An Easter Drenched in Blood: 2019

As I was posting this morning’s prayer tweet, news came in of the massacre in Sri Lanka. Churches and hotels have been bombed and at least 137* are known to be dead. It was a bloody and brutal act, and there are fears that there is more to come. Yet we continue to sing ‘Alleluia’, to proclaim Christ’s triumph over sin and death, to assert that love and forgiveness are better than hatred and cruelty. Are we fools, living in a cosy world of make-believe; or are we clear-sighted, conscious of the reality of things and refusing to be daunted by evil or the lack of humanity we discover in ourselves and in others?

Note, I say in ourselves as well as others. If our pilgrimage to Easter has taught us anything, it must be that we are each capable of the most horrific evil. We are sinners in need of redemption; weak and fallible beings in need of a Saviour. This morning, as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, we pray for all Christian people, that we may have not only the courage of our faith but its compassion and forgiveness, too. So we can sing our ‘alleluias’, confident that the Risen Christ continues to be the source of our unity and peace, for he has shed his own blood for us and lives now to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father. May he do so now, that the Father of all goodness may see and love in those dead and injured Sri Lankans ‘Christ lovely in limbs not his.’
ªnow 310.

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Holy Saturday 2019

The Harrowing of Hell: Jesus tenderly leads by the hand those who are in Sheol
The Harrowing of Hell: Christ leads a soul from Sheol

Once again we have reached Holy Saturday, that day out of time, when in silence and stillness earth awaits the Resurrection. Our churches are empty of colur and warmth; no sacraments are celebrated; we know only the bleakness of the tomb and what it is to be without Christ. But God is working powerfully. The ancient tradition of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ went down among the dead and preached to those who had had no opportunity of hearing the gospel while alive, reminds us that this is a day of mercy, a day when we do nothing because God does everything.

Monastic life is always lived in what I call ‘Holy Saturday mode’ — that is to say, by the mercy of God, suspended between heaven and hell, his grace leading us ever deeper into the Paschal Mystery. We do not see the way ahead clearly; we trust to his guidance. But we know that tonight, with the kindling of the new fire, his glory will blaze across heaven and earth; death will be destroyed for ever; and Christ will be revealed as our Saviour and Redeemer.

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Good Friday 2019

The cross at Notre Dame de Paris after the fire
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis } The cross stands while the world turns

Good Friday can sometimes seem remote, but surely not this year. The sight of the cross at Notre Dame still standing after the fire has reminded us all that the events of this day are eternally significant. God in Christ has forgiven us. Nothing can ever change that. Now it is for us to forgive others, and if we are hesitant or inclined to limit our forgiveness to certain groups we approve of or even to put others on probation, as it were, we should remember the forgiveness so quickly and readily expressed by many of the Muslims affected by the Christchurch mosque shootings. Good Friday doesn’t give us options; it gives us a command.

At this time of year I often turn to poetry to help me gain a fresh insight into the tremendous events we celebrate. Inevitably, I turn to old favourites, The Dream of the Rood and many of the poems in the Harley Collection. There is a warmth and humanity about them that brings the Crucifixion very close, making us no longer spectators but involved, participant.

Lovely tear from lovely eye,
Why dost thou look so sore?

sings one medieval lyric on the Crucifixion. It is we, alas, who make the cross to be what it is not; who ignore the love and compassion that held our Saviour to its beams; who was and is ‘never wroth’. As we sing the Reproaches this afternoon, that love and compassion should be uppermost in our minds. May it become our own response to God’s extraordinary love for us.

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Maundy Thursday 2019

The Sacred Triduum begins tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Here in the monastery we anticipate the Triduum with a day of special silence and prayer. At noon we have a solemn meal that recalls (but does not replicate) the kind of meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples while our reading of the Last Discourse as the final act of the day ensures we do not lose our focus as Maundy Thursday gives way to Good Friday. The liturgical celebration we begin tonight does not end until Easter morning. It is all one, as you can see from the fact that no dismissal is uttered from the end of Mass tonight until the end of the Easter Vigil. This is the high-point of the Christian year, and it is not a merely historical commemoration, a kind of play-acting that we engage in. By means of the liturgy we enter into the events we recall: we are one with what we are celebrating. What does that mean for us today on Maundy Thursday?

First and foremost, I think it means that we are each bound to scrutinize our own fidelity or lack of it to the commandment to love one another. Unless we are unusually complacent, I daresay most of us feel a little shame-faced when we consider how often we have missed opportunities to serve or done so in a way that was distinctly unloving and ungracious. Some of us may even have made consciousness of our own rectitude — in our own eyes at least — a source of boasting. How many, for example, have noisily turned their backs on the Church, saying they can have no part in her because of the terrible scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up? Then we read of Père Fournier going into the blazing heart of Notre Dame to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and know we are on firm ground again. That is what we expect of our priests! And tonight we recall the giving of that great treasure of the Church, the Holy Eucharist. We give thanks and try to express our love and devotion in those precious hours at the Altar of Repose where we bring all the world’s sin and sorrow and our own pain and confusion.

Maundy Thursday is intense in its movement from Judas’s betrayal to the Agony in the Garden. It is intense in both its joy and its sorrow. We cannot live all our lives with such intensity but tonight we can and must. It is our entry into Christ’s Passion.

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Betrayal | Spy Wednesday 2019

To be betrayed by those we love, to be let down by those in whom we have placed our trust, is agonizing. It is also agonizing to know that we have betrayed others, let them down, been the cause of their suffering. For Judas, as for Jesus, there was a price to pay for what followed after he went out into the night.

Judas is such an equivocal figure but there is something of Judas in all of us. We see in him the type of everyman (or woman); and his fate and ours are bound up together. On the one hand he has been demonised as the arch-betrayer; on the other he is seen as playing a necessary role in redemption. Holy Week, and Spy Wednesday in particular, bring this ambiguity into sharp focus. Once again we must decide where we stand.

I must admit to worrying about Judas and his ultimate fate, mainly because of all that bad press he has had through the centuries. I like best the answer the Lord gave Catherine of Siena in the Dialogues: she was told that mercy was possible even for Judas. Which means that mercy is possible even for you and me and those we find difficult to love. Wonderful thought!

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Notre Dame de Paris in Flames

The Tuesday of Holy Week dawns grim and grey. One of the most celebrated buildings of western Christendom has been gutted by fire. Anyone with a feeling for history, for beauty, for cultural significance must feel sadness at the loss of so much that has formed a backdrop to our lives. The cathedral has always been there. The role it has played in the life of the people of France and of Europe as a whole is incalculable. Inevitably, the media are busy capturing sound-bites from eye-witnesses and politicians, and it is good to see and hear acknowledgement of the courage of the firefighters and those who did their best to ensure that more was not lost; but we in England, at least, have heard nothing from those who are most deeply affected — the canons and parishioners who worship day by day at its altars, for whom the cathedral is a spiritual home rather than a glorious monument. Is it stretching things too far to say that something analogous can happen with Holy Week?

It is easy to make Holy Week a time of sharp contrasts, to spill a Caravaggio-like spotlight on Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and the anguished dialogue between Peter and his Lord that follows, for example, in today’s gospel (John 13.21–33, 36–38). Easy, but perhaps not quite right. Holy Week concentrates our attention on the meaning of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection; but we remember those events liturgically every day at Mass. What we bring to Holy Week is really the result of our fidelity and reflection at other times. Holy Week intensifies our experience, so to say, but it is not a substitute for the rest of the liturgical year.

The poignant images of Notre Dame de Paris in flames will not quickly be forgotten, even as the work of rebuilding begins. In the same way, we do not forget the betrayals and brutality of Holy Week during the rest of the year but use them as a spur to greater devotion to the central mysteries of our Faith and the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Establishing True Justice on Earth

This is the crazy week that returns true sanity to a world gone mad, when God gives his Son to redeem a slave and we dare to sing of the ‘happy fault’ of Adam’s sin. It is the time when true justice is re-established on earth. As we read Isaiah 42. 1–7 (today’s first Mass reading) we are reminded that we are not passive observers of the events of Holy Week: we are participants. The re-establishment of true justice is primarily the work of Christ’s redeeming passion, death and resurrection, of course, but we must also do our part. We too are called to serve the cause of right, to open the eyes of the blind, set prisoners free and lighten the darkness of those bound in dungeons of their own or others’ making. The question for us therefore is, what constitutes true justice and how do we contribute to its achievement?

The answers we give will tend to vary but an important element in all of them will be the restoration of right order to a world that often seems mixed up and out of tune with itself. Some of us will naturally incline to a more active approach to solving or at least alleviating obvious wrongs, belonging to advocacy groups or campaigning on behalf of individuals or a perceived good, such as famine relief or pro-life issues. Others, especially those for whom such active involvement is impossible, may take heart from today’s gospel, John 12.1–11. There we find an act much more powerful than may at first appear. The pouring out of that jar of nard over the feet of Jesus was pure extravagance — a mark of reckless love, of infinite tenderness we remember today, long after the charities distributed by the apostles have been forgotten. I think there is something there for each of us to learn about true justice and the restoration of right order. Love, and love alone, is the key.

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Palm Sunday 2019

Christ's entry into Jerusalem: 1304-06
Fresco
Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Christ’s entry into Jerusalem: 1304-06 by Giotto
Fresco in the Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua

Throughout Holy Week we must decide where we stand: with Christ, or against him. On Palm Sunday the choice is critical. Are we ready to follow Jesus in his triumphal procession, knowing that the hosannas we sing today will soon turn into cries of ‘crucify him, crucify him!’ or do we want to play safe, keep all our options open or use any of the weasel words we employ to mask our cowardice and indecision? Even those of us among the crowd of onlookers must make our choice: are we for him, or against him?

There is a third choice, though it is not an obvious one. We can be the donkey that carries the Lord into Jersusalem, the Christ-bearer. We became Christ-bearers when we were baptized but we often ignore or undervalue what that means. To carry Christ, to take him where he wills to go, is no mean task, no mean feat. It is the glory of the disciple to do exactly that. This morning perhaps we could all reflect on what it means to be the Lord’s donkey, not just today but every day of our lives.

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As Holy Week Draws Near

Tonight, when we sing First Vespers of Palm Sunday, Holy Week begins but my guess is that most Christians will already be thinking about Holy Week and many will be actively preparing their churches and choirs for all that is to come. It is a very human tendency to want to live either in the past or in the future and avoid the present altogether, but the truth is, the present is all we ever have. So, today, on the eve of Palm Sunday, I think we are invited to take stock of where we are now. Whatever our plans for Holy Week and Easter, the Lord has a way of subtly re-writing them. We may be faced with something unwelcome or simply unexpected, but in the midst of it all we must find peace. Today’s first Mass reading, from Ezekiel 37, sets the tone: the Lord will make an eternal covenant of peace with us; he will be our God; but we must do our part, too. We must allow ourselves to be cleansed of our sin and defilement.

We tend to think in terms of our seeking forgiveness, of our making amends, of our being determined to ‘avoid the occasions of sin’ as the old prayer has it. How rarely do we appreciate that being freed from sin is something we must consent to, that in every case God takes the initiative? As I wrote a few days ago, putting the emphasis on our own activity leads to unproductive feelings of guilt and failure. What we must cling to more than ever is the grace of God. We must believe that he wills our salvation, he wills our freedom; and he wills it now. Therefore, we must not let our gaze be so fixed on tomorrow that we fail to see what today offers. During Holy Week we shall mark hour by hour the journey of our Saviour to the Cross and Resurrection but today we are with him in Ephraim, a town bordering on the desert (cf John 11. 45-56). We are hidden with him, and we trust that God is powerfully at work. We do not see; we walk by faith — and that is the best preparation any of us can make as Holy Week draws near.

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Drifting from the Shore

For the past few months life at the monastery has been distinctly challenging. About Cor Orans and its implications I’ll write at a more suitable time. It is enough to say that it continues to cause a great deal of heartache and eats into our time and resources in a way many find baffling. We’ve also had a lot of administration to deal with that has taken us well beyond our comfort zone being both unfamiliar and time-critical; and there has been the problem of my health. I have just returned from a fortnight in hospital, delighted to find that I am still alive and humbled by the generosity and kindness with which I have been treated (to say nothing of the skill and devotion of the team at the Churchill Hospital). It has made me reflect on what our Lenten journey is about. When life is pared down to the essentials and cannot be presumed upon to continue, one is forced to face what at other times one may try to hide from — and the utter transcendence of God is one of those things. But big words and big concepts can themselves be a form of evasion, so let’s think more directly about Lent.

We can take Lent too seriously. By which I mean that we think what we do is what matters: our prayers, our fasts, our almsgiving. It is all about me. But, of course, it isn’t. It is when our plans are upset and we find ourselves drifting from the shore into unexpected currents that we begin to learn what it is really about. Forget that pledge to say 150 psalms standing in the sea as the Celtic monks did — a smile at someone who is being tiresome may actually be harder but I guarantee it will bring its own reward. If the Lent book lies unread and fasting fell down at the first chocolate muffin hurdle, don’t waste time feeling guilty. Try an act of kindness or generosity that you weren’t expecting but which has come your way. In other words, don’t take Lent seriously in the sense that it has to fit your programme but take it very seriously indeed in the sense that it has to fit God’s programme.

This is the time of year when we are asked to pray especially for those preparing for baptism or reception into Full Communion at Easter; for those who are to be married, ordained or make religious profession during the Easter season; those who will be confirmed at Pentecost, and so on — all joyful things. It is also a time to pray for the dying, for those who are grieving while everyone else is singing Alleluia, for all the sadness that humanity endures. The only way we can do that is to allow our prayer to become one with that of the praying Christ. During these last few days before entering on Holy Week, therefore, may I suggest that we look closely at how Jesus spent this peak period of his life on earth? There was solemnity, yes, but also light-heartedness with friends. Our Lenten journey must follow the same pattern. So, do not waste time over failures, as they may appear to us, but concentrate on the ‘now’ of Lent. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord. What is asked of us is that we listen and respond today — not as we might have yesterday or as we might do in the future, but today.

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