Dominus veniet

Dominus veniet, the Lord will come: we sing those words over and over again this week, but I sometimes wonder whether we ever really think what we mean by them. Those who have recently experienced the death of someone they love will know what they mean without necessarily being able to articulate their understanding. They have experienced that moment when the Lord takes command and no amount of human effort is of any avail. We pray for the Lord’s coming at the end of time but, to be honest, most of us are happy to have it put off to an indefinite future. The Second Coming is, quite literally, too awful to contemplate.

In Advent and at Christmas we celebrate the three comings of the Lord: in time, in his birth as a Baby at Bethlehem; at the end of time, in his coming as Judge; and his coming to us now, at every moment of our lives, as the Word who gives life. The first and third comings are ones we grasp, or think we can; but the Second Coming baffles us, scares us even. It would be a good Advent exercise to spend a few minutes thinking about the Second Coming and how we are to prepare for it. If the idea of God as Judge paralyzes us, we can take heart from another image, equally demanding, but with happier overtones. ‘At midnight the Bridegroom’s voice was heard. Go out to meet him.’ We can so easily forget that that the Church is the Bride of Christ and in the Second Coming awaits her nuptials. No wonder we are urged to live lives which hasten the day of the Lord’s coming.

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A Voice Crying

Isaiah’s image of a voice crying in the wilderness is one of the most evocative in scripture. No wonder that John the Baptist allowed himself to be merely the voice that precedes the Word. I often think that a blogger must also be just a voice: the message to be proclaimed, the essential Word, comes from the Holy Spirit. Our business is not to get in the way of that Word, not to falsify it, not to shrink it to our own comfortable assumptions about how things should be.

Reading again Isaiah chapter 40 this morning, I was reminded how the tenderness of God is not inconsistent with a wilderness experience, with huge efforts, much patience and uncertainty about results. We are called to make a highway for God in our hearts, and that means some exhausting labour to level the mountains of pride and fill in the valleys of fear. Those of us who blog from our Christian experience must expect it to involve us in hard work, misunderstandings at time, results quite the opposite of what we intended or hoped for: a kind of be-wilderment in fact. But we know that it was in the wilderness that Israel found God; that being a voice is important because we have the greatest of all messages to proclaim, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Thinking Aloud about Society

Yesterday, as our Silence Days were coming to an end, three subjects dominated British media headlines: George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, the prospect of public sector strikes today and the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran. Only time will tell which will have the most lasting effects on society. I am probably in a minority in thinking that the attack on the embassy could have the most disastrous long-term consequences, not just for Britain but for the west in general. Why? Because I think that, irrespective of what the Chancellor does or does not do, we are in for a prolonged period of economic stringency, which no amount of striking is going to change. The attack on the embassy, however, and the anger which fed it mark a departure from the standard of behaviour and practice on which modern diplomacy relies; and if it be true, as many suppose, that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, that anger and that refusal to observe diplomatic conventions is troubling. Those old enough to remember the Cold War will recall what it was  like to live with the ever-present idea of nuclear annihilation. Does that shadow begin to loom over us again, and if it does, how do we reconcile it with what Advent is about?

The only way in which I can begin to answer that question for myself is to say that it is bound up with trust. Advent reminds us of the trust God placed in his Chosen People. Despite the misunderstandings and the backslidings, the Covenant remained firm and the promise of a Messiah was indeed fulfilled in Jesus. But if God’s trust in humanity remained unshaken, how much more was human trust in God tested to the uttermost? Mary’s acceptance of her role as Mother of God expressed an unequalled  faith in God, a faith that we can only marvel at and be grateful for. The present situation also calls for trust and faith. That is something we all need to work at this Advent.

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Silence Days

Either before or during Advent, we try to have three days of complete silence: no noisy machinery or unnecessary conversation of any kind, no digital noise, no nothing. While this gift of physical silence can be helpful, it is the interior noise that causes most difficulty. For it is from within that the real trouble comes.

The idea of freeing ourselves from every distraction in order to concentrate on God and the things of God may seem wonderful, but as soon as one has switched off the computer, one thinks of writing a letter; one goes into the oratory to pray and immediately contemplates the tasks one hasn’t completed. We cannot escape ourselves, however much we try, so the trick is to bring ourselves into the situation and then let go; register the distraction and then dismiss it. That is especially important during Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, and a time when we revisit the whole of salvation history. It is in silence that we hear the Word speak, but attaining that silence is a struggle.

I tremble slightly before writing the next few sentences because I fear they will be misunderstood. It is absolutely essential that we remember that God is in charge of our Advent, not us. We are likely to fail again and again in the matter of recollection. One of the old Desert Fathers used to say of monastic life, ‘I fall down and get up; I fall down and get up.’ In other words, it is not success in our own terms, or in the terms of our peers, that matters. Our growth comes from humility, and very often the only way of learning humility is through the experience of failure.

So, as our thoughts turn towards Advent, let us be encouraged by the goodness and kindness of God rather than discouraged by our inability to respond adequately to his love. Let us read and pray the scriptures so that when Christmas morning comes we too can say, ‘To us a Son is given.’ Then we can dance with the angels and sing. (cfr St Basil.) Our Advent will have brought us into the ‘now’ of Eternity.

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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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