‘Tis the Season to Be Jolly — Or Is It?

One of the debates that regularly surfaces at this time of year is when we should begin celebrating Christmas. The Advent purists argue for Christmas Eve; those with a more relaxed attitude simply go with the flow and start celebrating on 1 December; and people like ourselves do a kind of dance between the two. Our liturgy and our private modus vivendi is Advent through and through, but our public face is more accepting of the fact that most people find such distinctions baffling. Of course, we have the advantage of going on celebrating throughout the Octave and the Christmas season, but here and now we are trying to maintain the spirit of joyful expectancy that characterises Advent. How do we do so in a world that doesn’t really like waiting for anything and is always keen to brush anything negative or difficult out of sight?

Silence

I think we start with silence. Usually we begin Advent with three days of total silence. That didn’t happen this year because we had a prolonged power-cut to contend with, but the quality of silence we try to maintain is important. It is easy to fill our silence with noise — an endless inner chatter, our explosive reactions to events, too much self-indulgence in social media. It is when we begin thinking about these that we realise how addicted we have become and how difficult it is to assert any kind of discipline over ourselves. Yet, if we are to have anything worth saying, we do need to exercise some restraint. One area I think about particularly is my use of humour. Bad jokes abound at this time of year. Most are just not very funny, but some are wounding and offensive so we need to take care. That doesn’t mean calling others out for not meeting our standards: it means calling ourselves out for having got the tone wrong or not thought sufficiently about the consequences. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but not at someone else’s expense.

Sharing

I think we also need to think seriously about how we share our good fortune with others. It is easy to make a donation to a charitable organization or pledge a small amount of our time to lending a hand at a soup kitchen or facility for the homeless. Here at the monastery we try both to give of our abundance, as it were, and make time for the people who write to us. There never seems to be enough time to answer every letter, card or email but we do try, and that is what matters. Once upon a time we did not write at all during Advent (being ultra-purist). Now we content ourselves with trying to limit telephone calls and the less helpful kinds of interaction.

Forgiveness

My third suggestion comes from thinking about today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 40.1–11. Forget, for a moment, your favourite musical setting of those words, and concentrate on the meaning. God in Christ has forgiven us utterly. Forgiveness is never easy, especially if we think we are the one doing the forgiving. We are not so noble, nor so strong. But if we are to unite our Advent with our Christmas, our longing with its fulfilment, we have to take on board the need to forgive and to accept forgiveness. In other words, we have to let Christ be born anew in us every day of our lives. Then indeed we can agree ’tis the season to be jolly, can’t we?

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Mountains and Molehills: In the Desert with John the Baptist Again

The Second Sunday of Advent sees us back in the desert with John the Baptist. The call to action is clear and direct: Prepare a way for the Lord! In practice, that means levelling the mountains and molehills of pride and self-sufficiency we each have within ourselves, filling in the potholes of hopelessness and despair, straightening whatever we have allowed to become crooked or devious. It sounds easy in theory but most of us find it quite hard. We are attached to our engaging little foibles, enjoy our little grumbles, smile upon our little white lies and other little naughtinesses. That is the problem. What we perceive to be mountainous in others is in us merely an endearing little molehill: little, so very little.

It won’t wash. Without becoming scrupulous in the bad sense, we have to be honest about and with ourselves. The closer we get to God, the larger and more horrible those ‘little’ sins and imperfections appear. There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation, however — another blow to our pride. We must allow God to come and sweep away all that is false within us, remake us, change us. Then truly we shall see the salvation of God, and it will be glorious.

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Being Welcoming in a Time of COVID

Photo by Hombre on Unsplash

A Reality Check on Being Welcoming

I must admit that every time we re-read RB 53, On the Reception of Guests, I linger over its opening phrase: all guests are to be received tamquam Christus, as though Christ. This identification of the guest with Christ forms a kind of refrain throughout the chapter and has inspired many a writer to wax lyrical about Benedictine hospitality. It has also sometimes led to unreal expectations on the part of the guest, depending on how he or she sees Christ, and on the part of the one doing the welcoming. We all believe we would drop everything to welcome Christ, but in practice, this side of the Second Coming, meals still have to be cooked, rooms cleaned and all the unseen work of the monastery continued, no matter how much we want to lavish attention on the guest — or how much the guest wants our attention.

St Benedict’s Teaching on Hospitality

The Rule’s rituals of welcome — prayer, the kiss of peace, sharing food, washing the weary traveller’s hands and feet, reading scripture — and the exhortations to humility and kindness combine to produce an impression of austere but dignified welcome, very suited to sixth-century Italy but perhaps not quite so well suited to twenty-first century Europe or North America. We tend to want to be more ‘spontaneous’, more tactile even, and meeting the spiritual needs of the guest is rarely the first thought that crosses our mind. Taking hospitality online, as we have during the past twenty years or so, introduces new complexities. How much time should we give; how should we respond to the difficult, argumentative or downright rude? In short, how do we find new ways of being genuinely welcoming while at the same time preserving the very thing that makes our hospitality worthwhile in the first place, namely, our existence as a monastic community, dedicated to searching for God and helping others to search for him, too. Now there is COVID, and the situation has become more complex still.

The Effect of COVID

We are meant to be social beings but COVID has made us wary of one another. There has been a lot of isolation and loneliness to cope with; and for those who are most at risk if they catch COVID, there has been the added burden of trying to reconcile a warm welcome with a prudence easily misunderstood or ridiculed. Even the wearing of a mask to protect others can be derided. With Advent and the prospect of more mingling over the festive season, is there anything we can derive from St Benedict’s teaching on hospitality that might be useful to all, not just monks and nuns?

I think one of the most important things to take away from chapter 53 is the setting of boundaries. Just as the abbot must ensure that his community is not unduly troubled by guests, so the guest must moderate his or her expectations in the light of what is possible. The emphasis on the spiritual side of hospitality may not be fashionable but it is a reminder that everything we do has a spiritual aspect. So, our domestic festive gatherings may not be as uncomplicated as in past years but they can still be warm and generous because they are filled with love of God and of his children. It is not unreasonable, if clinically extremely vulnerable, to ask guests to take a lateral flow test before coming to one’s house. It is not unreasonable to reduce the number of people invited or re-think the kind of food and drink offered, so that there is less risk of contamination (e.g. via dips). These are small things but together they make a greater whole. Welcoming others in time of COVID may take a different form from the one with which we are familiar, but it can still be one of the most beautiful experiences in life, both for the welcomer and for the welcomed.

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The Oratory of the Heart

Light in the Darkness

The last few days have not been easy for anyone. Here in the UK we have had storm damage and power-cuts, seen the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID variant, and been battered by seemingly endless revelations of sleaze, corruption and unimaginable brutality, as in the case of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. Add to that the personal tragedies and disappointments that do not usually make the headlines and the world begins to seem an unfriendly place. Advent has already reached the point of being cold, dark and wearing. The silence and mystery that so enthused us at the beginning has become for many more of a torment than an inspiration. We are crushed by the demands made upon us, irritated by the misunderstandings and criticisms that come our way, longing for light, warmth and peace. Then we read today’s section of the Rule, RB 52, On the Oratory of the Monastery, and are shaken out of our negativity.

The Oratory of the Monastery

Most Benedictines care very deeply about their church or chapel and are meticulous in both their preparations for and performance of the liturgy. A crease in the altar linens, an obviously unpractised antiphon, a hurried reading — none of these will ever go unnoticed, by nuns, at any rate. Only the best is good enough for the Lord, and we are in the oratory several times a day, so that seeking to do and be the best we can is a constant in our lives. But there is more to it than that. If you read Benedict’s text carefully, you will see that the essential feature of the oratory is the reverence with which we make use of the space and time given us in which to pray. Reverence does not depend on the beauty of our surroundings, an emotional response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, nor even the amount of time available to us. Reverence comes from the heart, and it is the oratory of the heart that truly matters, for it is there that the Holy Spirit dwells and turns our every prayerful impulse into prayer according to the mind of God.

The Oratory of the Heart and its Transformative Power

All of us need encouragement much more than we need rebukes or criticisms. A heart open to God’s word and filled with his love and compassion cannot be negative or harshly judgemental. May I suggest that today, instead of considering all that is wrong in ourselves or in others, we allow God’s grace to work away quietly within us, making an oratory of our heart where he can delight to be. It is not only we who may be transformed.

. . . the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons. . .

They will hallow the Holy One of Jacob,
stand in awe of the God of Israel.

(from today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 29.17-24)
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O Emmanuel | 23 December 2020

Photo by Ivan Diaz on Unsplash

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, Desired of the Nations and their Saviour, come and save us, Lord our God.

A perceptive reader once described today as the Holy Saturday of Advent. Our strength is exhausted. We have reached rock bottom. Only God can deal with the mess we are in, bring light to our darkness and save us. Accordingly, today’s antiphon piles title after title on God, to make sure we miss none that has a claim on him, but ends with something like a whimper: come and save us, Lord our God. And there you have it. All those grand titles tell us something about God, but only as he is in relation to us — God-with-us, our King, our Law-Giver, Desired of the Nations, Saviour — because that is how God chooses to reveal himself to us: not as a being apart from us (though of course he transcends us utterly), but as one with us, as one like us. That is why the prayer we make in this antiphon is deceptively simple. When everything else is stripped away, we can acknowledge our need of God in the starkest terms. Our broken humanity cries out to his divinity. For the first time we address him as our Lord and God, and our plea is direct and uncomplicated as prayer wrung from the heart always is: come and save us.

I think there is a second reason for seeing today as being like Holy Saturday. Many people ask where was God when a tragedy occurs. Why did Jesus have to die? How involved is he in human suffering? Why did he not prevent the deaths of those three policemen who died yesterday in France, for example? That is to ask a question of history, and can even reduce God to an interventionist fairy godmother. Instead we have to ask the much bigger question, where is God? Just as on Holy Saturday, we see only part of the picture and have to trust for the rest. God’s seeming inactivity is only our view of things. The Incarnation can be sentimentalised to the point of parody, but if we allow the wonder of what we celebrate to sink in, we learn something important about God and ourselves. 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. He is far from indifferent to human suffering. He shares with us our pain and loneliness and frustration at the way things are because he wills to be united with us, if we let him. To ask where is God, therefore, is to pray and enter into a relationship with him here and now. It is to allow God to be with us — surely his heart’s desire as well as ours.

For scripture, I suggest Isaiah 7.14, Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66 and think about the illustration to this post: Lion of Judah or us complaining to God?

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O Rex Gentium | 22 December 2020

potter's hands shaping clay

O 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 two one, come and save mankind whom you made from clay.

Every year I hum and haw about how to translate this antiphon. Do I smooth over the awkwardnesses, to produce something easy on the ear but not quite true to the original? Do I opt for a more literal version, in the hope that it will jerk the casual reader into awareness of some of the complex references in the text? Or do I compromise, allowing some ungainliness but still aiming at an acceptable level of clarity and comprehension?

The problem is that many of the themes to which the antiphon alludes are no longer popular. Kingship is an alien concept to most, and even those — perhaps especially those — with a knowledge of kingship in the Ancient World may baulk at the idea of God as king. Absolute authority makes us uncomfortable. Much better the transient authority conferred by social media and the search engines. At least that passes! But Israel always wanted a king, to be like the other nations, and only gradually came to see that God alone could adequately fulfil that role. For us today the chief significance of the phrase is that gentile Christians are now welcomed into the Covenant and share with Israel its privileges, above all its ‘special relationship’ with God. But what about that Desideratus earum, the desired of all nations? The context is the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: ‘I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour’ (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). Can we genuinely make a claim for the universality of Christ? This phrase questions how we understand the Messiah and each of us must answer for him or herself.

With the next few phrases we are on happier ground. We know how fragile and divided the world in which we live is. We call on God to save us. He is the corner-stone, the rock on which we can rely. But he is also the potter, the creator who loves us into being. Clay is malleable in a way we often resist. The idea of being re-shaped, re-formed, is not an entirely attractive one until we think where it leads. I was tempted to illustrate this post with a black and white photo from the monastery kitchen: it shows Christ creating Adam, perfect in beauty. The loveliness of the image always leads me to prayer, but sometimes beauty can be luxuriated in for its own sake. Perhaps the image of the potter’s hands, caked with clay, almost at the beginning of his work, is more eloquent. There are infinite possibilities open to him. Amazingly, there are infinite possibilities open to us, too:
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)

For scripture, I suggest Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians (anywhere)

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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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