O Rex Gentium

We live in a world where kings rarely figure, except as costly buffoons or relics of some barbaric past. Even in Britain, where we have a Queen who has served with dignity and steadfastness for many years, kingship is not a subject to conjure with. Yet today we address the Saviour we are awaiting as King of the Nations. We invite him into our lives as absolute sole Lord, one for whom we long. Again we are faced with a paradox: we desire this apparent annihilation of our freedom which leads to true freedom.

If that were not enough, we pray for the coming of the Corner-stone who will unite both Jew and gentile and redeem this creature of clay. Stone and clay are so different. You would think that clay, being malleable, would do a better job of uniting disparate elements than stone; but the corner-stone is a brilliant piece of architectural engineering which gives strength and stability to a structure which brick (baked clay) cannot achieve. (Sometimes it pays to think  the obvious.)

Where does that leave us, with Christmas just around the corner and ourselves perhaps a little weary with all the preparations? I think it leaves us contemplating our own fragility, certainly, but also the miracle of grace which is our salvation. It reminds us, too, that no matter how much the Christmas story is sentimentalised or trivialised, the birth of Christ is an event that has changed the world for ever. God has become man and we can never be the same again:

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.

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O Oriens

One doesn’t have to be an astronomer to be fascinated by the sky. This morning, for the first time since 1638, a full lunar eclipse will coincide with the Winter Solstice and tonight, as the shortest day of the year moves into deep darkness, we shall be singing of the Morning Star, splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice. The paradoxes fly so thick and fast it would take a Chesterton to do them anything like justice.

What is this Light that we Christians are so excited about it? Why does it matter to us? We identify the Light with our Saviour, Jesus Christ, readily enough; but it is disconcerting to discover how many of us are not quite convinced that we actually need saving. We prefer not to examine our faith too often, lest it be found weak and wanting, so we hide it even from ourselves. What we hide from sight is usually something of which we are ashamed; and shame is one of the most crippling of all emotions. It is  a kind of inner darkness, and the darkness within is the most terrible of all. That is why we pray so ardently that the coming of Christ will illumine the most hidden recesses of our being. Christ comes to us as Light and Life, if we will allow him. The question is, will we?

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O Clavis David

Today’s O antiphon links beautifully with the gospel of the day, Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Both remind us of the freedom we have been given in Christ. Yet how many of us think of ourselves as being really free? We are bound by our history, our genetic make-up, the choices we have made through life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These can be both limitation and opportunity, but being human, we tend to concentrate on the limitations rather than the possibilities. The sad fact is, we are often quite happy in our bondage: if we are not free, we are not responsible. We can be moral Peter Pans all our lives.

Or can we? It may not be so much a case of being Peter Pan as a prisoner. The key image in the antiphon is a powerful one. To be locked into a room, even accidentally, can be an unnerving experience. To know that one’s release is entirely dependent on another challenges all one’s belief in one’s ability to impose one’s own will. We are reduced to waiting and hoping that the key-holder will let us out.

Two thousand years ago a young Jewish girl held the fate of all of us in her hands. Would she consent to be the Mother of God, to accept the Key of David who alone could set us free? That she did is the cause of all our joy this coming Christmas. Our liberation is close at hand.

(It is a monastic tradition to give a chapter-talk today on the theme of the Annunciation. Ours is still awaiting approval for listing by iTunes but in the meantime you can listen to it on the Podcast page of the monastery web site. Unfortunately, it requires a Flash player so will not always work on the mobile version of the web site — it depends on the device you use to access it.)

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O Radix Jesse

Tonight’s O antiphon is traditionally intoned by the gardener of the community, probably because the word radix or root suggests working with the soil. Even a window-box gardener can identify with the idea of tilling the earth and watching the amazing transformation of tiny, apparently lifeless seeds into mighty plants.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, when the world around us covered is in snow and the prospect of spring and warmth far distant, the idea of growth is not uppermost in our minds. Yet the astonishing fact is that the earth brings forth our Saviour. He is born of human stock, one like us in all things but sin. He before whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek is sprung from the line of Jesse.

In the middle ages Jesse was often portrayed, as on the screen behind the high altar of Christchurch Priory, dreaming of the child who was to be born from his stock. Dreams are important in scripture, but no dream of Jesse is recorded. Instead we have the reality, Jesus Christ, true Man and true God, Saviour of us all.

(Note: you can listen to the O antiphon being sung and read some suggestions for further reading on the Advent page of the monastery web site.)

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O Sapientia

O Sapientia

Tonight at Vespers we shall begin the wonderful series of Magnificat antiphons known as the Great O Antiphons. You can read more about them and listen to them being sung on the Advent page of our web site, here.

We begin the series with an invocation of Wisdom, which proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, fills the whole universe and holds all things in being. We ask this divine Wisdom, so strong and yet so gentle, to come and show us the way of prudence, the way of divine truthfulness. It is a dangerous prayer to make, because it may be answered with a disturbing literalness. Once we have glimpsed the Truth, we can never be the same again. All our old falsehoods, the “little white lies” we use to protect ourselves, begin to seem unbearably shabby. We stand in need of re-creation; and that is precisely what Advent is about.

These last days of Advent are very precious. If until now you have not been able to make any time for spiritual preparation for Christmas, try to read though the O antiphons each day and the scripture texts we suggest should be read in conjunction with them. It may seem to you very little but God is gracious and immensely pleased with the small things we do for love of him.

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Gaudete Sunday Distractions

My thoughts wandered during the homily today, and I found myself wondering, yet again, what it was that gave both Jesus and his forerunner, John the Baptist, such power over people. I suspect the “correct” answer is love or compassion; but part of me can’t let go the notion that it was truth that set them apart from others and at the same time drew others to them.

Integrity, being truthful in every aspect of one’s being, is a difficult quality. We admire it but often find it impossible to live with, either in ourselves or in others. Yet without integrity, all the other qualities we find attractive can easily become much less than they should be. Love, for example, can become mere sentimentality or, even worse, a form of self-gratification (“I do like to watch myself being loving and compassionate”).

There was in both Jesus and John something uncompromising, something utterly truthful. If we can have a share in that truthfulness of theirs, we can indeed rejoice.

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The Advent Message

Romanesque Angle in Priestly Vestments
Romanesque Angel in Priestly Vestments

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

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

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

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

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Tota pulchra es, Maria

Murillo: The Immaculate Conception
Murillo: The Immaculate Conception

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

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

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

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Humility and Assurance

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist

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

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

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

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

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Waiting in Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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