A King! We Want a King!

There is a curious irony in the fact that it is often the most allegedly democratic of peoples that countenance the most absolutist forms of government. No names, no pack-drills, as they say, but I can think of two much in the news of late. It reminds me of the old Israelite cry, ‘Give us a king! We want to be like other nations!’ (cf 1 Samuel 8). God did give Israel a king, but it was not an unmitigated success. What are we to make, then, of today’s ‘O’ antiphon?

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 both one, come and save mankind whom you made from clay.

The translation is awkward, but I wanted to preserve the obvious scriptural references and, rather than smooth over the difficulties of qui facis utraque unum or even hominem, leave them in plain sight. Sometimes we need to be challenged by the theology of a prayer rather than whittling it down to something we can digest and endorse. However, it was not those phrases that caught my attention this morning so much as the opening invocation of God as Rex Gentium, King of the Nations, King of the Gentiles. It is an ambiguous phrase. On the one hand it proclaims God’s lordship over all; on the other, it claims God for the gentiles, those of us outside the Covenant, the slightly dodgy folk of least account who do not keep the Law. We know that we have been made sharers in the Covenant — Christ is indeed the corner-stone that unites both Jews and Gentiles in the family of God — but it is by way of privilege, a privilege we are apt at times to forget.

It can be hard not to think that the world as we know it is disintegrating. The Church is in disarray over the sex abuse scandals that have destroyed the trust of so many; our politicians seem incapable of putting the interests of others before their own pet plans and projects; the people we have always relied upon seem less dependable than they were. Into this mess comes a tiny, vulnerable baby, born in an obscure corner of the world yet bearing the greatest of titles, who will redeem the world; and we, smudged with sin and endlessly misunderstanding as we are, are privileged to share in the salvation He offers. Our prayer today is not for ourselves alone but for the whole world. The King of the Nations is Lord of all that is.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Rooted, or Are We?

One hundred days to Brexit, announce the media, with varying degrees of gladness or dismay. Meanwhile, we are preparing to sing O Radix Jesse at Vespers tonight:

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, delaying no longer!

Is this another instance of the Church working on completely different lines from the rest of society? Or do we pray in a way that encompasses the demands of Brexit and every other difficulty we face at this time? Consider that line, ‘at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek’. It is awkward in English, but it contains an important truth: God is in control and those who seek him, unlikely as it may seem, will one day find him. God wants to be found; he desires to lead us. Being a Gentile is at first sight a disadvantage, excluded as we assume we are from the Covenant and the privileges of the people of Israel; but the prophecies we have been reading throughout this period of Advent have been reminding us that the Covenant has been opened to all. Amazingly, as St Paul says, we, the wild olive, have been grafted onto the ancient tree. But there is more that is encouraging and surprising in equal measure.

Those who hold power in this world do so for only a time. They can do much good or much harm, but ultimately their power is transitory. Before God the powerful are struck dumb, because God sees with a clarity they do not possess. Only purity of heart, the purity of love and generosity, can enable anyone to see as God sees, and we all fall short of that but especially, perhaps, those whose main focus is their own advantage. It is sobering to remember that, but it is true. We need to see as God sees.

Today’s antiphon is not some form of pious escapism. It is a reminder not to lose heart, not to give up. God wills what is good for us, and no matter how contrary the circumstances in which we find ourselves, no matter how dire we think the state of the country or how irresponsible our politicians, there is hope — but it is a hope that requires more of us than mere wishing. The Root of Jesse stands as an ensign to the peoples. We must rally to his standard, and that means exposing ourselves to danger, to misunderstanding and, as this world sees it, even to failure. The victory is won, but we must still fight. 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Dancing for Joy | Gaudete Sunday 2018

Today our churches will be a riot of rose vestments, incense and music, but very few, I suspect, will be filled with dancing. Catholics don’t do that sort of thing, except perhaps in parts of Africa where dance is intrinsic to the local culture. In the West, liturgical dance tends to be something of an embarrassment. It conjures up visions of middle-aged persons executing vague swoops and dives to the accompaniment of drums and guitars: a kind of church-goers’ Strictly without the glitz. In Spain, they take a more relaxed attitude: As Henri Pirenne remarked, ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’. That certainly applies to Seville, the city of dance. Those who have witnessed the beautiful Baile de los Seises, that strange, slow dance  of the choristers before the altar of the cathedral, will have been told how hard-won their privilege is. In the seventeenth century the Vatican took seventeen years to agree that the ancient dance might continue, but only ‘for as long as the choristers’ clothes do not wear out’. Of course, they never have. A patch here, an addition there, new shoes or breeches now and then; so the dance goes on.

It is important that the dance should go on because it symbolizes much more than may be apparent at first glance. One of today’s Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14–18, provides us with an unforgettable image of God dancing for joy over his children. We can identify with David, dancing for joy as the Ark of the Covenant is brought back to Jerusalem, but God dancing for joy over us! That is a joy to fill the whole of creation. As this last week of Advent begins, we rejoice at the nearness of our God, but only because he has first rejoiced over us:

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a victorious warrior.
He will exult with joy over you,
he will renew you by his love;
he will dance with shouts of joy for you
as on a day of festival.

This is the Wisdom from on high whom we shall invoke in tomorrow’s ‘O’ antiphon, the God of infinite power and love who reaches from end to end of the universe, who will teach us the way of truth — and whose joyful dance will never end.

O antiphons:
For texts, translations and music of the ‘O’ antiphons, beginning on 17 December, please see http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html (Flash needed for the audio).

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Descending into Tribalism Again?

There have been many times recently when I have wondered whether we are descending into tribalism again. The rise of the hard right in mainland Europe, the violence on the streets of Paris, the ugly anti-semitic placards captured by photographers at various demonstrations and the shameful factionalism we are treated to every day from Parliament are not encouraging. Is this the world in which we wish to live, a jungle where what’s best for me and the rest of you can go to blazes is our mantra of choice? What happened to our nobler ambitions, our desire to live in peace, to ensure that no-one should be in want?

It is a mistake to think that Advent can be so spiritualized that we do not connect what we pray with what we say. If we are longing for the coming of the Messiah, for his reign of justice and peace, we have to work to create that justice and peace here and now. We cannot one minute be cursing the enemy of the moment (the E.U., Brexiteers, Remainers, Republicans, Democrats, whatever) and the next asking God to make everything wonderful and lovely. In any case, wonderful and lovely for whom? Just me and my friends? Is that really what we take from our reading of the Gospels?

The first reading at Mass today (Isaiah 40. 1–11) is especially dear to our community, but we have always interpreted the Consolamini  of the Vulgate as ‘strengthen’ rather than ‘console’. God does everything, of course, but he requires our active co-operation; and that co-operation may well mean renunciation of some good for ourselves as well as seeking good for others. We easily forget that, convinced as we usually are that our view is the right one. Perhaps a moment or two reflecting on today’s gospel (Matthew 18. 12–14) will give us pause. The lost sheep, the one that caused the Lord grief and anxiety, the one who didn’t do what the rest of the flock did, was chosen and precious in his eyes. The Lord did not allow the stray to remain apart for ever. Is there a lesson there for all of us? The new tribalism separates and ostracizes. Shouldn’t we really be trying to achieve unity, to build up rather than tear down? Isn’t that how we shall recognize that the kingdom of God is truly among us?

65. 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Living with Uncertainty

In retrospect, the world in which I grew up was remarkably secure, yet the memory of war was very real for my parents’ generation and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was ever-present. When President Kennedy was assassinated, I remember going into the garage to announce the news to my father, who stopped what he was doing, looked very grave and said, ‘This may mean war.’ He was wrong, of course, but that was the great fear lurking behind the political polarisation of the day. We lived with uncertainty. We still do, but it is a different kind of uncertainty. The enemy we fear is often unseen or unrecognized, in our midst, even our own bodies. We fear the consequences of the way we have abused earth, sea and air; the terrorist who is implacably opposed to our way of life; the disease that perhaps even now is coursing through our body. No-one looking at the world today can afford to be complacent. There seems to be so much that is beyond our control, that menaces us.

That is one of the reasons why Advent is a helpful time of year. We are looking forward to the coming of Christ with expectant joy yet, at the same time, acknowledging both our own sinfulness and the brokenness of the world we inhabit. There is the uncertainty of the not-yetness of salvation; the uncertainty of our own response. For those of us living in Britain, there is also the uncertainty of Brexit and what will or will not happen in the next twenty-four hours. This uncertainty accompanies us as we make our pilgrimage through Advent and lends it a peculiar force and directness. We need a Saviour, a Redeemer: one who will make us secure, transform our deafness and blindness and free us from everything that holds us back from being  who and what we are meant to be. We are therefore living a paradox because, of course, Christ has already come, has already saved us. Our uncertainty is whether we will lay claim to the salvation he offers us — whether, in the words of Isaiah, we will allow everlasting joy to shine forth from us, or whether we will prefer darkness to light. The choice is ours.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In Turbulent Times

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

Few would dispute that we live in turbulent times. If we were once able to situate violence and civil unrest somewhere ‘out there’, we can do so no longer. The extraordinary scenes as British M.P.s row about Brexit, the protests of the gilets jaunes and the rise of populist movements throughout Europe, to say nothing of the daily shock of tweets from the President of the U.S.A., are surely enough to convince anyone that the world is a-changing, and not necessarily for the better. We continue to hate one another, pollute the world in which we live and generally act as though we had learned nothing from our past experience. We are not so much homo sapiens as homo vastans.

Into this world steps the Church with the words of Baruch 5, urging us to take off our robe of sorrow and distress and put on the glory of the Lord for ever. Is that sheer escapism, the response of the weak and fearful to brutality and power? I don’t think so. The Messianic dream of the people of Israel will be realised; there will indeed be everlasting  peace; but first we must be ready to do our part — and that is where we tend to fall down. 

This Advent I have been impressed, as I always am, by the huge effort made by the Churches to show practical compassion towards those in need. Something more is required, however, and that is the inner transformation of each one of us. John the Baptist, who suddenly appears out of the desert in today’s gospel reading (Luke 3. 1–6), echoes the words of Baruch. The mountains of pride and self-sufficiency must be laid low, the valleys of fear and distrust filled in. Everything that is curved or devious in us must be straightened, and the rough places — the things that hurt or endanger others — must be smoothed out. Ah, we say, of course we’ll do that, but when circumstances are more propitious; yes, then we’ll work on our souls, but in the meantime, we are too busy with the affairs of  this world. We live in turbulent times, you know.

Perhaps the times are turbulent because we have got things the wrong way round. We are too busy trying to make the world suit us better to notice the basic flaw in our plan. We ourselves haven’t changed. We think we can go on as we always have, but we can’t. Every Advent we are faced with the same dilemma, the same invitation. Are we for the Lord or are we not? Are we ready to be converted or are we not? Our decision matters because it is one that affects not just us but everyone else. To choose godliness, to become pure and blameless as St Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians, is to accept the challenge of our times. Advent is not just a preparation for Christmas but for the coming of the Day of Christ, and it is the third coming, of Christ to our souls now, that is the link between the two. 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Preparing for Advent 2018: Five Suggestions

This year Advent is very short. It begins on the evening of Saturday, 1 December, and lasts barely three weeks, so we must make the most of it. Here in the monastery, Advent is eagerly anticipated. We relish the simplicities of the season — the silence, the haunting chants we sing in choir, the wonderful prophecies we read, even the extra plainness of the food we eat. Sadly, we are unable to begin with our usual three days of complete silence because I am scheduled to have chemotherapy on Thursday and the side-effects affect everyone for a week or so. I will have to accept that as humbly as I can, knowing that others are being very patient and kind. It does mean, however, that we need to keep our focus if Advent is to do its work in us.

Benedict does not mention Advent in the Rule, which is not surprising as Western Christians were only just beginning to observe it as a liturgical season at the time of his birth. He does, however, have a great deal to say about the things that make for a blessed and fruitful Advent. He is keen on silence, prayer, the common life; he wants us to read the scriptures, act humbly, justly, and forgive readily. These may be easier in a monastery, where everyone is vowed to live according to the Rule, than in society at large, but I think there are some practical suggestions any Christian can make their own. May I suggest the following?

  1. Read every day the lessons appointed to be read at Mass (the Eucharist). In that way, even if you can’t go to Mass yourself, you will be joining with the whole Church throughout the world in this great act of preparation for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
  2. Try to find a few minutes for prayer each day. Don’t worry if circumstances aren’t ideal. It is what God thinks of our prayer that matters, not our assessment of it, and thankfully God seems much more easily satisfied than we are. Just try.
  3. Try to cultivate a few minutes of silence each day, too. Learning to let God love us can only happen if we make some space for him in our lives. Constant chatter, especially angry chatter, isn’t helpful. Yes, there may be times when we explode, but we can try to be quieter, more patient, more open to God.
  4. Keep it simple; keep it kind. Many want to celebrate Christmas before we have even begun Advent. No one wants to be the party-pooper who sprinkles the vinegar of disapproval over everyone else’s fun. A mince pie or two is not going to lead to eternal damnation! The jolliest man I ever knew drank nothing but water and ate sparingly. It was his joie de vivre and kindly nature that made him such a delight. Most of us, alas, are not so obviously attractive, so it is better to nibble away at the festive goodies with a warm smile than refuse with a self-righteous sniff.
  5. Try not to worry about the commercialism of it all, or your inability to meet some of the demands made on you. God did not come into the world to make us sad or unhappy. He knows our weaknesses; he knows our strengths, too.  As we get older, we begin to appreciate that giving is a surer way of finding happiness than amassing things for ourselves. We may think we have nothing to give, but a kind word, a few minutes of our time, even a smile can be a precious gift to share with another.

That is more than enough, I’m sure. Do, please, share your own ideas in the comment section below. A quick search in the sidebar will provide anyone interested with a selection of earlier posts on this subject. The section on Advent in our main website also contains information about the history of the season, the O antiphons and some Advent traditions. You can read it here. Flash is needed to play the music files.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Liturgical Year’s End

This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King and enter upon the last few days of the liturgical year. Already some are celebrating Christmas when we haven’t even begun Advent, while dark mutterings about ‘commercialism’ and so on can be heard in certain quarters. I think myself that the main problem is that we are reluctant to live in the present. We are always either looking back or looking forward. The past allows us certainty; the future, endless possibility. The present, alas, offers only reality, and humankind cannot bear very much of that. Moreover, Christmas without any preparation is an enticing prospect. We can ignore or skip much that is demanding so that we end up with no giving of the Law; no bondage in Egypt; no trekking through the desert; no covenants made and broken, then renewed again; no prophets, no exile, no Maccabean wars; just plunging straight into the Incarnation and happy ever after. Only, we know it doesn’t work like that. We cannot have Christmas without Advent recalling us to our senses and reminding us of the long history of the Jewish people’s search for God and our own place in it, at the very end, the wild olive grafted onto the ancient stock.

There was a time when I thought of the solemnity of Christ the King as an unwarrantable intrusion into this process. I almost despised it as a modern feast that spoke more of the political preoccupations of the earlier twentieth century than of anything more ‘spiritual’. But then I began to see how shallow my thinking was. To proclaim the lordship of Christ over everything that exists when dictators stalked the land; to assert the truth and beauty of following the gospel when many were seeking salvation in material things/totalitarian regimes, whether of left or right: that was not small or weak or contemptible. It was to assert not only the power of God to transform our human situation but also his freedom to do so in a way and at a time of his choosing. It was a message of hope in dark times; a re-statement of Christian faith and love in a world that has never really embraced it in all its fullness. We have always wanted Christmas without Advent, Easter without Lent; but it cannot be.

At Christmas we shall indeed celebrate the Incarnation: God’s way of definitively entering human history and redeeming it, but we are not there yet. These last days of the liturgical year are very precious. They put before us the record of human sin and ingratitude and warn us of the sufferings we heap upon ourselves if we are reckless or indifferent. We know, in our heart of hearts, how badly things go wrong when we do not allow God full scope in our lives, but how reluctant we are to admit it! This Sunday gives us the opportunity to reflect, live in the present and begin preparing for Advent. In other words, an opportunity to let God take back control.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Something for Liturgists to Remember

We are almost at the end of the liturgical code in the Rule of St Benedict. We have read through the chapters that tell us how many and which psalms and canticles are to be said at the various Hours of the day and noted Benedict’s instructions about the way in which they are to be performed. We stand in honour of the gospel; we sing the Invitatory psalm of Vigils rather slowly, so that latecomers have time to arrive; we know when to sing alleluia and when not. But it is only after all these regulations that we come to chapter 19 and Benedict’s treatment of the dispositions we need to sing the Divine Office worthily. How many liturgists today would think of leaving to the end of their treatise what most of us would think of as the starting-point?

Benedict reminds us that God and his angels are always present and urges us to ‘sing the psalms in such a way that mind and voice may be in harmony.’ (RB 19.7) There are times when the routine of the Office may overtake us, when we sing the words and perform the ritual gestures with less than full attention, but that is clearly not the ideal. I think the placing of this chapter is an oblique comment on the temptation to think that the correct performance of the liturgy is enough; it isn’t. Our hearts and minds must be fully engaged, too, and as anyone committed to reciting the Divine Office every day will admit, that is not always easy. Moreover, although Benedict makes plain elsewhere that he isn’t keen on those with very modest singing or reading abilities acting as cantors or giving out antiphons, he assumes that the choral office will be the prayer of the whole community. It is not the preserve of the chosen few. The corollary is, of course, that everyone has the duty to prepare properly. Those who need better knowledge of the psalms and lessons, for example, are told to devote the time between Vigils and Lauds to studying them (RB 8.3). As we shall see elsewhere in the Rule, mistakes caused by negligence are subject to correction. Benedict will not excuse any slovenliness or inattention.

So, what can we take from this for today, especially if we are not monks or nuns? I think in the first instance we can take heart. Prayer is important, and the common prayer of the community, be it the local congregation or that of the universal Church, has special value. It requires of us more than mechanical participation. It is a means of entering into the prayer of Christ himself, ‘the chief prayer of the psalms’ as St Augustine calls him, which means we must make an effort to be attentive. Little by little prayer changes us. One day, we may change the world — but only insofar as we have allowed Christ to become all in all to us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Korean Church: a Lay Initiative

The feast of the Korean Martyrs is one of those liturgical celebrations that tends to make little impact on me. I don’t know many Koreans, and my knowledge of Korean history, especially Korean Church history, is sketchy; but there is one fact I do recall and about which I think we would all do well to reflect. The history of Christianity in Korea is largely the history of a lay initiative. We don’t know when the first Koreans became Christians, but it was probably in the seventeenth century. There were no priests that we know of. In the eighteenth century there are records of persecution, with an estimated ten thousand men, women and children executed for refusing to perform the usual sacrifices on the death of family members or otherwise failing to observe the usual customs.The first priest of whom we have definite note was, I believe, a Frenchman, who entered the country in 1836 and was beheaded three years later. The first Korean priest was Andrew Kim Taegǒn, who trained secretly in Macao, went back to Korea in 1845 and was martyred in 1846. As Pope St John Paul II remarked when he canonised the Korean Martyrs in 1984,

The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.

We are familiar with the story of the fidelity of lay Christians in many parts of the world — the Nagasaki Christians, for example — but I wonder how often we take to heart the lesson they provide. It is not merely their obvious love of the Lord, their courage and fidelity, that we applaud. There is something chastening (in a good sense) about the way in which they constitute the Church. At present, when many Catholics are expressing anger and disappointment at the way in which bishops and clergy have often failed to get to grips with the evil of abuse, the history of the Korean Church is a stark reminder of the role of the laity and the responsibility we all have for the Church’s growth in number and holiness. We do not abandon the Church because she is not all we should like her to be. We stay and work to ensure that she becomes what the Lord desires she should be — and that applies to all of us, whether we be bishops, priests, laity or religious. We all have a part to play, and though our roles differ, none can be regarded as ‘secondary’ or ‘unimportant’. The feast of the Korean Martyrs is a reminder to laypeople of the greatness of the lay vocation, a gentle warning to bishops and clergy that the power of ruling is not the only one to be valued in the Church, and an encouragement to us all that grace will be given in time of need. Thank God for that.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail