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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Holy Innocents 2013

Those who don’t have children of their own are inclined to be sentimental about the children of others — provided they remain at a safe distance, of course. At Christmas such sentimentality is not only indulged, it is almost obligatory. We are invited to become misty-eyed at the thought of children hanging up their stockings for Father Christmas or coo and goo over Nativity Plays where the actors are barely three feet tall and Baby Jesus is all blue-eyed plastic perfection. Then comes the feast of the Holy Innocents and our sentimentality is ripped to shreds by the brutal fact of child murder.

Why does this feast come before Epiphany, when, chronologically speaking, it should follow after? The answer is that the Holy Innocents gave their lives for the Infant Saviour and their feast is therefore included among those of the Christmas Octave so that the link between the two may be more clearly seen. It is a disturbing feast, turning upside down our ideas about the special status of childhood and the protection every adult should afford every child.

In the Catholic Church this feast is often appropriated to two causes: the pro-life, anti-abortion movement which seeks to put an end to abortion and the situations that make it ‘necessary’ or ‘desirable’; and the attempt to end the evil of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) and exploitation. Both are, in my view, very worthy causes, though I sometimes hesitate over the methods adopted by some groups. What I find difficult, however, is the way in which appealing to the Holy Innocents as patrons of these causes dulls our sense of outrage at the original event. What was God thinking of to allow such a horror?

There is no easy answer to such a question, but unless we take on board the scandal of this feast, I think we are failing to take on board the enormity of the Incarnation. When God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, he overthrew every previous notion about God. The feast of the Holy Innocents urges us to rethink our own ideas about him, which may well have become tinged with some of the sentimentality I wrote about earlier. We are confronted with a God who is above and beyond anything we can think or imagine. Our only certainty is that he loves us, loves us enough to become one of us and suffer and die for us. The little children slain by Herod may be to us a type, an abstract of innocence, but to him they are individuals, chosen and precious in his sight. Thinking and praying about that may teach us something we never knew before.

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Images of Plenty

Our modern Western attitudes to food are complex and often contradictory. It can be refreshing, therefore, to turn to the scriptures and find, as in today’s Mass readings (Isaiah 25.6–10 and Matt 15.29–37), that what we are looking forward to isn’t just the Beatific Vision but a stupendously good meal as well. The image of feasting may have less impact on those who habitually have more than enough to eat, but most people would like to feel they could eat and drink to their heart’s content in the company of those they love best. Note the words: ‘heart’s content’ and ‘love’. The banquet we are promised is one that will satisfy every yearning because it will mark the fulfilment of our hope and the perfection of all our striving. The coming of our Saviour, Love made visible, is something we experience every time we share in the Eucharist. Let us start preparing now for our Christmas Communion and for the Banquet of Eternity:

Prepare our hearts, Lord,
by the power of your grace.
When Christ comes,
may he find us worthy
to receive from his hand the bread of heaven
at the feast of eternal life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen.

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Facing Both Ways

1 January, Octave Day of Christmas and Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (the oldest Marian feast in the calendar), the day when we make (and break) our New Year resolutions, is, as its name proclaims, the doorway of the year, facing both ways like the old pagan god Janus* from which it takes its name. It wasn’t always the beginning of the year, of course: that used to be Lady Day, 25 March, feast of the Annunciation. But calendar reforms and changes in public perception (‘in the year of Our Lord’ and ‘in the year of grace’ being seen as rather quaint, if not unacceptably exclusive) mean that we now end one year and begin another with barely a nod in the direction of religion.

That facing both ways, however, is valid whether we are religious or not. We look back on the old year and assess its triumphs and failures and look forward to the new, assessing its potential. We are not altogether there, not altogether here. The religious might say we are at the interface of time and eternity.

Today’s feast is so rich in allusion, so deep in theology that we can forget that it too faces both ways: back into time, forward into eternity (which is outside time). The Word which was from the beginning took flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. That is what we celebrate throughout the Christmas season. We start our secular year with a reminder that God’s love for us is infinite, Incarnate Love, which wills that all should be saved. Just as the circumcision of Christ on the eighth day foreshadows the shedding of his blood on the cross, so the symbolism of the eighth day expresses perfection, salvation.

We face both ways, into the abyss of our nothingness and the abyss of God’s love, but with this assurance: ‘The eternal God is your dwelling-place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ That must give us confidence as we begin 2012.

A happy and blessed New Year to you all.

* I originally wrote Januarius: my old Latin mistress would have boxed my ears for such a mistake and many thanks to John for pointing out the error.

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