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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Life, Death and Holidays

I have been spending the time after Christmas typesetting an Order of Service for a Requiem Mass and Funeral. It wasn’t what I intended, and I’m quite sure the bereaved family would much rather not have to deal with such things. They have lost someone they love at a time when everyone else seems to be holidaying and making merry.

My own father died shortly before Christmas 1999, so I have an inkling of how difficult it can be to deal with grief when the rest of the world is in festive mood. The sudden stab of memory, the tears rising in the throat, the effort it takes to appear cheerful when one has to accept invitations/attend events one would much rather refuse or ignore — they all seem much worse when tinsel and the popping of corks form the backdrop.

It is at such times that we confront the truth of Christmas. Christ was born, not so that we might indulge in some syrupy romanticism but so that we might confront the reality of sin and death. Bethlehem leads inexorably to Calvary. We know the story does not end there, that the Resurrection transforms defeat into victory and that at the end of time, when, please God, all are gathered into the Kingdom, the purpose of Christ’s earthly life will have been achieved: the salvation of mankind.

We know that, but when the heart is aching and the world seems cold and bleak, it is difficult to believe. Spare a thought (and a prayer if you can) for those who have been bereaved this Christmastide.

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O Emmanuel: God with us

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 salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

Today’s Mass readings, Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66, taken together with Isaiah 7.14, provide more than enough to think about as we listen to the antiphon:

 

We are very close to the birth we are waiting for. The prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist, and the question with which the gospel ends is one we must ask not just of John’s birth but of Jesus’ also: ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ Sometimes people assume that ‘good’ Christians have no doubts, never ask questions, never experience a sense of bewilderment in the face of cruelty or disaster. That is demonstrably untrue. To be a Christian is surely to live with uncertainty, relying on the gift of faith to bridge the gap between our understanding and our questioning. Tonight’s antiphon reminds us that the God we seek is not a God afar off, but God-with-us, one who has shared our humanity and calls us to share in his divinity.

O Emmanuel expresses the theology of this in a few, meaning-rich phrases. Notice that expectatio gentium, although translated as ‘Desired of the nations’, really has more the sense of ‘hope’ or even more literally, ‘expectation’. The antiphon takes up and develops all the themes of the previous six. Christ is welcomed as God-with-us, King of David’s line, the true Law-giver, one who is the fulfilment of every human (= gentile) hope and longing, whose gift of salvation is open to all. The petition with which the antiphon ends is absolutely clear about the divine nature and mission of the Messiah: ‘come and save us, Lord our God.’

There in a nutshell is what Christmas is about. In his compassion and love, God wills to take our human flesh and blood and redeem us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our salvation is very near. It began with Mary’s generous-hearted consent to be the Mother of God. It will take physical shape with the birth of Jesus on Christmas night. It will be completed only when all are one with Him in the Kingdom. Truly, this is ‘a mystery hidden from long ages, a secret into which even angels long to look!

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O Rex Gentium: a new kind of authority

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 both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.

Here are a few scripture texts to ponder before listening to the antiphon: Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians 2.14; Genesis 2.7

 

We live in a world where ‘authority’ is conferred by the search engines or the ratings agencies and many individuals chase after Twitter ‘followers’ or Facebook ‘friends’ as a form of personal validation. The idea of inherent authority is quite alien to lots of people, so the imagery of today’s antiphon needs working at.

Christ is presented to us as King: one who, in the Ancient World, had absolute power, an unassailable authority, but who, as a consequence, had an obligation equally serious toward his subjects, best expressed by the idea of covenant. We are not talking about someone unconcerned with our fate but someone involved in it.

It is, however, the next phrase of this antiphon that I find most striking. The translation doesn’t quite capture the force of desideratus. To invoke Christ as the Desired of All Nations is to make a strong claim for his universality. This title for the Messiah rests on 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). As though to say, there is in all of us, whether overtly religious or not, an impulse towards what is good and beautiful and true which will be gloriously fulfilled.

The reminder that we are divided among ourselves, needing a Saviour to redeem and reunite us, is hardly news, but so often we think salvation is some kind of self-help process we can achieve through myriad self-improvement projects. At a national/international level we rely on agreements and legislation which often fail at times of crisis. The truth is, with God everything is possible; without him, nothing is.

The antiphon ends with a reference to our creation from the dust of earth. It is full of hope. Who can forget that, according to the Christian understanding of things, our very humanity has been transformed:

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.

Jew and gentile have been made one through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he has formed from the dust of earth. This Christmas we celebrate not just the birth of Christ but our own birth in Christ, our own glorious recreation.

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The Table an Altar

For several months we have been treated to a slew of statistics about the rates of obesity in the U.K.  We are all getting fatter, some of us dangerously so. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section has made this subject its own. Thus, in August, Catherine Hughes argued that there was an ingrained institutional prejudice against the obese. In October Jamie Oliver waxed angry about the government’s anti-obesity strategy. In November Sarah Warwick made a case for exercise being as important as restricting food intake, while earlier this week Zoe Williams maintained that obesity is a consequence of poverty, not lack of moral fibre. Not surprisingly, all the articles have generated a lot of comment about what we eat and how.

Now, what do I find interesting about this? Time was when we weren’t obese, we were merely fat, and that was bad enough. The whiplash-thin adults of my childhood and youth had all experienced the hunger of the War years. Anyone who wasn’t slim was suspected of Billy Bunter tendencies with cream buns: a figure of fun rather than moral condemnation. Since then we have moved through the era of the celebrity chef, T.V. programmes and magazines devoted entirely to cooking, and a vast proliferation of the foods available on supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when olive oil came from the chemist, with a B.P. standard assurance on the label, and garlic and lemons were hunted down with difficulty. We live in the midst of abundance, but it is not an abundance equally available to all, and though we can work wonders in the kitchen we do not see the link with worship. Food is no longer sacred, no longer a gift of God to be celebrated as well as enjoyed.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, Martin Buber had some fine things to say about eating in holiness, making an altar of the table. I wonder how many people do that today? Is eating merely a way of fuelling our bodies? In the monastery, meals are ritualised because the refectory is seen as an extension of the choir. The rhythm of fast and feast is built into the liturgical year and most communities have supplemented this with local customs. For example, we eat scones when the Elijah cycle is being read and cherries when we celebrate the feast of St Etheldreda. We are approaching the great midwinter feast of Christmas. Most of us will be celebrating with family or friends and eating and drinking with great cheerfulness. Maybe we should give a little thought to making our feasting into an act of worship. It isn’t obesity we need to fear so much as forgetfulness. Jesus our Saviour was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and gives himself to us today under the form of Bread and Wine. Every meal is a reminder of that.

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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 Feasts

The Christmas feasts come thick and fast this week: St John the Evangelist; Holy Innocents; St Thomas of Canterbury; Mary the Mother of God; and before we have had time to draw breath, Epiphany, which is for many the greatest feast of Christmastide, when gentiles are admitted alongside Jews to experience the salvation of God.

All these feasts are a reminder that we are not to linger beside the crib. The martyrdom of Stephen (not celebrated this year because of Sunday’s feast of the Holy Family) showed us clearly that following Christ will be costly. What then of John, whose feast we keep today?

There is so much mystery about John. Is he the Beloved Disciple; did he actually write all the works attributed to him; was he spared a martyr’s death; did he live and die at Ephesus? Above all, what kind of man was he, how did he understand God, why does he seem so different from all the other early writers of the Church?

Forests have been felled and seas of ink consumed in an effort to answer these questions, but I think we can, without argument, claim him as the Church’s first mystic. Mysticism gets a bad press these days, mainly because of the vapid, New Age travesty of the same: the reality is much less cosy, much closer to John’s own terrifying vision on Patmos, a glimpse of God as he is, as terrible as he is beautiful.

John’s profound meditation on the meaning of Christ’s words and actions, his insistence on the primacy of love and forgiveness in building up the Christian community, is a lesson for us all. It is only when we welcome the Word into our lives and allow ourselves to be changed by him that we begin to understand what is asked of us and what it means to be a child of God. What happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago has opened for us the way to salvation, but the journey cannot be completed without passing through Death and Resurrection.

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