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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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 Adonai

Today’s O antiphon addresses God as both Lord and Leader. It emphasizes both the transcendence of God and his nearness to us, something many of us have difficulty getting our heads round. The holiness of God instills a strange kind of fear, perhaps awe would be a better word, a sense of the absolute “otherness” of God before whom we can only tremble. Yet this transcendent God is intimately bound up in every aspect of our lives: he is truly not a God far off, but near at hand. We call upon him to free us with outstretched arm from everything that holds us back from knowing and loving him, from being the people we are meant to be. Again, you can find texts and a recording of the antiphon here on the monastery web site.

Apart from liturgy, what else has been going on in the monastery? This was the week our laser printer died mid-print, and because of the  kind of work we do a replacement was essential. One duly arrived within 24 hours but it weighs 30Kg, so you can imagine the huffing and puffing as two nuns carried it up two flights of stairs. Now, if anyone wants a brand new, unopened, heavy-duty cycle original toner cartridge for a Xerox N2125, which cost about £180, please make us an offer.

The mobile version of our web site is now in live testingand can be viewed using an iPhone, iPad or Android device. We still have some Flash elements to eliminate, but you can view the mobile site here (link opens in new window). If we’ve done our coding right, from Monday onwards our web site will detect what you are using and direct you to either the desktop or mobile version as appropriate without your having to do anything. Nifty, eh? Please note that the search box in the sidebar will not be operative until Monday.

Finally, please could I ask for an end to the emails and so on regarding the Ordinariate? I, for one, am tiring of being told what the community here should think or believe. Some (not all!) of the communications have been rude or ill-informed or both, and though we are trying to respond courteously we think we might spend our time more profitably. I hope you understand.

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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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Midnight Musings

Last night I spent rather more hours than I care to admit worrying about money. (If you want to know why, look at the Expansion section of our web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and, as our American cousins say, go figure.) I tried the usual monastic method of beating insomnia, i.e. praying, but when that didn’t work decided to listen to the World Service. There I heard an interesting programme which examined how non-profits measure their performance.

Many of us look at income and expenditure but neglect to ask whether the objects of a Charity are really being attained, and if so, how well — in business terms, how efficiently. It’s possible to show a good financial statement yet be poor at fulfilling the Charity’s objects without actually failing to do so.

Naturally, I started to think about our own Charity. Given the slenderness of our resources, human as well as material, I think we can make a good case for ourselves: monastic life is lived with fervour; we welcome people to the monastery and online, both of which require considerable time and effort; we run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired, etc, etc. but still there is no way in which we can actually measure what we do. Like everyone else we are reduced to an annual Statement of Accounts and Report to the Charity Commission.

Our annual report contains facts and figures, a statement of aims and objectives and our own self-assessment as to how well or otherwise we met them. It gives a good picture of how the year has been spent, but it provides no real indication of what you might call the “efficiency” of our Charity. The question becomes even more interesting when one starts to compare other Charities operating in the same area, for example, all monastic Charities perhaps, or all those active in retreat work.

It would take a much better mathematician than I am to work out a way of comparing the relative efficiency of a big Charity and a small one, but I’m sure the results would be thought-provoking and, in some cases, surprising.

There are some things that cannot be quantified, especially where the work of a Charity is concerned, but amid all the talk of “best practice” and “standards” for this and that, the regulations we are all obliged, with good reason, to observe, I can’t help wondering whether the child’s question is still the one most worth answering. “Why a cow?” asks much more than “what is this cow’s milk yield?” Something to ponder, perhaps, during my next sleepless night.

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