I’m sure I’m not the only British person who has to think twice about the date of 9/11 because we habitually use the order day, month, year (in despite of Hart’s Rules) for recording dates. For many people the events of 9/11 are now a rather shadowy memory. For those who lost family or friends it can be a painfully lonely anniversary. They still grieve, but the rest of the world has moved on to other tragedies, other enormities. To remember what happened, to pray for those who died, to allow both the horror and the hope that followed in its wake to move us is to acknowledge our common humanity. Here in the monastery we shall be joining in prayer with all who remember this day and desire a world in which peace and mutual love and respect triumph over the will to destroy.
There can be no doubt about it. With today’s O antiphon we have touched rock bottom. All our fine phrases, our careful allusions to salvation history, our bold attempts to name God and so have some sort of power over him (as if we could!), come down to this: a desperate plea for a desperate plight. For the first time we address him as ‘Lord our God’ and humbly, brokenly, ask him to come and save us. Before we get to that point, however, we pile up title after title used in previous antiphons, as though to make sure we miss none out that might touch his heart. But there can be no disguising the fact that this antiphon leaves us stripped naked, acknowledging our need of God, just as, on Christmas morning, God in Christ will stand naked before us, needing our love.
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, the One for whom the nations hope and long and their Saviour, come and save us, Lord our God.
Many a Christmas sermon will dwell on the meaning of Emmanuel, God-with-us, but if we are honest, most of us know times when God, if there is a god, seems distant, unapproachable, not interested in us or our doings. We look at the latest disaster and ask, ‘Where was God when those children died, screaming in agony, in Aleppo?’ ‘Where was God when that lorry plunged into the crowd in Berlin?’ ‘Where was God when X died, or I lost my home or job, or I found out I had a terminal illness?’ These are legitimate questions, and the standard answer, that God was with us as we suffered, rarely convinces. We need a God not afar off but close at hand, and for many, God is not close at hand.
Perhaps instead of trying to answer the question ‘where was God?’ we have to explore the question ‘where is God?’ At first sight, that may seem like mere word-play of the most barren kind; but if we stop and think about it, it is anything but. To ask where was God is to ask a question of history, to go back in time; to ask where is God is to pray and enter into a relationship with him here and now. And that surely, is what the Incarnation has brought about in a most wonderful way. 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. Whatever happens, however low we fall, however much distress or failure we experience, the Everlasting Arms are beneath us. God is indeed with us.
ADVENT O ANTIPHONS AND CHRISTMAS NEWSLETTER
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5.
Our Christmas Newsletter is available online here: http://eepurl.com/cukCsr. It has a stunning photo of the sun shining on the earth taken from space.
Unity is something to which we pay lip-service but often shy away from in practice, at least as regards its more demanding aspects. A nice, cosy feeling of togetherness on some issue or other, that’s fine; a vague agreement on some basic principles that doesn’t demand any radical reassessment of how we go about things, no problem; but unity of the kind today’s antiphon urges? Perhaps not. Let’s remind ourselves what we pray for today:
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 deliver man whom you made from clay.
This is a prayer for us gentile Christians, who have been grafted on to the Jewish rootstock through the gracious action of God. We have come late to the Covenant but have been welcomed into it through the blood of Christ. We are frail vessels of clay, but in Jesus Christ, we find the strength of the corner-stone who makes us one. Our prayer is accordingly short and stark: come and deliver us!
Why should our prayer be so simple? I think it is because in this antiphon, as in no other, we are confronted with our own need. The prayer is wrenched out of us, as it were. We may have difficulty with the idea of God as King; we may be hazy about what that meant in Old Testament times; we may stumble over the idea of desiring God, longing for him — it seems so unBritish to allow any emotion to enter our religion, doesn’t it?— even if we concede that unity, wholeness, especially at the personal level, makes sense and is desirable. But this prayer is for something more, it is for a unity that goes beyond the merely functional to the essential. Ultimately, what we are asking is not merely unity in Christ but union with Christ — and that is scary. It means entrusting ourselves to God wholly and for ever, and most of us are frightened of that.
Today we look around the world and see everywhere the signs and consequences of disunity. The rise of nationalism and the disintegration of many of the old political entities has implications for us all, wherever we live. Even in the Church there is bitterness and feuding. In the West, the possibilities opened up by the internet and Social Media have not always been used positively. It is easy to lament what we have lost and indulge in a kind of après nous le déluge nostalgia. The idea of consensus, of working towards a common goal, of sharing ideals and aspirations, may not be as strong as it once was. That does not mean, however, that we are condemned to live in isolation or in little bubbles of like-mindedness. Today’s O antiphon reminds us that we are made of clay. Think of the possibilities that implies. Clay moulded and fired makes excellent brick, and brick laid carefully makes a strong building. When God created Adam from clay, he knew what he was doing; and in Jesus Christ, the new Adam, he has given us a glimpse of what we can become, indeed already are, united with and to him:
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)
A winter rose shall flower
On Jesse’s ancient stem:
The Word of God unfolding
Before the eyes of men.
That verse from the hymn we sing at Lauds captures something of the freshness and beauty of the imagery behind today’s O antiphon, the grace of growing things, of flowering and fruitfulness:
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!
We think of those beautiful medieval images of Jesse and the great tree of descendants springing from his loins — in stone at Christchurch, wood at Abergavenny and glass and stone 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. His looks, his gait, his mannerisms, all have a human origin. He is, so to say, of the earth, earthy. But there is something more. Before him, the humble Galilean, kings stand silent and gentiles come in search. He, and he alone, can set us free from all that binds us and lead us into the Promised Land where all is peace and joy.
I was thinking about this as I read through the latest grim statistics about refugees and migrants. We in Europe are experiencing the greatest mass movement of peoples since the Second World War. People are being uprooted from all that is familiar by war, economic pressures and the dream of something better existing elsewhere. We need our dreams, but we need our roots even more. For a Christian that means being rooted in Christ, growing in love, compassion and holiness throughout our lives.
We are, of course, always inclined to set limits. We don’t mind being a little stunted, a little pot-bound, it’s more comfortable that way. I’ll love other Christians, but I draw the line at loving Muslims/atheists/blacks/whites/conservatives/liberals (complete as appropriate). But if we read through the genealogies of Christ, we notice an interesting thing. This good Jewish boy, this descendant of David, had some very dodgy ancestors, including a non-Jew and some whose private lives were, to say the least, disreputable. If the Son of God was willing to take his flesh and blood from such, who are we to decide who is or is not a worthy recipient of our love and compassion? If our roots are secure in Christ, there can be no fear of the stranger. Yes, we may be hurt; yes, we may find that we lose much that is precious to us, perhaps even our lives. But we are aware that the tree of Jesse leads inexorably to the Tree of Calvary, that the winter rose has blossomed and filled the whole world with its fruit.
ADVENT O ANTIPHONS
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5
How different today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 54. 1–10, seems when read in shortened form at the Easter Vigil, yet the promise it contains is one and the same. The Lord does not forget; he has joined himself to us in an everlasting covenant. If that is true, then it is true in the streets of Aleppo and the dark corners of Yemen as well as in the peaceful, well-nourished households of the west. Our problem is that we do not see it like that; we feel that God has failed in some way to keep his promise, and we are angry and disconsolate. We blame God for the tragedy, for all the misery inflicted on those he claims to love.
One of the uncomfortable truths with which Advent confronts us is this: God relies on us to fuflfil his promises — most spectacularly, when he relied upon the consent of Mary to be the Mother of God, but also, less spectacularly, when he relies upon us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and do good to them that hate us. We may think that we can do nothing to help the people of Syria or the starving children of Yemen, but in fact we can do a great deal. By living as we ought to live, with integrity and generosity, by being peace-makers in our own circle, by cultivating an unshowy sense of mutual support and kindness, we contribute to the store of good in the world and undo much that human malice and evil attempts. It is easy to dismiss this as pie-in-the-sky-idealism, but as G.K. Chesterton remarked long ago, it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that Christianity has never been tried. We cannot silence the guns, perhaps, but we can create a climate of opinion in which the guns cannot be fired.
Earlier this morning, I listened to the sound of gunfire and bombing in the streets of Aleppo. The BBC World Service reporter said very little. There was no need. We already know there is a darkness at the heart of the world, but a darkness of our own making, created from our collective greed and obstinacy certainly, but also from our reluctance to get involved, our confusion, our not knowing what to do or how to do it. Apportioning blame, stridently accusing others, gets us nowhere. It does not lessen the darkness, it only adds to the sense of despair.
Advent is about hope, just as today’s feast, that of St Lucy, is about light; but how can we speak about hope and light when everything seems so black? I think the first Mass reading from Zephaniah 3 gives us a clue, especially these words:
I will remove your proud boasters
from your midst;
and you will cease to strut
on my holy mountain.
In your midst I will leave
a humble and lowly people,
and those who are left in Israel will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.
They will do no wrong,
will tell no lies;
and the perjured tongue will no longer
be found in their mouths.
But they will be able to graze and rest
with no one to disturb them.
Our mistake is to think that we can ‘do it all ourselves,’ without really changing our attitudes. Humility, truth, a recognition of our own littleness, these are not wishy-washy qualities. They are the mark of the truly great person, one whose trust is placed in the Lord and who relies on him; they are attitudes we must cultivate both individually and as nations, however much they may go against the grain. We know that the Sun of Justice will rise with healing in his wings and scatter the darkness around and within us. May he shine upon Syria and all of us — soon.
VIGIL OF PRAYER FOR THE PEOPLE OF SYRIA
We shall hold an informal Vigil of Prayer for the people of Syria between 8.00 p.m. and 9.00 p.m. tonight. Please join us in spirit and intention.
It has been a demanding fortnight. Just as we were going on retreat, I was alerted to an attack on our monastery web sites. I dealt with it as best I could but, by the time we had arrived at our retreat destination, hackers had exploited a vulnerability and our sites were down. It has taken a lot of time and a fair bit of money to put things right, but the new security we have in place should prevent the same thing happening again. Is there any analogy here with the E.U. Referendum? Many people are stunned by the result and are waiting anxiously to see what will happen next — and I don’t just mean in the U.K. I know I have been rather repetitive on the subject, but every nation state is part of a greater whole. We inhabit the same planet. What happens in one part of the world affects those who live in another.
It will take time and money to resolve many of the questions that are forming in people’s minds. Pious platitudes about God being in charge are fine as far as they go, but they do not really comfort (i.e. strengthen) those who who have a sick thump in the stomach about what the future may hold for them and those they hold dear. And for those with an historical imagination, or even a grasp of politics and economics, there are some very grave questions indeed. Although it is early to talk of the break-up of the U.K. or the E.U., the loss of jobs and opportunities, sooner or later we shall have to face the consequences of Thursday’s vote. Optimists say the future for Britain will be better, brighter; the future for the E.U. will be better, brighter without Britain; but none of these assertions is actually based on fact as yet, only on opinion. Which brings me to the rub.
During the past few months, but especially over the last few days, many people have voiced opinions in damaging and divisive ways. In Social Media some have never let an opportunity for expressing their own views pass them by. There have been accusations and counter-accusations, name-calling, imputations of bad faith, expressions of unholy glee or diabolical despair. That is not the way to build unity or make the future safe for those who come after us. At the risk of stretching my web site analogy to breaking-point, may I suggest that what we all need to do now is to take a short pause. Instead of trying to browbeat others into thinking as we do, let’s listen to our own rhetoric, turn it back on ourselves and see how we like it. Let’s think about those who don’t see things as we do. For me personally there was never any question of an in/out campaign as such. It wasn’t a case of winning or losing but making the right choice as best I could, and not for narrow self-interest. I assume everyone else made their decision on the same basis even if they came to different conclusions. I am troubled about the result but for me the important thing now is to work and pray with the situation we have — and the very first thing we all need to do is to put things right with those we have injured, belittled or treated as less than Christ. Because, you see, it is Christ we wound in the person of the other.
On 5 May this year, the Observatorio Bioética of the Catholic University of Valencia published a thoughtful article by Justo Aznar (which you can read in English here) that neatly summarises some of the medical and ethical problems posed by the creation and use of chimeras. Today’s BBC report of work being undertaken in the U.S. to grow human organs inside pigs by means of gene editing simply highlights how far medical research has progressed towards the creation of animal-human hybrids.
I don’t pretend to have the scientific, philosophical or theological skills necessary to discuss this matter in any depth, but there is one question I think we can all legitimately ask and that is: how far can we justify the kind of risk-taking such research involves on the grounds of its potential benefit? I imagine most people would say that organ transplants are a good thing in themselves because they enable us to cope with diseases that would otherwise kill us or condemn us to a lifetime of painful treatment. But there are so many unknowns in the work currently being undertaken that we do not know what we might be unleashing. Does that impose any limits? Does the fact that we can do something necessarily mean it is right to do it? I suspect I may not be the only person waking up this morning and wondering whether we are closer than ever before to a nightmare of our own making — a nightmare we didn’t intend or foresee. What do you think?
I wonder whether St Mark, whose feast we celebrate today, ever stopped to think how his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ would be received. Did he weigh his words carefully, or did they simply tumble out in his enthusiasm for his subject? We can certainly see signs of redaction, and we all silently bless him for some of the little details, like the green grass on which the 5,000 sat to eat their loaves and fishes, but we shall probably never know how much art or artifice has gone into his gospel’s composition. We do know that if we look too long at the gospel’s construction, we may miss the message it contains. Similarly with Barack Obama and Boris Johnson. Their words provoked such squeals of protest over the week-end that we may be in danger of missing the message they wished to convey.
Take President Obama’s forthright remarks about British membership of the E.U. No one likes being told by a foreign Head of State what we should or should not do, but what he had to say was worth pondering. Dismissing his remarks as bullying is unfair and, I think, unhelpful. My American friends won’t like my saying this, but the tendency to give the benefit of their advice to others unsought is one of their characteristics. It is no good taking umbrage, because it is usually kindly meant. Personally, I find it endearing more often than I find it irritating. But President Obama struck a nerve because he touched on a sensitive topic which has not yet been properly debated. We have had plenty of opinion voiced, and various figures have been published, but we have not yet had time to weigh them and think through the consequences.
Boris Johnson’s reaction to President Obama’s remarks was typical of the man. His questioning of the President’s motivation and underlying prejudices was perfectly valid, but the way in which he expressed himself was definitely not. However, it would be as wrong to dismiss his underlying argument as it would Mr Obama’s. Those of us who will be voting in the E.U. Referendum do need to think about sovereignty, economics, immigration and so on and so forth. There is, however, one more thing we must consider: the common good, and the common good not only of our own nation state but of all the other nation states that make up the E.U. and, indeed, the whole world. The Long Ending of St Mark’s Gospel contains the command to proclaim the Good News to the whole of creation. Maybe today we could spend a few moments reflecting on how we understand that injunction in the light of our place in Europe and the world as a whole. Neither staying in, nor leaving, the E.U. is without profound moral and ethical consequences.
Yesterday a Facebook friend asked what seems to me a pertinent question: as well as asking what a potential exit from the European Union might mean for Britian, shouldn’t we also ask what it might mean for the other countries of Europe? In other words, although we shall probably spend the next four months listening to arguments for and against continuing membership of the E.U., those arguments will, almost entirely, focus on the presumed benefits to Britain. Can we argue like that any more? Given the Scottish Nationalist Party’s emphatic preference for remaining in the E.U., can we even assume a coherent understanding of ‘British interests’?
The present cathedra of St Peter, enthroned in Bellini’s magnificent bronze structure, was the gift of Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne and himself Holy Roman Emperor. The feast itself pre-dates the gift and, while always having been seen as a feast of unity, is nevertheless not without controversy, the feast of St Peter’s Chair at Rome having been celebrated on 18 January, and the feast of St Peter’s Chair at Antioch having been celebrated on 22 February. Today we have but the one feast. Without trying to push the analogy too far, I think there is something there we can usefully ponder. I love my country but I am aware of belonging to something larger than the nation state. We no longer identify Europe with Christendom, but, as a Catholic, I certainly feel the pull of that older, larger world in which a common Latin culture both united and transcended individual kingdoms and principalities; and, just as in Charles the Bald’s day, when he and his brother, John, faced a Saracen threat, we are conscious of the threat posed by Wahabist violence to much that we hold dear.
The Brexit question is not a purely political or economic question. At its heart is a much deeper and more difficult question: how do we understand the world in which we live and our place in it? For those of us who pray, I suggest we have a lot of praying to do as well as thinking.