The Exaltation of the Cross 2014

If you look back on this blog, you will find I have written about this feast every year; and although I have not always taken the same theme or considered the same aspect of the feast, every year I have found myself moved by the thought that the Cross, and all that Christ endured on it, is not only a sign of God’s love for us, it is also, in its own way, God’s apology to us for all that we suffer in our turn. On the Cross the Creator bowed his head, so to say, before his creation. That is a shocking thought — rightly so — but perhaps it helps to make sense of what otherwise is cruelly meaningless.

The news that David Haines, a British aid worker, has been beheaded by an IS extremist is, at one level, simply one more personal tragedy to add to the millions the world has already suffered. Inevitably, we ask why. How can a loving God possibly allow such things to happen? Then we turn to the Cross and realise that Christ himself asked the same question, even as he gave the answer. That paradox lies at the heart of this feast as it lies at the heart of human history: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; for by your Cross you have redeemed the world.

Suggestions for further reading from this blog (link in blue)
Exaltation of the Cross 2011
Exaltation of the Cross 2013

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Bullying

This is Anti-Bullying Week, apparently, so we can expect lots of media interest in bullying and its tragic consequences. We are all against bullying in any shape or form, but I wonder whether any of us will stop to ask ourselves whether we have ever been, or worse still, actually are, bullies. We are quick to talk about being bullied, being victims of another’s rage or hatred; we are much slower to acknowledge the ways in which we try to force others to do our bidding. It may be a rather hidden form of bullying we go in for, scarcely noticeable to outsiders, but it is bullying nonetheless. If the other person won’t do what I want, I will force them. The weapons used may be physical violence, words, or more passive forms of aggression, such as silence or tears. It doesn’t really matter: the intention is violent, even if the action isn’t.

The roots of the word ‘bully’ are to be found in an old Dutch term for a lover or friend. Over the centuries, there has been a sea-change in meaning, but I think it’s worth thinking about the relationship between bullying and love. It is a poor excuse to talk about bullying as inverted love, as though that somehow made everything all right, but the connection between bully and bullied is a strangely powerful one. Just as kidnap victims tend to form bonds with their captors, so those who are bullied often feel that they are reinforcing the bully’s behaviour. They blame themselves for what has gone wrong. That is nonsense, but bullies assume that it lets them off the hook.

I think one of the ways in which we could all make a positive contribution to Anti-Bullying Week would be to examine our own conduct. Inevitably, we will find things we do not like. We must bring them into the light of God’s love for healing and transformation. The message of the Cross is that bullying stops there. Once for all, Christ has taken on his own shoulders the sin and shame of us all. We can change; we can eradicate bullying from our own lives and, at least partially, from the society in which we live; but first of all we must acknowledge the depth of our need. ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a bully’ is harder to say than ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ but it may be exactly what we need to say.

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Courage

We have been fortunate in having two examples of courage to think about recently. Felix Baumgartner’s descent from space was spectacular and caught the imagination of the world’s media. As someone who finds it difficult to climb a ladder, I have no hesitation in calling him a very brave man — but I have no wish to emulate his bravery. The arrival of Malala Yousafzai at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham reminds us of another kind of courage: the daily courage of a young girl determined to become educated and ready to risk the wrath of the Taliban. For me, education involved no risks at all, but I’m such a coward, I’m not sure I would have  been able to live with a death threat for going to school.

Two different people, two different kinds of courage, both of them equally impossible for me and probably for many of my readers. There is a third kind of courage, and it’s worth thinking about. Forgiveness, given and received, is not the act of a weakling, an easy way out of a difficult situation. To accept forgiveness we need to acknowledge our responsibilty for wrongdoing. It wasn’t the woman who forced you to eat the apple, Adam, it was your own gluttony and desire to have something forbidden you. Equally, to forgive others, we have to admit that the wound dealt us is not the whole story: we have consciously to refuse to allow either ourselves or the other to be imprisoned by our shared history. Some of the stories of reconciliation and forgiveness following the Second World War are truly inspiring: the former prisoner of war and his Japanese captor shaking hands; the Holocaust survivor gently reminding his children that the lesson to be learned from the death camps is not what Germans did to Jews but what human beings are capable of doing to one another.

When we look at our own lives, we are often ashamed of the pockets of unforgiveness we find. Are we really so small? Do we need to cling to that old hatred? We all have different ways of coping with such challenges. If we apologize for everything, we don’t need to apologize for anything. If we don’t want to admit we’re wrong, we can cut the other person off. Even if it’s something as trivial as disagreeing with another’s opinion, we can just ignore them. Every blogger knows that when a reader is irritated or annoyed by an opinion expressed — or sometimes, the failure to express an opinion the reader would like to see — there is often a little huff, and the reader stops reading the blog. It’s payback time!

René Girard has written movingly of the dynamic of forgiveness, of the importance of not passing the poison on. Every time we look at a crucifix, we are reminded of the way in which God deals with sin and failure. The Cross was Jesus’ way of not passing the poison on — a supremely brave, as well as forgiving, act. That is the kind of courage we all need.

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Candlemas

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, formerly known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and popularly known as Candlemas, is really the end of Christmastide, coming exactly forty days after our 25 December celebration of Christ’s birth. It used to be celebrated on 14 February, forty days after Epiphany, since, until the 25 December date became general, the birth of Christ was always celebrated on that day. It marks the occasion when, in accordance with Jewish law, Jesus, as a first-born male, was solemnly offered in the temple and redeemed or bought back by the offering of a couple of  doves or young pigeons. In the monastery we ‘remember’ Christmas by eating one of the special foods associated with it. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good!’

The liturgy of the feast has evolved slowly. It was not until the eleventh century that the practice of processing with lighted candles seems to have become common (suggested, no doubt, by the words of Simeon in the gospel) but I think some of the old customs help to explain the dual nature of this feast, the looking back and looking forward, the joy and the sadness. Purple vestments used to be worn for the procession (probably because processions at the beginning of Mass have a penitential character) but were laid aside in favour of white, the colour of rejoicing, once the altar was reached. Just so we have in the gospel the joy of welcoming the Messiah for whom Simeon and Anna and the whole people of Israel yearned and those dark words of prophesy about the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart. It is a bittersweet celebration of the Child and his destiny.

It sounds lame, but much of life is bittersweet. I think this feast is a great encouragement as many of us are more than a little agnostic about why we are here or how free we are. Accidents of birth or education, or circumstances over which we have no control such as the economic situation, determine much of what happens to us. We can feel as though our destiny is thrust upon us. Yet we also know that as children of God we are supremely free, that grace is unconfined ; and so we live in this tension between constraint and freedom. The joy of today has the shadow of the Cross over it: a reminder, if we need one, that God’s ways are not our ways. He can bring light out of darkness, life out of what we experience as death.

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