Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.
The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.
Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.
Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.
It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.
*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.
Most people would agree that this is proving to be a very strange Eastertide, but I wonder how many have been thinking about the language of sacrifice. Some have, obviously. There have been some profound reflections on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and how that affects each one of us. Others have been discussing the Eucharist, more specifically the possibility of online Communion, though I think it would be fair to say that the language of sacrifice, if used at all, has tended to be more about the experience of deprivation for the would-be communicant than what I, as a Catholic, would instinctively link to the Mass. Then, of course, there has been the popular use of sacrifice in relation to the work being done by healthcare professionals, especially where loss of life has been involved during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
I am not undervaluing any of this, but I confess to a growing unease which was crystallised a few days ago after learning that one of our oblates in the U.S.A. had been subjected to a reckless and unprovoked invasion of her business space by someone who regards COVID-19 as a hoax. No one is happy about the restrictions placed on everyday life in an effort to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections, but most people are taking them seriously and co-operating generously. Those who don’t are placing others at risk, but I’d like to understand why they are they doing so. Why are a significant number of people choosing to flout regulations designed to protect them and the rest of society from the worst ravages of COVID-19?
I don’t think they can all be dismissed as stupid (some, after all, are highly intelligent and well-educated), unusually selfish (attributing moral failure to others is always tricky, and many would argue that they wish to protect their families by going to their second homes or whatever), or even blessed with overweening self-confidence in their own interpretation of everything from statistics to epidemiology, but perhaps a few have still to learn what sacrifice means and the value it has for us all. The Easter season ought to be a good time for reflecting again on that.
As soon as one says that, one runs into a problem. In the West we have become individualistic and consumerist in our approach to life in general and that affects how we think as well as how we behave. The smartphone and the internet have given us choice, but they have privatised that choice in a way unthinkable thirty years ago. We can watch what we want when and how we want rather than relying on a broadcast or cinema showing; we can buy a single music track rather than a whole recording; we can restrict our reading to those whose views correspond to our own more easily than ever; and we can voice our own opinions, no matter how crazy, for free, almost everywhere. That awareness of choice and our freedom to exercise it has carried over into other areas of life. Better transport means that we are no longer locked into the parish system the way we once were. We can travel to a church we find more congenial, and if one Sunday we don’t feel like getting the car out, there’s probably a livestream we can watch instead. It’s no accident that those who argue for the permissibility of abortion in any circumstances have campaigned under the slogan of ‘a woman’s right to choose’.
Freedom and choice may have become absolute values for some but is their enjoyment and exercise dependent on the individual or on the group? We are back to elementary classes in political theory. Can we be free if we do not have a society around us that promotes and, if necessary, protects that freedom? Can we have choice unless there are alternatives, and what happens if some choose differently from us? How do we show care and compassion? What does the renunciation of some good or other actually mean?
Freely to give up something one prizes for the sake of a greater good is a very difficult thing to do. It means giving up one’s sense of entitlement, one’s sureness about how things ought to be — and it is only in the West that we have that luxury. I read the other day that there are approximately five intensive care unit beds per million of population in the continent of Africa; in Europe the figure is nearer 4,000. It is easier to make a stand on a matter of principle when there is a safety net to catch one should one fall. Those claiming that their civil liberties are being infringed by the COVID-19 restrictions are right. They are being curtailed, but for a reason: the common good. And that is where it becomes necessary to understand why sacrifice is part of human life, not just religious life.
Without sacrifice, without the free, conscious renunciation of some private good, society as a whole suffers. If, for example, we do not agree to the payment of taxes, the sacrifice of some part of our income, we cannot expect publicly-funded education, healthcare or any of the services we identify as necessary to our well-being. If we do not sacrifice some personal good, such as our presumed right to say what we like when we like, we may seriously wound or even harm others (think slander and defamation). For the religiously inclined, this ought to be easier to grasp, but I don’t think it always is. For example, during Holy Week there was a lot of emoting in social media about being deprived of the Eucharist because the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had given instructions about Mass which meant that its celebration had to take place behind closed doors, without a congregation present. It was, and is, hard for all of us; but if we concentrate on our own loss and our own sense of deprivation, I think we miss the point. The Mass is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, one with Christ’s self-giving on the cross. It is where our understanding of sacrifice begins, not ends.
That, I think, is why for the Christian the language of sacrifice can never be limited to what we do in church but must have a larger context. Whatever any of us sacrifices is never a purely individual act, a matter of personal choice alone. I’d say that the people who are worrying about the survival of their jobs and the businesses they have built up are doing more sacrificing than those of us who are being shielded behind closed doors. Those working in hospitals or other front-line services, keeping the rest of us supplied with the necessities of life, are sacrificing hugely, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. I’d add that those dying without the sacraments, those mourning the death of someone they love without a ‘proper’ funeral, are experiencing the closure of church buildings and the restrictions on clergy in a uniquely sacrificial way. So it goes on. We can name endless groups of people or individuals who are being required to sacrifice something precious to them.
Sometimes we talk about sacrifice in abstract terms, forgetting that it can hurt, that the pain is deeply felt. We have to trust, as Jesus did on the cross, that the results will be worthwhile; but it is trust that is involved, not a problematic certainty of the kind often alluded to in the mantra of our times, ‘let’s follow the science’. I hope it is not going too far to suggest that today, throughout the world, a different kind of Mass is being celebrated, a Mass in which human loss and pain are caught up into the sacrifice of Christ on the cross with an intensity most of us have not known before. Let us pray that we may be equal to what is asked of us and take our part, never forgetting that Christ’s sacrifice leads ultimately to victory and everlasting life.
Yesterday I attended Mass. I can almost hear a collective yawn and a mumbled ‘So what, isn’t that what nuns are supposed to do?’ Those who are able to attend Mass whenever they want, or to whom the Mass is of no consequence, will not understand. I haven’t been able to attend Mass for a very long time, but yesterday a priest friend came and said Mass here at the monastery. Not only did we hear Mass, we were able to make our confessions, and I had the great blessing of being anointed. Three sacraments, three unique and precious ways of meeting the Lord.
To some, the very notion of sacrament is problematic; others limit their understanding to those they regard as being of Dominical origin; happily, those of us who are Catholic enjoy a much wider sense of the way in which the sacraments incarnate grace, so to say, as ‘an outward sign of inward grace’. One of the things I love about the Church is the fact that she uses ordinary, humdrum things — water, oil, bread, wine — and transforms them (and us) through the sacraments she celebrates. They anchor us in reality, in the messiness and incompleteness of life, but they also lead us into eternity, into the perfection of joy and love.
An austerely Protestant friend once confided to me that she didn’t really ‘get’ the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Two things in particular bothered her. One was the Church’s refusal to open reception of the sacrament to all Trinitarian Christians as her own denomination did, and the other was Catholic devotion to the reserved sacrament. She had been to Spain and been rather aghast at a Corpus Christi procession and the way in which people flopped to their knees as the priest passed by under a canopy of white silk, holding ‘some great gold thinggy in his hands’. I tried to explain.
Catholics have a very high doctrine of the Eucharist. We believe that it is much more than a memorial meal. It is a sacrifice, one with the sacrifice of Calvary. Bread and wine are transformed by the action of the priest into the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour, and it is necessary to share the faith of the Church in order to share in the sacrament. This did not satisfy her, nor did my patient offering of all the relevant numbers in the Catechism, Dominus Est and so on. I had slightly more success when I read through the Eucharistic Prayers with her and threw in some little tidbits of history and theology from Jungmann (see below). However, it was when we went into a nearby Catholic church during Adoration that light began to dawn. The sight of many people kneeling in silent prayer before the Host in the monstrance affected my friend profoundly. The candles, the flowers, the faint smell of incense probably helped, too; but it was the prayer and the depth of the silence that moved her most. That wasn’t faked; it wasn’t in any way exclusionary; it was simply a group of people united in their love of the Lord, kneeling before him and listening.
Today Catholics in Britain will celebrate Corpus Christi in many different ways. Some will hold Corpus Christi processions, scattering rose petals and singing hymns; others will spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament (how we usually refer to the reserved sacrament), either exposed in the monstrance for Adoration and Benediction or contained within the tabernacle (its place of reservation); all, I trust, will take part in the Mass because, of course, it is the Mass from which all worship of the Blessed Sacrament proceeds. It is in the action of the Mass that we are united with the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, with his death and resurrection, and in communion made one with him in love and prayer.
Today’s liturgy is so full, it weighs heavy on heart and mind. There is the Chrism Mass, with its powerful reminder of the great gift of priesthood and then, this evening, the beginning of the sacred Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper when we ponder the amazing gift of the Eucharist and Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he has loved us. We have barely registered these before we are plunged into watching with Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane, conscious of sin and betrayal. There will be no let up, no lessening of tension, until the Easter Vigil. We are one with Christ on his long, last journey from this world to the next.
In previous years I have attempted to single out some aspect of the day’s events for reflection and prayer. Today, however, I suggest we think about the Preface used at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It contains in a nutshell the theology of this day:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
For he is the true and eternal Priest,
who instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice
and was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim,
commanding us to make this offering as his memorial.
As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us,
we are made strong,
and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us,
we are washed clean.
And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts . . .
Note on the illustration
Unknown, illuminator The Last Supper, about 1030 – 1040, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 23.2 x 16 cm (9 1/8 x 6 5/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38,/small>
The rhythm of feasts and fasts is so central to the Church’s year and her understanding of the spiritual life that it may be worth gathering together a few thoughts on the subject. At the outset, we ought to distinguish between fasting in the traditional Christian sense and the popular ‘fasting diet’.
At its simplest, fasting means going without food and drink in order to remind ourselves of our creatureliness and enable us to focus on God more clearly. One might say that it has nothing to with us, but everything to do with God; and the fast of Jesus in the desert is the model for all our own fasting. The Lenten fast makes this very clear. The current discipline of the Church prescribes that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we should limit ourselves to one meal and two collations (snacks). This is both a penance (denying ourselves some good thing to show sorrow for our sins and ask grace for amendment in the future) and a preparation for what is to come. In the monastery, of course, the fasts are more frequent and more rigorous (for example, we fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted) but the intention is the same. We seek the spiritual freedom that will enable us to follow the Lord more closely. Our fasting is meant to help us forget ourselves and our own comfort so that we are more open to God and others. The money we save is given to the poor. Any physical and psychological benefits are incidental. We might say that fasting as the Church understands it is essentially altruistic. The ‘fasting diet’ by contrast is primarily concerned with the health benefits for the dieter and, as a practice, has no larger end in view (though the individual may well have other motives for dieting in this way.)
When we come to feasts, the difference between Christian practice and secular custom becomes even more marked. The liturgical calendar highlights different occasions that throw light on our understanding of the central tenets of our faith. Sometimes, these seem to put us at odds, or at least out of step, with the people around us. During Christmastide, for example, we are still celebrating when others have taken down their Christmas decorations because it is Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day itself, which opens the way of salvation to gentile Christians. The greatest feast of all, that of Easter, is ushered in by a fast so that we feel in our own bodies the movement from darkness to light, but it is a feast that has very little razzmatazz surrounding it. The great mystery of the Eucharist is a feast in which we share by means of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine transformed into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ.
As we approach the last few days of the Christmas season and the thought of Lent begins to appear on the horizon, perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on the nature of feasts and fasts and the way we ourselves live them. The Rule of St Benedict is written around the feast of Easter. Everything is referred to that, and the joy and spiritual gladness that should accompany our every action should ensure our lives have a continual Lenten quality. As our American friends would say, go figure.
That is not a bad strapline for Advent. We are preparing for the birth of a baby which, when it took place in history, was an obscure occurrence in a troublesome part of the Roman Empire — nothing to get excited about. But it was also the most amazing event ever to occur in any place or time: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Word made Flesh.
God seems to enjoy linking the intimate and the epic, often in ways we fail to register properly. The sacrament many of us receive most often comes to us in the humdrum form of a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, but we surround it with our own ideas of beauty and majesty.* Like Naaman, we prefer to have things complicated. We want grandeur rather than simplicity; we want to do great things for God rather than the little ones he actually asks. Today’s gospel (Matt 7.21, 24–27) is a case in point. We want to address God with all the grandiloquence and ceremony of which we are capable, to give free expression to all the words in our hearts, but he just wants us to be attentive to his word, to do his will.
Now that we are a few days into Advent, it would be useful to pause and ask ourselves whether the programme we have drawn up for ‘our Advent’ is really about drawing closer to God or puffing ourselves up with a sense of our own goodness. John the Baptist was great precisely because he was small in his own eyes. He had no other desire than to point towards Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all in that.
*Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for making our liturgy, and the places where we celebrate it, as beautiful as we possibly can. The casual and the sloppy are anathema to me. But without love and reverence even the grandest liturgy, the most beautiful music, are wanting.
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.
An idle thought struck me at Mass this morning. In today’s gospel, Mark 6. 7–13, we hear the Lord sending the Twelve out on what we would now call missionary work. His instructions are precise: they are to take nothing for the journey — no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purse; they are to wear sandals but not take a spare tunic. That absence of a spare tunic has always bothered me. It is often presented as an aspect of the ‘lean, mean, missionary machine’ idea, in which those who are to preach and teach in Christ’s name are to travel light, taking nothing that is not strictly necessary, depending rather on God to supply all their material needs. As a young girl, I concluded that the first missionaries were probably dreadfully smelly. Later, I began to think that those first missionary journeys were quite short, as though, until the institution of the Eucharist (‘no bread’) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (‘nothing for the journey’), the disciples were not fully equipped for their task. Even today, more commentaries than I care to remember later, I am still puzzling over the text.
St Benedict remarks, in the course of his chapter on the clothing and footwear of the brethren (RB 55), that when we go out of the monastery, our tunics and cowls should be better than the ones we normally wear. It is still our custom today to put on our ‘best’ habit when we have to go anywhere on monastery business. I think the reason we do so is so that, whatever the austerities practised within community, our public face should be like that of the faster, who no one should know is fasting. We represent our community best when we draw as little attention to ourselves as possible. Can the same be said of the missionary?
The life of a monk or nun is largely hidden, by its very nature; the life of a missionary, by contrast, is almost entirely public. For us, the habit preserves the privacy of the community — it may hide its penury; it certainly hides any excessive individualism. For the missionary, with just the clothes he stands up in, what we see is what we get: he or she must radiate Christ, allowing nothing to get in the way. Both missionary and monastic have the same end in view, but we approach it from different angles, so to say. My tale of two tunics may sound a bit far-fetched, but for me at least there is the germ of an idea there. Would someone like to take it further?
I have ‘Awareness Day’ fatigue. Too many good causes ask me to be ‘aware’ of this or that, to give my time, energy, money or what you will; to tweet or wear a ribbon; it is all too much. Apparently, today is, among other things, Bread Awareness Day. That set me thinking. Bread is so important, a blessing in itself. Blessed and broken, it is a feature of most meals; consecrated and shared out in the Mass as the Body of Christ, it sustains both body and soul. So I hereby declare today Blessings Awareness Day, a day to acknowledge our blessings and give thanks for them. Nothing more is required, but it should put a smile on your face and laughter in your heart.