradition, is not an arbitrary matter. It doesn’t mean we can’t innovate or adapt, but it does mean that we do so in accordance with the principles she gives us.

Domesticating the Liturgy

Tonight our Jewish friends will celebrate the first night of Pesach or Passover. More than any other group, I think Jews understand the domesticating of the liturgy. Martin Buber often spoke of the dinner table as an altar — something many Christians have forgotten with today’s trend towards fast food, takeaways and the Netflix supper eaten in front of a screen. I suggest we need to re-think that. For many Christians this year, home will be where Holy Week and Easter are principally celebrated, and we need to find ways of doing so with dignity and recollection. Here in the monastery we have always had a substantial domestic liturgy accompanying every day of Holy Week but especially the Paschal Triduum. We revert to an older, simpler form of prayer, much of it chanted monotone save for the achingly beautiful Christus factus est and so on. We read the Last Discourse before Compline and huge quantities of scripture and psalmody at other times. It is a demanding week, as it is for everyone, but because our domestic liturgy takes place in the monastery, in our home, it blurs the distinction between public and private, and because what we do strives to be always consistent with the Church’s tradition, it illumines the public liturgy in a way nothing else could.

A Suggestion

As you prepare for Holy Week, may I suggest you give some thought to how you can ‘domesticate’ the liturgy without making things complicated or burdensome or adding loads of devotional elements that will merely tire you out? For example, I’ve mentioned reading the Last Discourse from the gospel of St John; or perhaps you could pray Psalm 118 (119) over the course of the week. As it ducts and weaves around the theme of the Law, it reminds us of the New Covenant made in Christ. And if you find you can’t do any of these things, if for you Holy Week is just getting through as best you can, do not berate yourself. Holy Week, like redemption itself, is his gift to us. Receive it gladly.

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Drawing Closer to Holy Week: Sunday V of Lent

Spring may have only just begun, and tomorrow we shall celebrate the transferred Solemnity of St Benedict (his Transitus, or birthday into heaven), but there is still a chill about today having nothing to do with temperature or mood. If we have not been serious about Lent before, we are now. Holy Week is on the horizon, and the liturgy is insistent in its call to conversion, suffering and death. 

Bleak? In one way, yes. Most of us find the prospect of suffering and death easier to contemplate in the abstract than reality. The fact that both are unavoidable and bound up with our eternal salvation is scant comfort. We know we must allow the Lord to inscribe his law on our hearts and enter into a new covenant with him. We know we must learn to obey. Most important of all, we know we must begin to turn towards the cross as sentence is passed on this world. (cf today’s Mass readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Hebrews 5. 7-9;  John 12. 20-33.) But no-one is denying how hard it can be, nor the reluctance some of us may feel.

Many will say, isn’t that what we have been trying to do all our lives? Indeed, but this week before Holy Week seems to me pivotal. There is an unavoidable urgency about it. Until now, we’ve been doing our best, trying to focus on the Lord rather than how well or otherwise we are doing. It’s been a joyful and refreshing simplification of our everyday lives. In the desert of our hearts, love of the Lord has ben rekindled as the prophet Hosea promised. But now it is that distant view of Calvary which takes centre stage and we know that we must either take our stand with Christ or not stand at all. The moment of choice will soon be upon us, and we must make ourselves ready. Already the cross is calling. If we find that prospect daunting, we should remember that we do not face it alone but in union with every generation, with our Saviour himself.

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Unlocking Heaven

A simplified version of the Keys of St Peter

The Feast of the Chair of St Peter

As I was mooching round the monastery early this morning, I reflected on today’s gospel (Matthew 16. 13–19) and the number of homilies which concentrate on the power of binding rather than loosing. Many limit interpretation of the text to sacramental confession, a debatable point in itself, while others seem to allow the power of binding and loosing to those they approve of, but not otherwise. Thus, a feast celebrating the unity of the Church under her principal teacher, Pope Francis, is turned into a weapon against him by some, who accuse him of all manner of sins and crimes, including apostasy. He is not, apparently, as Catholic as he should be; and he does not do as much binding as he ought.

Binding and Loosing

Why is there this obsession with binding rather than loosing? I am sorry to say that many of my Catholic friends seem to be rather keen on binding others, excluding them from the kingdom of heaven. Often it seems to be the result of enthusiasm for one aspect of the Church’s teaching blinding them to the necessity of others.

Chesterton wrote of the tendency to exaggerate one truth above another ending in a skewed understanding of Christianity as a whole. Indeed, it is one way in which orthodoxy can become heterodoxy. Sometimes I have the feeling that for some, Catholicism is now anti-abortionism and everyone is to be judged on the soundness or otherwise of their attitude towards it. Please don’t get me wrong. I am opposed to abortion, but I am also opposed to the conditions that make abortion seem acceptable or even desirable. I do not — cannot — condemn those who have had an abortion. That is not the same as condoning abortion, and Catholic social teaching has a great deal to say about our duty to ensure just and fair living conditions for all. I don’t see how we can maintain the one without the other.

If we have the power of binding, we also have the power of loosing, of allowing the mercy of God into any and every human situation. Of course, it is always easier to see the motes in our brethren’s eyes than the beams in our own, but it would make a refreshing change if, instead of concentrating on the power to bind others, we could celebrate this feast by thinking and praying about how we can free others. It is a power given not just to the clergy — in fact, not even mainly to the clergy — but to everyone who claims to be a disciple of Christ. It was to set us free that Christ came into the world, died and rose again. Let us not lose sight of that essential truth as we journey through Lent.

Automated New Blog Post Notifications
These have not been working as they should but I hope to get matters sorted out today.

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CHRISTMAS DAY 2020

Crib at Howton Grove Priory
Crib at Howton Grove Priory

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!

CHRISTMAS BLESSINGS TO YOU ALL

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Christmas Eve 2020

‘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.

Happy Christmas!

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O Emmanuel | 23 December 2020

Photo by Ivan Diaz on Unsplash

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?

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