The Octave Day of Easter 2017

Those of us privileged to live the monastic life are now exhausted. The liturgy of Holy Week and the Easter Octave, wonderful though it is, makes huge demands on both the individual and the community; and, of course, there are still weeks and weeks of paschal joy before us. Today, however, we come to the end of the Octave, the eight days we celebrate as one day, when time and eternity commingle, and there is a sense of completion, of fullness.

What does the Church put before us on this day? The gospel is taken from John 20.19-31. We are in the Upper Room on the day of the Resurrection, disconsolate, fearful, and suddenly Jesus is among us, commisioning us to forgive sin; but Thomas is absent and refuses to believe unless he can touch and see the reality of Christ’s wounds. Eight days later Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to place his fingers in his wounds and his hand in his side. Thomas speaks for all of us when he cries out, ‘My Lord and my God!’ In eight days we have moved from abject terror and doubt to a luminous and loving faith.

What brings about this great change? During the past week we have worked our way through the resurrection narratives. All of them are situated in the early morning,* even Peter’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the beach, but now we have reached evening. We are entering a new phase when the Church as community of believers begins to take on the mission of Christ. We have not yet reached Pentecost, but the Risen Christ even now breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples and speaks of sin and forgiveness. That, it seems to me, is the Church’s mission: to extend through time the forgiveness of sin that Christ achieved through his Death and Resurrection. We can look back on two thousand years of history and question whether we have been very good at it, but that is surely unfair to the thousands upon thousands of good and holy people who have reflected our Lord’s love and mercy through the ages. It is also to make a fundamental mistake, to see forgiveness as something we do rather than something God does in and through us.

When evening comes, most of us would admit to being tired, weary even. Is it significant that the command to forgive comes when we are least able to rely on our own energy? When we have to rely on God? Many monastic communities find that the heaviest demands on their charity and patience are made during Holy Week and Easter, as though what we celebrate liturgically must be incarnated in our lives. As the Easter Octave comes to an end all of us, monastic or not, are called to continue the work God has begun in us. But we must remember that it is God’s work, not ours. We do not forgive, but we can allow God to forgive in and through us.

*Emmaus is a partial exception: Cleopas and the other disciple have walked with Jesus through the day but recognize him at supper.

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Easter Sunday 2017

crucifix

On Good Friday we received a small package containing an old French crucifix we had bought on eBay. It was tarnished and dingy, but a little work soon revealed the beauty underneath (the photo does not do it justice). We had intended hanging the crucifix in our garden chapel, but we liked it so much we have hung it inside the house, where it gleams brightly amid the gloom of one of our workrooms. In a way, it epitomizes the Easter story. From betrayal and brutal death God has wrought a miracle of redemption and given us new life in Christ. Sometimes we see only the ugliness and horror; at others, only the beauty and majesty; but both are there, held together in a divine tension. Just as we can say, analogically, that Christ hangs eternally upon the Cross, so we can affirm that he is eternally risen; and there is something of the same in our own lives.

Today the Church sings alleluia from dawn till dusk. Our churches and chapels are a riot of colour, flowers, incense and music. Joy tumbles out on every side. But in the midst of that joy there is also pain and suffering. We think of the Syrian evacuees bombed on their way to safety, the starving children of Yemen or South Sudan, the friend or neighbour struggling with grief or illness. Somehow, in ways we can never fully understand, the joy and the grief are made one, redeemed. The precious wounds on Christ’s body are there for all eternity, but for us they have become channels of grace and healing — eternally.

A very happy Easter to you all!

 

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Resurrection | Easter 2014

Symbolic representation of the resurrection of Christ: sarcophagus, c. A.D. 350
Symbolic representation of the resurrection of Christ: sarcophagus, c. A.D. 350

This morning finds Quietnun and me a little ragged after having spent ten hours in the Accident and Emergency Department of our local hospital. It may have been the first time anyone had read through the whole of the Easter Vigil there. It was certainly the first time two Benedictine nuns had done so, and although it wasn’t exactly how we had hoped to greet the Resurrection, crowded on benches, watching one emergency after another stream through the doors, it did remind us of something we tend to forget. Jesus comes to us where we are, not where we would like to be. To him, the A & E suite is as sacred as a basilica, because it is there that he finds his children; and we all know his special tenderness towards the sick and dying. He redeems us from our sins, not from our (largely illusory) misconceptions about ourselves and our own wonderfulness. He comes to us as Saviour and stoops to our need, our real need, not any imaginary need. Above all, he comes to us, not as an abstraction — the Resurrection — but as a person, the Risen Christ. In the face of such great love and mercy, what can we say but ‘alleluia’?

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The Harrowing of Hell | Holy Saturday 2014

The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190
The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday — a day out of time — that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

Note on the illustration
Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, York; written about 1490, Tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101, fol. 82v

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Resurrection Meals

When I was cook in a large community, I used to think Easter was all about eating. After the Lenten fast, the explosion of festive meals, profession anniversaries and so on taxed the culinary imagination as well as the store cupboard. Scripturally, of course, it was spot on. A feast is precisely that: a feast.

Many of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus feature eating and drinking, but I think they introduce a new note. It is not merely a matter of rejoicing but more fundamentally of recognizing who Jesus is. Take the barbecue on the beach we recall today (John 21). Peter seems to have been disconcerted by the sight of Jesus on the seashore and jumped into the water to escape him; the other disciples were confused; but eating and drinking with Jesus changed everything. For Peter, strengthened in faith, given a mission and enabled to make good his earlier cowardice with a threefold profession of love, it was a moment of conversion. He saw the Lord and knew him as if for the first time.

I wonder whether our own meals have anything of this conversion quality about them. We are good at celebrating, we make a conscious effort to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ and share with the stranger, but do we expect to encounter the Risen Christ at them? On Twitter this morning I suggested we should each try to share a meal with someone today, even if it is only a shared cup of coffee. For those living alone or constrained by lack of funds, the sharing may have to be in intention rather than actual, but I cannot help recalling that line which assures us we may entertain angels unawares. How much more so the Son of God!

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Time and Eternity: the Easter Octave and the Eighth Day

The Easter Octave is a good time to think about time and eternity. In everyday conversation we use the words loosely, casually even, without regard to the more precise meanings given them by theologians and philosophers.

On Sunday we celebrated in a more intense form than usual the Resurrection of Christ. That is something we do every Sunday, but on Easter Day and throughout these days of the octave we go on celebrating that event as something that occurs uniquely today. Our ‘day’ therefore stretches over eight days, allowing us to assimilate different aspects of it. The Resurrection gospels read this week add to our understanding. They are like the many facets of a polished jewel, each one revealing different depths of colour and meaning.

But what of the eighth day? Is that the same as the octave day? The short answer is ‘no’. In Christian tradition, the eighth day is a sign of the new creation ushered in by the Resurrection. Sunday, as well as being the first day of the week, is also spiritually the eighth day. The early Christian writers made great play with this, seeing the eighth day as a symbol of perfection and fulfilment, the point where time intersected with eternity. Justin Martyr (c.154) described it thus: ‘the first day after the Sabbath [Saturday], remaining the first of all days, is called, however, the eighth, according to the number of all the days of the cycle, and [yet] remains the first.’

So where does that leave us during this Easter octave? We have, in effect, eight days of eighth days. We are living eternity now. And if that were not enough, the Easter season culminates in Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, ‘when the promise is fulfilled; all is made new.’ No wonder that we sing ‘alleluia’ over and over again.

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A Banana Moment

On this day in 1633 the first bananas were imported into England. How they survived the long sea voyage from the Bahamas and were still in a fit state to be eaten beats me, but I do not doubt that they were enjoyed. How we managed to survive World War II without bananas is also a mystery to me, but we did — just.

Why this talk of bananas when you were probably expecting a line or two about the Resurrection? There are some truths so profound one must either write at length or very briefly about them. I tore up my Easter Day post as being too long to read yet not long enough to convey what I wanted it to convey. Then I went and ate a banana and realised that there are banana moments just as there are marmite toast moments.

Marmite toast is comfort food; a banana is as near to paradise as we are ever likely to get in this life. The golden skin of those we eat in Britain, the fragrance, the warm and slightly yeasty taste are a foretaste of the ambrosia we expect at the heavenly banquet. If we are to taste and see that the Lord is good, I think bananas must come high up on the list for doing so — much better than a chocolate Easter egg. So, if you have not yet celebrated Easter in the kitchen, eat a banana, and think how healthy your alternative choice is!

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Holy Saturday: a Day out of Time

An early Christian writer once described Holy Saturday as being a day of great quietness and stillness as earth awaits the Resurrection. It is a day out of time — no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no warmth or colour to assuage the interior desolation, no activity to distract us or give us a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent.

Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the Cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. And just as when Jesus was laid in the tomb he entered into a world outside time and an activity beyond our apprehension — the harrowing of hell — so we too, with our Holy Saturday faith, enter into a dimension of reality we cannot truly comprehend, a kind of little death that prepares us for the death we shall all one day undergo. In this state we can do nothing; God must do everything.

Holy Saturday prepares us for the newness of life that comes with the Resurrection. The silence, the stillness, the apparent inaction of this day out of time — it all sounds rather monastic, doesn’t it? Perhaps that is why I find it my natural environment, so to say. Monastic life has been described as a continuous Lent, a continuous preparation for Christ’s coming at Easter. One of the first monks expressed this very beautifully, ‘A monk’s cell is like Easter night: it sees Christ rising.’ That is a striking phrase, made the more striking by remembering that the monk’s cell is, first and foremost, the cell of his heart. Today, each of us must prepare to receive the Risen Christ into our hearts; and the only way we can do that is by allowing God to do all the doing.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 2

RB 49 continues with these lines:

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual measure of our service, such as private prayers and abstinence from food and drink, that each one, of his own free will and with the joy of the Holy Spirit, may offer God something over and above the measure appointed for him. That is to say, let him deny himself some food, drink, sleep, pointless conversation and banter, and look forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Notice that, after the general introduction he gave yesterday, Benedict offers some  practical guidance. He is an ‘adder on’ rather than a ‘giver up’. He assumes, correctly I hope, that our lives are already free from excess and focused upon God, for he is aware that ‘giving up’ can become a kind of ascetical contest, full of pride rather than humility.

So, the first thing he advocates adding is ‘private prayers’. This phrase has caused whole forests to be felled and oceans of ink to be expended in its elucidation. I think myself that its meaning is clear. It is a direct reference to the ‘prayer with tears’ and ‘compunction of heart’ he mentioned earlier. This gift of compunction is often misunderstood as though it were some strange mystical phenomenon reserved for the great saints alone. It is nothing of the sort and is found again and again in monastic tradition.

We are not all spirit; we have bodies, and they too respond to the nearness of God. As we grow in prayer, we see more keenly what a terrible thing sin is. The knowledge punctures us and our pride and causes us to weep, gently and in a way, joyously. It is an intensely painful experience, but it is also peaceful, for we are held by God. It is also, emphatically, not for display. Benedict is suspicious of any public manifestation of the workings of grace in the soul, knowing that they can be a source of pride and presumption.

Next Benedict gives us a motive and a context for our Lenten observance. We are to embrace our Lenten disciplines freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing. Could there be any clearer statement of what we are about? We run towards Easter as we run along the way of God’s commandments, with a love beyond telling. This note of joy occurs again and again in the Rule and, as you read on, you’ll find that everything is ordered in relation to the paschal feast, from the times of meals to the formularies for prayer. Easter is at the heart of all Benedict’s prescriptions for monastic living.

That is why when Benedict spells out the ‘giving up’ side of things he inserts two we might not have thought of: sleep, and what I have translated as ‘pointless conversation and banter’, the kind of conversation that is often just noise.

Sleep is, of course, the opposite of wakefulness. Spiritually, it implies sloth, indifference, self-indulgence. There is a long monastic tradition of prayer during the night so that we are awake to greet the Resurrection. Keeping vigil is part of what we do. Restraint from idle or needless speech is another common monastic theme. We keep silence so that we may hear the Word of God more clearly. Here Benedict is suggesting that both in our keeping vigil and in our silence we prepare for the explosion of joy and life that is Easter.

Long before Benedict wrote, one of the desert fathers remarked that a monk’s cell is like Easter night, it sees Christ rising. That is precisely what we are about this Lent: allowing Christ to take form in us that when Easter comes we may take our place in the Resurrection.

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Monday Morning Blues

It is amazing how many people suffer from ‘Monday morning blues’. In the monastery one day follows another without the ‘week-end’ as such intervening — the liturgical calendar is the all-important demarcator of days and seasons. This Monday, however, is different. With Ash Wednesday only a couple of days away, if we have not yet thought through how we are going to make a fresh start during Lent, this is the day to do it. Inevitably, one starts with the negatives: where do I need to pull my monastic socks up? It can all seem a bit dispiriting.

The advice St Benedict gives for making a good Lent is remarkably straightforward, and I’ll be going through some of it in a later post, but here I want to draw attention to just one element. He says of our Lenten observance that whatever we do should be done ‘with the joy of the Holy Spirit’ and ‘looking forward to Easter with joy and spiritual longing’ (cf RB 49. 6, 7). Joy and longing are not necessarily the first things we associate with Lent, but Benedict’s words remind me, at least, that ‘Monday morning blues’ can be  a trifle self-indulgent — or as Kirkegaard remarked, ‘The trouble with Christians is that they don’t look redeemed.’ Another challenge to meet!

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