CHRISTMAS DAY 2020

Crib at Howton Grove Priory
Crib at Howton Grove Priory

Go into any monastery today and I wager you’ll find monks or nuns in various stages of happy exhaustion. The liturgies of the great feasts don’t just happen, any more than the festive meals in the refectory. Christmas requires effort, no matter how low-key our celebration, and we have twelve days of it in which to go on making more effort, not to mention the last ‘look-back’ at Candlemas. I’m sure most lay people can identify with this in their own way. But there is one aspect of the monastic Christmas that impresses me more and more as each year passes and it may not be so easily found outside the cloister: silence. Yes, we sing our hearts out in choir; and yes, we do relax the rule of silence on Christmas Day itself to engage in friendly community chatter, but in between times there is a rich, joyful silence that is very far from being emptiness. When the Divine Word takes flesh and appears among us, our human words fall away. Only silence can begin to comprehend the mystery. It forces us to our knees, loses us in wonder and adoration. Christ is born on earth and we dance with the angels for very joy (St Basil). If we cannot dance outwardly, let us dance inwardly. Rejoice!

CHRISTMAS BLESSINGS TO YOU ALL

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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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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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Christmas Day 2019

Our Lady of Consolation
Our Lady of Consolation, icon since c. 1450 at Cambrai, Flanders

This icon of Our Lady of Consolation reminds us that Christmas is never without its sorrows. The tear on Mary’s cheek recalls that poignant medieval lyric in which Christ’s death is lamented in deeply personal terms. Our salvation did not come cheap:

Lovely ter of lovely eye,
Why dost thou me so wo?
Sorful ter of sorful eye,
Thou brekst myn herte a-two.

We rejoice in the most perfect of all gifts, the gift of our Saviour Jesus Christ, but we also acknowledge the grief and sadness of the world in which we live. We may be mourning the loss of someone we love or grieving the violence that has killed so many in Burkina Faso and Syria, or there may be some more private sorrow that weighs us down. But still we rejoice. The bitter irony of the birth of the Prince of Peace coinciding with a fresh outbreak of war is not lost on us, nor is the seeming inability of our leaders to work together to end poverty and homelessness and all the evils we regard as insupportable. But still we rejoice. We rejoice because we must. Destruction, negativity, hopelessness is not the whole story and never can be. With the coming of Christ into the world, God has bound himself to us in a way that can never be broken. He has become what we are — for ever and ever. If we let that truth sink in, we can indeed find cause for joy.

On behalf of the community, may I wish you all the blessings of Christmas and the assurance of our prayers. Thank you for your engagement and support during the past year.

If you are struggling with serious illness, you may find something useful in this earlier post about celebrating Christmas with cancer: https://is.gd/BCZDup There are also several posts about the Nativity which can be found using the search box in the right-hand sidebar.

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Christmas Day 2017

Christmas Dawn

A few hours ago we began celebrating Christmas, and we now have a whole Octave we can call ‘Christmas Day’. To some, that might seem like one of the ‘funny games’  theologians and liturgists play with words; to others it makes sense. The Octave has always been a measure of perfection, a way of linking finite linear time with eternity; so how could the birth of God in the flesh be anything other than the perfection of our humanity, the way in which time and eternity are made one? And when God chose to do that, he didn’t do so in the way we might have chosen. He elected to be born as a baby, a fragile, dependent baby, who would have to grow in knowledge and understanding of the things of God, just as his body and mind would have to grow. Thinking about that should change our ideas of what constitutes perfection. It is more of a process than something we attain once and for all, and it is inevitably messier and less predictable than we should like.

This morning, as we contemplate the Christ Child in the crib, let us try to forget the impossible standards we often set ourselves and others. God asks nothing but our love. In the person of Jesus Christ he came into the world to redeem us, and one of the most humbling things we can learn is that he loves and accepts us as we are. That doesn’t mean he condones sin — far from it — or that ‘anything goes’. What it does mean is that God has always loved us and will always love us; we can rest secure in his love. Today may be happy or sad; we may feel completely out of tune with the time and its season. That doesn’t change the fact that with Christ’s birth salvation dawned upon the world. We rejoice and are glad, and we accept the gift he offers.

A blessed Christmas to you all!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Christmas Morning 2016

Maestro della Natività di Castello c. 1450, National Gallery, London
Maestro della Natività di Castello c. 1450, National Gallery, London

‘Today a Saviour has been born to us. He is Christ the Lord.’ These words, or variants of them, will resound again and again thoughout the Christmas Octave; so too will ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Which is harder to say? To accept that God, creator of the universe, of all that is, has such infinite love and tenderness for his creation that he willed to undergo birth and death for our sakes in the person of Jesus Christ, or to affirm that this same God, the utterly transcendent, all-Holy One, is to be adored in his flesh and blood reality? How shall we approach the mystery of the Incarnation today, in the humdrum circumstances of our own lives? How do we ensure that there is no discrepancy between what we believe and what we actually say?

We know that the Eucharist is at the centre of this great feast and is intimately linked to our understanding of the Incarnation. So far so good, but then we stumble. In articulating our theology of the Eucharist we sometimes forget that we are not talking about a theoretical mode of being but a living, dynamic Presence. In much the same way, we accept that we need a Saviour or affirm that the Word became flesh without fully understanding or ‘feeling’ the truth of what we are saying. We tie ourselves up in knots, and I am not sure that is either necessary or helpful.

The painting used at the top of this post is very far from being realistic. It is, in fact, profoundly theological in both aim and execution. Nevertheless, I think it helps with the difficulty I have identified because it is a powerful reminder that the Incarnation is not an abstraction. We worship a God who has become man in Jesus Christ, and not just any man, but one particular man. On Christmas morning there is no need to cudgel our brains. The heart sees, and sees clearly. Let us allow ourselves time to absorb the wonder of this coming of Christ into the world in which we live. However uncertain we may feel our faith to be, however conscious of sin and failure we are, Christ comes to us today as our Saviour — our Saviour, yours and mine — and he will never, ever be parted from us.

A blessed Christmas to you all.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Christmas 2014

crib

Today the Word has become flesh. Once God has spoken, no further words are necessary; so, today in the monastery, there is silent wonder and hushed adoration, but because we never quite accept that our own words are not needed, there is also one of the longest and most exhausting liturgies of the Christian year. The paradox is more apparent than real. The mystery of the Incarnation is so vast that we must tug away at it, see it from this side and from that, struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible. It is easy to forget that God has made it simple for us. He has come among us as a baby — helpless, vulnerable, His mighty speech reduced to an infant’s piercing cry. He cries out for love and compassion, healing and forgiveness, tenderness and pity for all His children. The questions is, will we answer? Will we answer God as He desires? What gift will we lay at the crib today?

May your Christmas be bright with love and joy, given and received. You are in the prayers of the community here.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Scandal of Christmas

Very early this morning, while everything was cold and dark, in our little oratory a single voice sang the ancient Christmas martyrology — the announcement of Christ’s coming into the world as the son of Mary, at Bethlehem, in first-century Palestine, under the pax romana. For me, that haunting chant expresses as no other the scandal of Christmas: not only does the Word of God take flesh and live among us, He does so as a member of a particular family, in a particular place and time. I’m fairly confident that had we or any of our Church leaders been involved in the decision, we would have opted for another place and time, for another family, perhaps even for a different sex for the baby in question. Which brings me, as so often, to my point.

The scandal of Christmas is not that God chose to become human but that He chose to become human in a way that still stretches our imagination and turns many of our ideas upside down. He lived and died a faithful Jew, under an alien occupation. For thousands of Christians in the Middle East, there is a bitter parallel today in the circumstances of their own lives — and not only in the Middle East. Yet, for many of us, it seems to matter little. Two thousand years after God became man to save us from our sins, we continue to live as though He had never come, as though nothing had changed. We go on making war, killing, hating, profiting from the poverty and need of others, congratulating ourselves on our own success, mocking God under the guise of being ‘free’ or ‘humorous’.

Soon after the martyrolgy had been sung this morning, a thin, faint line of light appeared on the horizon, above the Black Mountains. It was a reminder to me that no matter how much we may seem to fail, God has a way of putting things right. The sin of Adam and Eve has been redeemed by the New Adam. That obscure birth in Bethlehem has changed the world. I think, on reflection, I am wrong about the scandal of Christmas. The true scandal of Christmas is our failure to recognize that with God all things are possible. He has saved us. He is the Prince of Peace, the King of Israel, God with us, our Lord and God.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Pausing Before Christmas

Today will probably present the last opportunity many of us have for a short pause before we are hurled into the maelstrom of Christmas preparations and celebrations. Some will be excited and hopeful; others tired and perhaps a bit crotchety; most of us will probably be too busy to register how we feel, we shall just get on with things.

I think ‘just getting on with things’ is exactly right. We are not called to be wondermen or wonderwomen. We are called to be human; and being human means accepting that we are weak and fallible at times. No matter how hard we try to make things perfect for others (or even ourselves), they never will be in this life. We live with imperfection, and it is a very good thing that we do. Otherwise, we should become completely impossible!

Today, if you can, try to make space for a minute or two alone with the Lord. Read through the readings for Christmas Mass, especially the Preface, and find a word or phrase you can take with you through the next few days. Return to it when you feel you are becoming stressed or agitated; silently recall it if you feel low; keep it close to you if you have to do something or spend time with someone you don’t much like. Let the Word take root in you, that you may welcome Him afresh on Christmas morning.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail