Candlemas

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, formerly known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and popularly known as Candlemas, is really the end of Christmastide, coming exactly forty days after our 25 December celebration of Christ’s birth. It used to be celebrated on 14 February, forty days after Epiphany, since, until the 25 December date became general, the birth of Christ was always celebrated on that day. It marks the occasion when, in accordance with Jewish law, Jesus, as a first-born male, was solemnly offered in the temple and redeemed or bought back by the offering of a couple of  doves or young pigeons. In the monastery we ‘remember’ Christmas by eating one of the special foods associated with it. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good!’

The liturgy of the feast has evolved slowly. It was not until the eleventh century that the practice of processing with lighted candles seems to have become common (suggested, no doubt, by the words of Simeon in the gospel) but I think some of the old customs help to explain the dual nature of this feast, the looking back and looking forward, the joy and the sadness. Purple vestments used to be worn for the procession (probably because processions at the beginning of Mass have a penitential character) but were laid aside in favour of white, the colour of rejoicing, once the altar was reached. Just so we have in the gospel the joy of welcoming the Messiah for whom Simeon and Anna and the whole people of Israel yearned and those dark words of prophesy about the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart. It is a bittersweet celebration of the Child and his destiny.

It sounds lame, but much of life is bittersweet. I think this feast is a great encouragement as many of us are more than a little agnostic about why we are here or how free we are. Accidents of birth or education, or circumstances over which we have no control such as the economic situation, determine much of what happens to us. We can feel as though our destiny is thrust upon us. Yet we also know that as children of God we are supremely free, that grace is unconfined ; and so we live in this tension between constraint and freedom. The joy of today has the shadow of the Cross over it: a reminder, if we need one, that God’s ways are not our ways. He can bring light out of darkness, life out of what we experience as death.

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Beatitude

The gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time is Matthew 5. 1-12, the Beatitudes. No matter how often we hear them (and it is important to hear them, not just scan the text with our eyes), the words fall into that unusual category of being both fulfilled yet still not quite fulfilled. We are blessed, but not eternally blessed. We have just enough of heaven now to long for what is to come.

Let us not forget that those who are poor in spirit can claim heaven now as well as hereafter; that the gentle have a right to the earth now as well as hereafter; and so on through the Beatitudes, no matter how often we fail to perceive what we have already been given.

The most challenging Beatitude of all is probably “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Purity of heart enables us to see as God sees, without the distortion of sin or pride. In that wonderful clarity we may hope to catch a glimpse, a reflection, of God himself, knowing that one day we shall see him as he is, perfect in beauty, the joy of all the living. That is why purity of heart is the great goal of monastic life, that for which all our observances are meant to prepare us, in the hope that one day we may enjoy the vision of God.

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Baptism of the Lord 2011

The Baptism of the Lord
The Baptism of the Lord

Liturgically, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of Christmastide and the beginning of Ordinary Time, just as it marks the end of the hidden years at Nazareth and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It is the third of the great theophanies that characterize this season. We have already celebrated the revelation to the Jews at Christmas and to the gentiles at Epiphany; now, for the first time, we have a revelation of the mystery of the Trinity.

The Fathers loved to comment on this Baptism which foreshadows our own. They delighted in the idea of Christ’s body going into the Jordan and making all the waters of the earth holy; they became lyrical when they thought of the descent of the Holy Spirit or the voice of the Father affirming that this was indeed his Beloved. It therefore comes as a surprise to many to learn that this feast is of comparatively recent institution in the Church (1955). It always used to be one of the events celebrated at Epiphany, as the liturgy of that day still makes clear. Why do we need a separate feast, and what does it mean today?

For myself the answer is to be found in the collect for the day, where we dare to pray that as Christ shared with us his humanity, so we may come to share in his divinity. It is a breathtaking prayer and reminds us that we are more than just a jumble of genes. Whatever sins we commit, however much we fail both as individuals and as a Church, whatever enormities society as a whole permits, there is hope: hope of redemptiom, hope of transformation. The Baptism of the Lord is not an event in the distant past; it is reality for us here and now in 2011 and reminds us that ultimately life and goodness triumph over death and evil.

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Epiphany 2011

The Three Magi
The Three Magi

Readers of Colophon may remember that we used this image of the Magi for our post about Epiphany last year. The Autun sculptor has captured beautifully both the mystery and the humanity of these three seekers after truth. I particularly love the tender way the angel is wakening one by touching his little finger as the other two lie fast asleep. One can imagine him whispering, “Get up, this is the way!”

Often we resolve problems or come to a deeper appreciation of things by not explicitly attending to them. Sleeping on the problem, going for a walk, playing something on the piano or weeding a flower-bed: all are tried and trusted methods of allowing our minds to break free of the constraints we put upon them when we are trying to work something out.

For the Christian there is another and more effective way of breaking free of these constraints, and that is prayer. Not prayer as instant solution or easy way out, but prayer as quiet, persevering seeking after God. The Magi loved truth and undertook an enormous journey in pursuit of it. They found what they sought where they must least have expected to find it: in a small child born in an obscure part of a Roman province. We often seek truth in odd places and can be disconcerted to discover that it lies much nearer home. May Epiphany reveal to you the wonder of him who is Light from Light, our journey’s goal, Jesus Christ our Lord.

(If you wish to reread the Colophon entry for Epiphany 2010, the best way of doing so is to go via our web site and click on the archive for January 2010. At the moment the JS-Kit comments script is making things work very slowly, so we need to decide whether to  drop the comments, which we are reluctant to do, or find another way of archiving them. We’ll take our own advice and sleep on it.)

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Becket and Conscience

St Thomas Becket
St Thomas Becket

The feast of St Thomas Becket always takes me back to Cambridge days and the difficulty of making up my mind about Becket. I always wanted to see him as the doughty champion of the Church, clear-eyed in his acceptance of the consequences of clashing with the king. But I was enough of a historian to worry that many of his contemporaries were less convinced. Gilbert Foliot, for example, did not see Becket as a hero; and Foliot was a man of great integrity. I finally decided that I could accept Becket’s holiness without necessarily thinking him right in all his judgements (it is significant that no one, not even his worst enemies, ever accused Becket of unchastity which, at that time, would have scuppered any claim to sanctity, but the cause for which he died was quickly superseded by a compromise).

My student dilemma is one we are regularly faced with in the secular sphere. Recent events in Russia leave one “wondering” about the justice system there. What is happening in the Ivory Coast has a definite whiff of sulphur about it; and as for what we know of Afghanistan, who could say, hand on heart, that the western forces have made the situation there any better, despite the huge sacrifice of people and resources on every side?

All of us have to make decisions based on imperfect and often contradictory evidence. We must do the best we can. Sometimes doing the best we can may lead to martyrdom of one kind or another. More often it means being misunderstood or misprized, usually by those whose opinion we most value. Let us not undervalue the courage and persistence that requires. The daily death to self, the trying to do the right thing, makes the whole of life a martyrdom, a witness for Christ.

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Christmas Feasts

The Christmas feasts come thick and fast this week: St John the Evangelist; Holy Innocents; St Thomas of Canterbury; Mary the Mother of God; and before we have had time to draw breath, Epiphany, which is for many the greatest feast of Christmastide, when gentiles are admitted alongside Jews to experience the salvation of God.

All these feasts are a reminder that we are not to linger beside the crib. The martyrdom of Stephen (not celebrated this year because of Sunday’s feast of the Holy Family) showed us clearly that following Christ will be costly. What then of John, whose feast we keep today?

There is so much mystery about John. Is he the Beloved Disciple; did he actually write all the works attributed to him; was he spared a martyr’s death; did he live and die at Ephesus? Above all, what kind of man was he, how did he understand God, why does he seem so different from all the other early writers of the Church?

Forests have been felled and seas of ink consumed in an effort to answer these questions, but I think we can, without argument, claim him as the Church’s first mystic. Mysticism gets a bad press these days, mainly because of the vapid, New Age travesty of the same: the reality is much less cosy, much closer to John’s own terrifying vision on Patmos, a glimpse of God as he is, as terrible as he is beautiful.

John’s profound meditation on the meaning of Christ’s words and actions, his insistence on the primacy of love and forgiveness in building up the Christian community, is a lesson for us all. It is only when we welcome the Word into our lives and allow ourselves to be changed by him that we begin to understand what is asked of us and what it means to be a child of God. What happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago has opened for us the way to salvation, but the journey cannot be completed without passing through Death and Resurrection.

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Et Incarnatum Est

Eric Gil: "And" THE WORD was made flesh, Et Incarnatum Est. What an immensity is contained within that  phrase! We kneel before the Mystery when we proclaim it in the Creed. We sing it over and over again, this Love of God made visible in a tiny human frame; this Strength of God Almighty in the fragility of a new-born child. Can the God whom we adore be a God far off? Surely not. He is forever Emmanuel, God-with-us. So, as St Basil says, let us dance with the angels and sing.

A HAPPY AND BLESSED CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL.

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Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is a busy day for everyone and it’s easy to become irritable or snappy, especially when unexpected visitors turn up just when we want to see to the turkey, make up a bed for someone or otherwise get on with our Christmas Plan. St Benedict has something to say about this in the section of RB that we read today (chapter 66).

Speaking of the gatekeeper of the monastery, he says that when anyone arrives we should thank God then greet the visitor in a warm-hearted way, with all the graciousness that the fear of God inspires. Learning to thank God for interruptions to our plans and not just their fulfilment isn’t easy. It’s even harder to thank God when our hopes and plans are completely dashed; but there’s something about blessing and not cursing that transforms a negative situation into something quite different. Gratitude enlarges the heart, and when we make space for others, something wonderful happens.

Mary and Joseph had to accept the disappointment of their hopes and plans for an ordinary family life. Today we think of them in Bethlehem, reduced to sheltering in a stable because no one would take them in. But in utter self-forgetfulness, they prepare for the birth of Christ; and when he is born, they welcome a succession of strangers, from smelly shepherds to daunting Magi. Here, surely, is an example of what it means to welcome God into one’s life, not as we would but as he would. May Mary and Joseph help us to welcome God into our lives today.

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O Emmanuel

The last of the great O antiphons is so rich in allusion and imagery that we could spend hours unpacking its meaning. We begin with a string of titles: Emmanuel (God-with-us), King, Law-giver, Desired of the Nations and Saviour. Each one enlarges our understanding of what we mean by “God” but it is significant that we consider God not as he is in himself but as he is in relation to us. There is an honesty about that which is refreshing. How can we know anything about God except what he chooses to reveal to us?

The prayer we make in the antiphon is the deceptively simple one, “come and save us”, but for the first time we ask it of the Lord our God, Domine Deus noster. Everything else is now stripped away. We stand before God in our nothingness and call upon him to save us. Our prayer is urgent and simple as prayer always is when it comes from the heart: God is God, we need his help. It may have taken us all Advent to get to this point. What matters is that we have finally arrived here, acknowledging our need of God.

Tonight we end our Advent journey. With Christmas Eve we begin to focus on the Nativity and there is a dramatic change in the liturgy. Tomorrow morning, when all is cold and dark and silent, we shall sing the Martyrology, the ancient proclamation of the coming Birth of Christ. It situates in time and place the birth of him whom tonight we call Emmanuel, “Jesus Christ, God and Man.”

Even if we have had very little time for spiritual preparation until now, it is worth trying to find a few minutes today to reflect on Israel’s longing for a Messiah and how wonderfully God fulfilled that longing in Christ. More than that, let us reflect on how God has acted in our own lives. The Fathers used to say of the Blessed Virgin Mary that she conceived God in her heart before she conceived him in her flesh. So too with us: Christmas begins inside before we can celebrate outside.

(Texts, recordings and suggested scripture readings may be found on the Advent page of our web site.)

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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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