From Christmas Tree Baubles to the Burning Bush

Christmas trees have never really interested me. As a child, I remember our house being decorated with boughs of greenery, holly for the most part, with a small, artificial tree in an obscure corner, remarkable only for its exquisite glass ornaments. At Stanbrook I groaned when, as refectorian, it fell to me to decorate the huge tree in the refectory and even here, where the tree is much smaller, I have always maintained that once I have put the lights up my task is done. A few days ago, however, thanks to a Facebook friend, I had to re-think my ideas.

The connection between a Christmas tree and the Burning Bush is not immediately obvious, but once one begins considering the idea, it becomes more and more entrancing. The fresh greenery, illuminated with points of light, the gracious bending under the weight of a stylized fruitfulness, there is more here to meditate on than meets the eye. It can indeed be an image of the Burning Bush and hence of Mary and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Coptic Orthodox Christians do not celebrate Advent in quite the same way we in the West do, but they do have a series of special hymns sung at Vigils that includes one referring to the Burning Bush and the likeness between it and the Virgin Mary. It is a theme we find frequently in the Fathers. Liturgically, in the West the connection is made explicit in the third Vesper antiphon for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on 1 January, but otherwise less is made of it than in the Coptic tradition.

One of the Coptic hymns soars to great heights in an attempt to show how Mary carried within her the humanity and divinity of Christ:

The burning bush seen by Moses
the prophet in the wilderness
the fire inside it was aflame
but never consumed or injured it.
The same with the Theotokos
Mary carried the fire of Divinity
nine months in her holy body
without blemishing her virginity.


Hymn of the Burning Bush, Coptic Orthodox Church Kiahk Psalmody

I am beginning to think that, when we put up our Christmas tree on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we should accompany the act with a prayer, a blessing. The tree, the lights, the baubles are not as insignificant as I once thought them. They are a sacramental which, in their own way, can lead us deeper into the mystery at the heart of our celebration: that God loved the world so much that he sent his own Son, in the likeness of human flesh — flesh taken from Mary, whose consent to be the Mother of God made possible our salvation.

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Gaudete Sunday (III Sunday of Advent) 2020

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments and pealing organ music, ought to be an occasion of pure joy, oughtn’t it? A moment of relaxation in our Advent journey when we rejoice with all our hearts. Then we look at the world about us and sigh. Hundreds of schoolboys abducted from their boarding school in Katsina, Nigeria; post-Brexit trade talks taken to the knife-edge amid threats from the British side to use Royal Navy gunboats to patrol U.K. waters; a dying U.S. presidency which, in the view of many, is storing up trouble for the future; and a pandemic that seems to be regaining much of its original virulence even as it leads to job losses and insecurity among those least equipped to deal with them.

We read Isaiah’s lyrical praise of the Messiah and his mission (Isaiah 61.1-2,10-11), sing the Magnificat in response and allow Paul’s words to the Thessalonians about rejoicing and praying at all times to sink in (1 Thessalonians 5.16-24) and wonder, briefly, whether the Church inhabits the same universe as the rest of us. Then we come to the gospel, (John 1.6-8,19-28), and, as throughout the last few days, focus on the figure of John the Baptist, the saint Jean Daniélou memorably called ‘the one joy man’.

John the Baptist ought to have been a grump, living as he did on the edge of the desert, challenging those who didn’t want to change their ways; but he wasn’t. He was filled with joy, filled with the Spirit, a lamp alight and burning as he waited for the coming of the Son who would be the true Light to enlighten the world. His joy echoes down the centuries. It reminds us that joy doesn’t come from material security or everything going our way. It comes from closeness to the Lord, from trusting him, allowing his light into our darkness. If today the world seems very bleak, we can take courage from John, because there is one very significant fact we need to remember. John wasn’t sure he had encountered the Messiah in the person of Jesus. He questioned. He hesitated. The very one to whom he was forerunner was, in an important sense, unknown to him. I think we can all identify with that — and rejoice, too.

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On Eagle’s Wings

There are times when we feel completely spent and have to be carried by others. It isn’t pleasant. It goes against all our notions of being adult and independent, humbles our pride and makes us realise how little control we actually have over our own life, let alone what goes on around us. Interestingly, Isaiah does not see this in negative terms. He links the experience of being carried, of renewing our strength, to the Lord’s understanding (cf Isaiah 40.25–31), while in the gospel, Jesus invites us to find rest in him (Matthew 11.28–30). There is clearly more to this than mere relaxation of effort.

I think one of the important lessons of Advent is that we are not in charge. No amount of effort on our part is going to make what we will come about. On the other hand, co-operating with grace will bring about what the Lord desires; and there’s the rub. So often there is a gap between our desires and the Lord’s. If we’re honest, we don’t always like the way the Lord orders things and secretly cherish alternative views about how matters should be arranged. I daresay Establishment figures in first-century Palestine were not too thrilled at the idea of salvation coming from what, on the surface, must have seemed a most unusual family situation. Even today, most of us probably have strong opinions about what the Church should be or do and are rather annoyed that others don’t necessarily see things the same way. Time to think about those eagle’s wings again, I suggest.

Video footage taken from an eagle in flight is fascinating. It gives a completely different view of the ground below. I hope it is not too fanciful to say that Advent can give us a new perspective on life, but we have to be willing to allow it, to let the scriptures appointed to be read at this season shape our understanding and let our inner eye focus on our goal.

P.S. Red kites, as pictured above, are a familiar sight round here.

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Preparing a Way for the Lord

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash of frosty pathway

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

On the Second Sunday of Advent we hear the Lord’s call to comfort his people, and Isaiah’s answering call to prepare a way for him in our hearts (cf Isaiah 40). Then Mark’s Gospel opens with the figure of John the Baptist in the wilderness, quoting the prophet and plunging us into the drama of welcoming the Messaiah into the most secret parts of our being (cf Mark 1. 1–8). Surely we are in a dry and dusty desert, under searing skies, contemplating the stoniness of our own hearts? Perhaps we are, but for those of us in northern Europe the illustration above may resonate a little more than some romantic image of a desert we have never personally experienced — our hearts may be frosty, tangled, fenced in. Without pressing the analogy to absurdity, it is easy to see there are many ways of avoiding God, of refusing to engage while all the time preserving our chosen sense of self. Advent is a time of stripping ourselves of our defences, of allowing God to work in and on us. There is nothing romantic about that. The barriers we put up against God have to be taken down. It may be painful, but it is also liberating and a great joy.

Personal
One reader has expressed disappointment that I’m not posting every day during Advent. I’m having chemotherapy and my brain cells are ‘socially distancing’ at present. But I’ll write when I feel I can.

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Danger Zone?

smartphone in use

Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplassh

Today’s first Mass reading, from Isaiah 29.17–24, and the chapter of the Rule of St Benedict we begin reading, RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, are both a little severe on how we interact with others and the potential dangers of doing so. For Isaiah there is the necessary caution to avoid gossip and incriminating others; for Benedict, the need to pray lest we be deceived by the devil. Jesus in the gospel, Matthew 9.27-31, cuts through all that by granting the blind clear sight, and that surely is what we need most — clarity of vision. Without it we are in the danger zone of muddled thinking, rash speech and stupid actions.

My choice of illustration for this post was not random. Not only is it a beautifully composed image, it is also eloquent. The smartphone has become for many of us an important way of connecting with others. It is immensely seductive. That tiny silvery glow, even in the dark of night, invites us to express thoughts and ideas we might hesitate to put into words face to face with someone; and, rather like reading an unputdownable book, we can easily find we have used up a lot of time intended for other purposes. In the monastery, that isn’t likely to happen because of the demands of the monastic timetable, but for those trying to make a good Advent, it can be more difficult. So, my suggestion for today is, try switching your ‘phone off for an hour if you can; listen to the silence (and silence is not broken by the sound of life going on around us); and you may find that you are listening to God.

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Quoting Out of Context

We all love to quote, especially if by doing so we can suggest a whole chain of allusions and dress ourselves in borrowed plumes of learning and wit. Unfortunately, it can also be a little dangerous. Quoting out of context can sometimes lead to serious misunderstandings or a complete perversion of what the original author intended. I’ve been guilty of that myself, and suffered from it happening to me at times. I’m sure it’s also true of anyone reading this. We register the fact, but do we always register its significance?

Take the liturgy, for example. Advent presents us with a carefully-crafted thematic series of readings from which we can derive a much deeper understanding of what salvation means, but if we don’t read round the texts, so to say, we can miss much more. When people ask how to read the psalter, for instance, I often give them the psalm scheme we use in the Divine Office (150 psalms in the course of a week), then urge then to realise that the psalter is already an arranged book. To understand one particular psalm it helps to read those that precede and follow. It is the same with the Mass readings. Gospel passages read in context often have a sightly different emphasis from the one we assume when we hear them proclaimed at the ambo.

Of course, my point about quoting out of context has a much wider application than the liturgy. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all how easy it is for those of us who are not medically qualified or trained in the use of statistics to misinterpret the arguments of others and advance as fact what is actually a matter of opinion. In my view, the UK Government hasn’t helped with its frequent claims to be ‘following the science’ when it clearly has not recognized that ‘science’ doesn’t usually achieve a consensus all at once, nor is it necessarily infallible. Those of us who are not constitutional lawyers may have unintentionally taken sides in the dispute about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election without realising that opinion, by itself, is not sufficient justification for a course of action with definite, legal consequences. Those of us brave enough — or should I say bold enough — to plunge again into the muddy waters of the Brexit debate may rue the day when arguments were reduced to slogans and some very dodgy claims made about predictable/unpredictable outcomes.

Does this matter? Surely we all have a right to our opinions and their free expression? Yes, we do; but, as with any right, there is a responsibility attached, too. We may think of ourselves as insignificant but each of us has a role to play in forming public opinion, especially if we are users of social media and the like. We have a duty to ensure that our opinions are based on as thorough an appraisal of the arguments as we can make. That means careful listening, careful reading and careful expression in contexts where we may influence others. I can cheerfully go on proclaiming that the PBGV is the best breed of dog in the world (a highly subjective opinion, not to be uttered in the presence of Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, and one that only other PBGV devotees will take seriously) but I would do well to be more cautious in expressing my views on racial injustice or the ethics of using certain technologies. That is not because my opinion does not matter, but because these are matters of great importance and should be treated with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

Already some are arguing that any COVID-19 vaccine which incorporates matter derived from aborted embryos cannot be used, citing as proof the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. That is to disregard or ignore an important clarification issued some years ago which states that, while it is preferable not to incorporate such tissue, it is permissible to use such vaccines where there is a grave risk to health. (For a summary of some of the arguments and relevant documents, see this article by Deacon Greg Kandra: https://is.gd/AwgY7T). Even as we try to be quieter during Advent, it seems we may need to speak out, providing context as well as memorable quotes. We await the coming of the Word at Christmas, so how could we be indifferent to the way we use words every day?

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The Banquet on the Mountain Top


Photo by Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash

Our Advent desert journeying is unlike that of Lent. We are not so much wrestling with demons as with images of abundance, lavish promises, theology we can almost grasp.

The banquet on the mountain-top of which Isaiah speaks today is rather like the psalmist’s banquet in the sight of our foes: a not entirely comfortable experience. We have to make an effort ourselves, and be prepared to take the consequences. I wonder whether we ever think what that might mean when we read Isaiah 25? What is the effort we have to make to ensure our Advent is fruitful, and will that require us to make ourselves conspicuous in ways we would prefer to avoid? Shall we have to go against other people’s expectations; if so, how and why?

As lockdown ends and a new three-tier system of restraints begins in England, it would be easy to say the worst is over, we should just get back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible. There is no end of often poorly-understood statistics and contradictory opinions to back that up. A more thoughtful approach, however, demands that we try to do what is prudent and in the best interest of others — and that is much less easy to decide. The point about that mountain-top banquet is that it isn’t just for one group — us — but for all; and in his humility and love, the Lord invites us to play our part in welcoming others to the feast. The question for us today, therefore, is how do we do that?

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As the Waters Swell the Sea

As the waters swell the sea
As the waters fill the sea . . .
Photo by Krzysztof Gorowski on Unsplash

There is a line in today’s first Mass reading that has always haunted me:

They do no hurt, no harm, on all my holy mountain, for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea.

Isaiah 11.10

Sometimes it is the idea of the holy mountain that captures my imagination. More often it is the thought of the sea. No one who has grown up beside sea or ocean can ever forget its changing moods; the way the light shimmers then darkens; the sound of waves breaking on the beach and the gravelly roar as they return; that unmistakable smell and tang of salt and seaweed on the air. But it is the sea’s vastness that I love. When the first photographs of earth viewed from space showed that we do indeed live on a blue planet, I remember thinking how much God must love water and everything that lives in it to have created so much. It is a kind of benediction wrapped round the earth. I think the prophet Isaiah must have sensed something of the same. When all is made new, when the reign of God is fully established on earth, knowledge of the Lord will be as all-embracing as the sea. That is the hope to which we look forward as we continue on our way through Advent.

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The First Sunday of Advent 2020

Advent sky

Advent begins quietly, almost stealthily, with a call to stay awake and alert and prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are simply clay, to be fashioned anew by the Potter into the shape most pleasing to him. The emphasis is not on our doing but on his. That gives to the Advent season a wonderful freedom and joy. So, out with those prideful programmes of self-improvement, those ambitious schemes of prayer and fasting! Instead, welcome the silence, the mystery, the quiet pondering of scripture. Become, in the best sense, a child again, filled with wonder and awe at what is unfolding before your eyes. With the humility of Mary, the fidelity of Joseph and the joy of John the Baptist, let us prepare in our hearts a place for the Lord.

Community Newsletter:
Complete with typo! https://mailchi.mp/d3ee45ba46b0/holy-trinity-monasterys-advent-newsletter-2020

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Countdown to Advent

You read that right: countdown to Advent, not Christmas. On Saturday evening, when we sing or say First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon what is, for many of us, the best-loved season of the liturgical year, shot through with silence and mystery and Old Testament prophecy as we await the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The haunting chants of Advent are unforgettable, and as we sing them out into the darkness, hope is reaffirmed. Whatever difficulty we face, whatever loss we experience, we know that God’s love embraces us all. We may not feel it; we may indeed doubt it; but it is there.

Advent allows us to trace the lineaments of his love through what scripture scholars call, a little glibly I sometimes think, salvation history. This year, with Advent beginning in lockdown and several cautions in place about what we may or may not do once the severest restrictions are eased, may I suggest that a good way of preparing for Christmas would be to reflect on our own personal ‘salvation history’? Often we are so busy that we do not have time to note how God has been at work in our lives, or we feel so battered and bruised by negative events that we choose not to dwell on them. The unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves this year may give us a little more time, certainly a different kind of time, in which to do some thinking and praying.

Regular readers know I am no great fan of setting oneself an elaborate programme for Advent. If you can read the daily Mass lessons and find time to say part of the Divine Office to connect with the prayer of the Church throughout the world, you are doing well. If you do a search on this blog, you will find various posts about Advent; and if you go over to our main website, you will find something on the history and traditions of Advent here: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html
You will also find great riches available to you on the web — more than ever this year.

The important thing to grasp is that Advent is a time of preparation, a precious time leading to Christmas but not yet Christmas itself. We have only a few short weeks and we do not need to cram them with activity, no matter how good that activity may seem. I myself draw inspiration from the darkness of our Herefordshire skies. It is the blackness that enables us to see the beauty of the moon and stars. Without that large emptiness, we would barely register the dazzling pin-pricks of light in the night sky. Without Advent, and its own special emptiness, we might barely register the glory of the Incarnation at Christmas. Let’s try to make the most of it.

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