Authors with a mortgage never get writer’s block. It is a luxury only those with an income equal to their outgoings can afford. I suspect there are other afflictions which we can indulge in only when we have the time, leisure or opportunity to do so. That is not to suggest that that the pain or difficulty they cause is unreal (I have my own weekly duel with writer’s block, so I wot whereof I speak), but the registering it, the allowing it to take centre stage, so to say, are acts within our control.
So here’s a challenge for today. What is your favourite whinge about? Is it a genuine grievance, such as Benedict meant when he talked about ‘justifiable murmuring’, or is it a covert form of self-indulgence, a little bit of armour we put on to defend ourselves against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? If you’re not sure, or unwilling to admit that it might just be a way of defending yourself against (unspoken) criticism or (as yet uncertain) failure, think again. The chains we make for ourselves are the ones that really bind.
You would think we would be used to it by now. Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, so many popular singers have died early, often as a result of addictive behaviours involving drink and drugs. In Whitney Houston’s case, there was the added tragedy of drugs ruining her voice long before it would have naturally faded. She had to live with that, day in day out, and who can guess what that knowledge cost her?
In the face of untimely death we are all a little subdued, a little sad. We may not have known the dead person, but we recognize that something is not quite right: the expected order of things has been overturned. The religious among us may whisper something about ‘God’s purposes’ but, whether we have faith or not, we must confront the reality of death. The life we know now must come to an end, and neither the moment nor the manner of it is for us to choose. ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ True, but let us not forget the grief of those who mourn and reflect on the ways in which society colludes with destructive behaviours. As we pray for Whitney Houston, let us also pray for all who are in thrall to drugs, alcohol or anything else that limits human freedom and dignity.
St Agnes was martyred early (at age 12 according to Ambrose, 13 according to Augustine) and is today chiefly remembered for being one of the female saints mentioned by name in the Roman canon. She is the patron saint of virgins, rape victims, gardeners, etc (there is a lot in the etc. but we’ll leave that for the moment) and has a singularly beautiful Office, so it would be easy to drift off on liturgical and historical reminiscence, but I think that might be to miss the point. The saints are not given to us so that we can commemorate them with exquisite art (though we often do) nor are they meant to be the subject of historical enquiry (though they often are). Saints are given to us for our encouragement. What encouragement can we derive from this young Roman girl martyred more than 1700 years ago?
For a start, she is a wonderful example of holiness in the young; and not the namby-pamby kind of ‘holiness’ which is in the eye of the sentimental beholder alone, but the real thing — gutsy, determined, tough-minded. Agnes stood up to her elders for what she believed and paid the price. Moreover, she stood up for something that many today find laughable or even an embarrassment: the freedom to choose whether to marry or not, whether to have sex or not. In her case, she chose a state of permanent virginity as an expression of love for Christ. That was the original ‘woman’s right to choose’ which she defended at the cost of her life. It is worth remembering that whenever we hear her named in the Mass, whenever we hear of someone being forced into an arranged marriage or raped. Let us ask her prayers for all vulnerable girls and women today.
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.
Let us read through Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6.12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2 and the Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14-18 (alternative for the day) and Luke 1.39-45, then listen to the antiphon:
This is the shortest day of the year, a day of darkness. All around there is a sense of political, economic and moral darkness, too. We read of the loss of lives in Syria, the effect of tropical storms in the Philippines, the fear that the work of scientists on swine ‘flu could be subverted to terrorist ends, the death of small children the world over because they don’t have clean water to drink. Beside all this our own the anxiety about the Eurozone and the economic structures of the west looks a little indecent, yet we know that for many it means the difference between a job and no job. It is into the heart of this darkness and uncertainty that the gospel comes as light and life. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Does the birth we look forward to at Christmas makes us want to sing and dance for joy at the nearness of our God? Are we prepared for what that birth demands, the risks we shall be called upon to take? Many of us, I suspect, prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.
Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary’s part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, ‘Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’
A little bit of pedantry
It may spare us a few comments from those who wish to point out that the winter solstice occurs at 5.30 a.m. on 22 December if I remind everyone that liturgically the day runs from evening to evening; so the day that begins at Vespers tonight, embracing as it does the winter solstice, is the shortest liturgical day of the year. I myself would say, let’s not get too hung up on these details: the truth of Christ’s lightening our darkness is what the liturgy celebrates and makes clear.
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.
I suggest we read Isaiah 22.22 and Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock . . .’ as we listen to the antiphon:
I had hoped to write something fresh and new for today, but my mind is taken up with the chapter talk I’ll be giving this afternoon, the Missus Est. The story of the Annunciation reveals layer upon layer of meaning and every year I find myself marvelling at some new facet, which is not really ‘new’ at all but something I had been blind to previously. I suspect we all feel like that. This is a day for doing theology on our knees.
So, I’d like to repeat something I’ve said before. Read it in the context of our current preoccupation with what is happening in North Korea and elsewhere. The key image is telling. Don’t we all feel powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which we have no control? Don’t we need some sort of key to understand them? If we feel entrapped, don’t we need some sort of key to set us free? O Clavis David is liberation theology for today.
Today’s O antiphon links beautifully with the gospel of the day, Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Both remind us of the freedom we have been given in Christ. Yet how many of us think of ourselves as being really free? We are bound by our history, our genetic make-up, the choices we have made through life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These can be both limitation and opportunity, but being human, we tend to concentrate on the limitations rather than the possibilities. The sad fact is, we are often quite happy in our bondage: if we are not free, we are not responsible. We can be moral Peter Pans all our lives.
Or can we? It may not be so much a case of being Peter Pan as a prisoner. The key image in the antiphon is a powerful one. To be locked into a room, even accidentally, can be an unnerving experience. To know that one’s release is entirely dependent on another challenges all one’s belief in one’s ability to impose one’s own will. We are reduced to waiting and hoping that the key-holder will let us out.
Two thousand years ago a young Jewish girl held the fate of all of us in her hands. Would she consent to be the Mother of God, to accept the Key of David who alone could set us free? That she did is the cause of all our joy this coming Christmas. Our liberation is close at hand.
One of the minor pleasures of modern mass communications is seeing what world leaders like to have as backdrops. The President of the United States of America is invariably accompanied by flags; the President of Russia seems to prefer some nondescript bits and pieces of technology and some very grand paintings (not difficult when one has at one’s disposal the treasures of the Hermitage); the Egyptian Military Council has flags, of course, but also some rather stiff arrangements of flowers improbably placed around the Council’s horseshoe desk.
During World War II my father served in North Africa. Some of his books are filled with wild flowers picked on the battlefields or gathered on ‘sight-seeing’ trips during rare intervals of rest and recuperation. This morning I found several from Egypt: fragile, crinkled blooms of unfamiliar flowers. They made me reflect that tyranny, like the poor, is always with us, only the names change. The thought that today is the anniversary of the Dresden bombing is a further reminder of the dreadful things we can do in pursuit of freedom and peace. Those flowers around the Egyptian military are surely meant to be reassuring. Let us hope that they presage better things for all Egypt’s citizens.
First we had Wikileaks, splattering our screens with all kinds of “private” information from the diplomatic bags of American officials. Now we have Egypt suspended in internet isolation while the Mubarak regime struggles to hold on to power. Has the web changed our understanding of freedom? It has certainly made the exercise of it more dangerous.