O Rex Gentium | 22 December 2020

potter's hands shaping clay

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)

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O Oriens | 21 December 2020

Photo by Vivek Doshi on Unsplash

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.

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O Clavis David | 20 December 2020

The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

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.

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O Radix Jesse | 19 December 2020

Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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O Adonai | 18 December 2020

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.

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O Sapientia | 17 December 2020

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. 

O Sapientia: music and text

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.

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From Christmas Tree Baubles to the Burning Bush

Christmas trees have never really interested me. As a child, I remember our house being decorated with boughs of greenery, holly for the most part, with a small, artificial tree in an obscure corner, remarkable only for its exquisite glass ornaments. At Stanbrook I groaned when, as refectorian, it fell to me to decorate the huge tree in the refectory and even here, where the tree is much smaller, I have always maintained that once I have put the lights up my task is done. A few days ago, however, thanks to a Facebook friend, I had to re-think my ideas.

The connection between a Christmas tree and the Burning Bush is not immediately obvious, but once one begins considering the idea, it becomes more and more entrancing. The fresh greenery, illuminated with points of light, the gracious bending under the weight of a stylized fruitfulness, there is more here to meditate on than meets the eye. It can indeed be an image of the Burning Bush and hence of Mary and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Coptic Orthodox Christians do not celebrate Advent in quite the same way we in the West do, but they do have a series of special hymns sung at Vigils that includes one referring to the Burning Bush and the likeness between it and the Virgin Mary. It is a theme we find frequently in the Fathers. Liturgically, in the West the connection is made explicit in the third Vesper antiphon for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on 1 January, but otherwise less is made of it than in the Coptic tradition.

One of the Coptic hymns soars to great heights in an attempt to show how Mary carried within her the humanity and divinity of Christ:

The burning bush seen by Moses
the prophet in the wilderness
the fire inside it was aflame
but never consumed or injured it.
The same with the Theotokos
Mary carried the fire of Divinity
nine months in her holy body
without blemishing her virginity.


Hymn of the Burning Bush, Coptic Orthodox Church Kiahk Psalmody

I am beginning to think that, when we put up our Christmas tree on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we should accompany the act with a prayer, a blessing. The tree, the lights, the baubles are not as insignificant as I once thought them. They are a sacramental which, in their own way, can lead us deeper into the mystery at the heart of our celebration: that God loved the world so much that he sent his own Son, in the likeness of human flesh — flesh taken from Mary, whose consent to be the Mother of God made possible our salvation.

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Gaudete Sunday (III Sunday of Advent) 2020

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

Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments and pealing organ music, ought to be an occasion of pure joy, oughtn’t it? A moment of relaxation in our Advent journey when we rejoice with all our hearts. Then we look at the world about us and sigh. Hundreds of schoolboys abducted from their boarding school in Katsina, Nigeria; post-Brexit trade talks taken to the knife-edge amid threats from the British side to use Royal Navy gunboats to patrol U.K. waters; a dying U.S. presidency which, in the view of many, is storing up trouble for the future; and a pandemic that seems to be regaining much of its original virulence even as it leads to job losses and insecurity among those least equipped to deal with them.

We read Isaiah’s lyrical praise of the Messiah and his mission (Isaiah 61.1-2,10-11), sing the Magnificat in response and allow Paul’s words to the Thessalonians about rejoicing and praying at all times to sink in (1 Thessalonians 5.16-24) and wonder, briefly, whether the Church inhabits the same universe as the rest of us. Then we come to the gospel, (John 1.6-8,19-28), and, as throughout the last few days, focus on the figure of John the Baptist, the saint Jean Daniélou memorably called ‘the one joy man’.

John the Baptist ought to have been a grump, living as he did on the edge of the desert, challenging those who didn’t want to change their ways; but he wasn’t. He was filled with joy, filled with the Spirit, a lamp alight and burning as he waited for the coming of the Son who would be the true Light to enlighten the world. His joy echoes down the centuries. It reminds us that joy doesn’t come from material security or everything going our way. It comes from closeness to the Lord, from trusting him, allowing his light into our darkness. If today the world seems very bleak, we can take courage from John, because there is one very significant fact we need to remember. John wasn’t sure he had encountered the Messiah in the person of Jesus. He questioned. He hesitated. The very one to whom he was forerunner was, in an important sense, unknown to him. I think we can all identify with that — and rejoice, too.

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On Eagle’s Wings

There are times when we feel completely spent and have to be carried by others. It isn’t pleasant. It goes against all our notions of being adult and independent, humbles our pride and makes us realise how little control we actually have over our own life, let alone what goes on around us. Interestingly, Isaiah does not see this in negative terms. He links the experience of being carried, of renewing our strength, to the Lord’s understanding (cf Isaiah 40.25–31), while in the gospel, Jesus invites us to find rest in him (Matthew 11.28–30). There is clearly more to this than mere relaxation of effort.

I think one of the important lessons of Advent is that we are not in charge. No amount of effort on our part is going to make what we will come about. On the other hand, co-operating with grace will bring about what the Lord desires; and there’s the rub. So often there is a gap between our desires and the Lord’s. If we’re honest, we don’t always like the way the Lord orders things and secretly cherish alternative views about how matters should be arranged. I daresay Establishment figures in first-century Palestine were not too thrilled at the idea of salvation coming from what, on the surface, must have seemed a most unusual family situation. Even today, most of us probably have strong opinions about what the Church should be or do and are rather annoyed that others don’t necessarily see things the same way. Time to think about those eagle’s wings again, I suggest.

Video footage taken from an eagle in flight is fascinating. It gives a completely different view of the ground below. I hope it is not too fanciful to say that Advent can give us a new perspective on life, but we have to be willing to allow it, to let the scriptures appointed to be read at this season shape our understanding and let our inner eye focus on our goal.

P.S. Red kites, as pictured above, are a familiar sight round here.

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Preparing a Way for the Lord

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash of frosty pathway

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

On the Second Sunday of Advent we hear the Lord’s call to comfort his people, and Isaiah’s answering call to prepare a way for him in our hearts (cf Isaiah 40). Then Mark’s Gospel opens with the figure of John the Baptist in the wilderness, quoting the prophet and plunging us into the drama of welcoming the Messaiah into the most secret parts of our being (cf Mark 1. 1–8). Surely we are in a dry and dusty desert, under searing skies, contemplating the stoniness of our own hearts? Perhaps we are, but for those of us in northern Europe the illustration above may resonate a little more than some romantic image of a desert we have never personally experienced — our hearts may be frosty, tangled, fenced in. Without pressing the analogy to absurdity, it is easy to see there are many ways of avoiding God, of refusing to engage while all the time preserving our chosen sense of self. Advent is a time of stripping ourselves of our defences, of allowing God to work in and on us. There is nothing romantic about that. The barriers we put up against God have to be taken down. It may be painful, but it is also liberating and a great joy.

Personal
One reader has expressed disappointment that I’m not posting every day during Advent. I’m having chemotherapy and my brain cells are ‘socially distancing’ at present. But I’ll write when I feel I can.

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