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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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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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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