Come and Save Us: O Emmanuel

Today’s O antiphon is

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.

I always think there is a kind of desperation in today’s O antiphon. We pile on the titles of God — Emmanuel, King, Giver of the Law, Desired of the Nations, Saviour of the Peoples — as though by making sure we have missed none out, we could be more certain of being heard. Then, when we have done all that, our exhausted plea is very simple: come and save us. That final, poignant ‘Lord our God’ is wrung from our very heart. God is indeed our hope and salvation, in whom we trust despite ourselves.

If you are blessed with a serene and unhesitating faith, none of this will make sense; but I suspect many wrestle with questions of faith and doubt, presence and absence, and know that we must somehow bring this inner turmoil of thought and feeling to God for healing and redemption. Advent now has almost completed its task in us. Today we stand naked before God, just as, in a couple of days, the Son of God will stand naked before us in the Child born at Bethlehem. Our defences are down, we know ourselves for what we are. Soon, very soon, we shall be privileged to know God for who and what he is: Emmanuel, God-with-us.

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Hovering on the Brink

Tomorrow everything changes. We begin the last few days of Advent with a new Preface and the magnificent series of ‘O’ antiphons at Vespers which chart the final steps of our journey. (If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here.)

I think there can be no better meditation for today, no better preparation for the remaining days before Christmas,  than praying the Second Preface of Advent. It is ‘theology in a nutshell’; so, if you can, take the time to let the phrases sink in and do their work in you:

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 all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

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 . . .

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The Power of Regret

No one reading today’s first lesson from Isaiah (Is. 48.17–19) can fail to be moved by the note of regret. Missed opportunities, the sins of omission rather than commission, how they lie heavy about us! But Isaiah is not talking about the regret we feel, rather he is expressing God’s sorrow at the way in which we have messed up. Yes, for once this is all about God, not us. The gospel (Matt 11.16–19) takes this one step further when Jesus voices his frustration at the fickleness of our response. We want the reverse of what we have. We fail to recognize the opportunities offered us, and ultimately, it is our loss.

I think these two passages mark an important stage in our Advent journey. They are the point at which we have to stop playing around, grow up and prepare for change. The call to live with integrity becomes ever more urgent the closer we draw to the Light. Today is the feast of St Lucy, whose name comes from the same root as the word for light. Under the old Julian calendar, her feast marked the shortest day of the year, when everything was at its darkest. There is a psychological truth in that. Very often our decision to follow Christ has to be made in less than ideal conditions, in darkness rather than light, and what spurs us on can seem, at first sight, negative. Our regret at misspent opportunities may provide the initial impetus, but it will not last unless something more positive takes its place. We have to hand everything over to God and allow his love to provide what we need to sustain us.

The movement from fear to love, from self-interest to God-interest, is the work of a lifetime, but we must begin. We do not want to hear on Judgement Day the Holy One lamenting our failure to co-operate with grace. Regret, like nostalgia, is a very adult emotion. Today we can see that it is also potentially a very powerful one. May St Lucy help us with her prayers to live up to our vocation:

Let the prayer of the virgin martyr Lucy support us, Lord,
so that with each passing year we may celebrate her entry into life,
and finally see you face to face in heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

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The Baptist’s Cry

The Second Sunday of Advent sets before us the gaunt figure of John the Baptist, a man of luminous integrity to whom even Herod delighted to listen. I think what always strikes me about John is his joy. Even when he is giving us a tongue-lashing — ‘you brood of vipers’ — one senses underneath the excitement he feels at the nearness of God and his desire to make him known. Sometimes, when I read the fulminations of some of my fellow Christians, I am left feeling that I do not want to know their God. I simply cannot reconcile the God  in whom I believe with the harsh and unwelcoming figure they portray. That is not to say that we should reduce God and his message to a cosy, wishy-washy liberalism that won’t say anything is wrong because it is not convinced anything is right. On the contrary, the God in whom I believe is a Person of immense holiness, awesome in his otherness. I think it is because John was utterly captivated by the holiness of God that he was so joyful. Could the same be said of us?

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The Intimate and the Epic

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.

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A Joyful Integrity

Isaiah is the poet of Advent. We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us. But because we need words with which to understand that silence, lyrical words that will speak to us even when we would rather not hear, the Church provides us with many readings from the prophet Isaiah. To one who believes, silence is never merely an absence of sound, never, in any sense, an absence of meaning. Isaiah must have been a man of  deep and persevering prayer, at home with silence, for in his words we find an echo not only of messianic joy but also of messianic fervour. Today he is supremely joyful and eloquent about that most awkward and uncomfortable thing, living with integrity (Isaiah 11. 1–10).

Integrity is not for the faint-hearted. It is panther-like in its grip on honesty; wolf-like in its tireless pursuit of truth; lion-like in its refusal to give way. It is often disparaged by those who are not themselves honest or truthful because, for all the demands it makes, integrity is rather unspectacular. It is one of those quiet virtues that can turn the world upside down, and it is very much what we are asked to practise in these days of Advent. Today’s gospel (Luke 10.21–24) talks about the hiddenness of the Kingdom, the messianic promise fulfilled but not recognized. We, who are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord, need to be alert to the signs of His presence. Living with integrity is an important way of ensuring that we will be ready to welcome the Word when He comes, but it must not be a glum, self-regarding integrity. It must be radiantly joyful, free, full of the poetry of love and devotion.

St Francis Xavier, whose feast it is today, was, by all accounts, a man of singularly joyful integrity who won people to Christ by what he was, as much as by what he said. Let us make our own the collect for the day:

Lord God, you won so many peoples to yourself
by the preaching of St Francis Xavier.
Give us the same zeal he had for the faith
and let your Church rejoice
to see the virtue and number of her children increase
throughout the world.

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Substance over Style or Management for the Rest of Us

Devotees of Lord Sugar’s business methods may find today’s post rather baffling. What I say follows on from yesterday’s post and deals with the second half of Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. It is all about value, but not quite as that is often understood. It is about management in which substance is rated above style.

Benedict’s first point is that the cellarer must be humble (RB 31.13). No strutting his stuff or playing the status game. No, he must be grounded in reality (for that is what humility means) and that is the surest of all foundations for whatever he undertakes. The way in which that humility is worked out and manifested is interesting, especially when he is in what we would call a tight corner or asked for something impossible:

 . . . when he lacks the wherewithal to meet a request, he should give a good word in answer, as it is written, ‘A good word is above the best gift.’ (RB 31.13 quoting Sirach 18.17)

So, no bawling, no bullying, no primadonna tantrums, but courtesy and gentleness even in the most stressful situations. That is something to aim at, even if we fail dismally at times. Benedict goes on to say that the cellarer must not go beyond his authority. His powers are great, but if the abbot has said there is something he shouldn’t deal with, then he shouldn’t ‘presume to meddle with what has been forbidden him.’ (RB 31.15) Few of us like to think of ourselves as meddlers, but that is precisely what we are if we stray outside the boundaries of our duty. At a practical level, it can cause confusion and resentment. It can also lead us to have over-grandiose conceptions of our own ability, and that is never a good idea. The list of failed companies where the CEO had thought him/herself immune to market forces or even simple economics is long and growing longer.

Benedict’s cellarer is expected to be fair. If he isn’t, if he provokes others, then he is responsible for their failures. The example given in the Rule concerns the cellarer’s duty to provide for the brethren’s meals. If he is haughty or makes them wait unnecessarily, playing the power game again, ‘he must bear in mind what scripture says someone deserves “who tempts one of these little ones to evil.”‘ (RB 31.16, quoting Matthew 18.6) If you look at the scripture referred to in that sentence, you can see how very seriously Benedict takes the matter. Someone who does not act responsibly is a dead weight on the community—better he were not there at all.

Fairness is not all one-way, however, for Benedict recognizes that it is possible for an individual to be burdened with unrealistic demands, endlessly harassed by those who think that just because he is cellarer he must be constantly available to meet their every whim. On the contrary, Benedict stipulates that if the community is comparatively large, the cellarer must be given assistants to help him in his work and, tellingly, ‘Necessary items are to be applied for and distributed at appropriate times.’ (RB 31.18) How often does someone in a managerial position feel that his/her time is eaten up with small requests that interrupt the ‘real’ work of the day. Benedict has already made it plain that those small requests are, in fact, part of the real work of the day, but everyone in the monastery must ensure that they never become outrageously burdensome. He is asking, in effect, for a co-operative management style, having as his aim the peace and contentment of the community, for he concludes his chapter by stating that his reason for asking these things is ‘that no one may be upset or troubled in the house of God.’ (RB 31.19) That last touch, the reminder that the monastery and everyone and everything in it are God’s domain, is surely enough to remind any cellarer that it is God’s will he must do, not his own.

All very well in the monastery, you may say, but what are the practical applications outside? I think what Benedict says of the cellarer’s attitudes and behaviour are easily translatable into a secular context, although the language we use might differ a little. Good managers, whether they are running ICI or a small household, tend to have similar qualities. They are good at getting the best from other people because they respect others and are prepared to work collaboratively with them. That doesn’t mean they necessarily share their decision-making with them, but they are good at making people feel they are part of an enterprise rather than just a cog in a faceless machine. Courtesy, engagement (the ‘good word’), a sense of service, these are all important to the success of any business. They help create value. For Benedict, the supreme value  is the sanctification of the community members; for the rest of us, it is more likely to be a healthy balance-sheet and a happy workforce. Neither is to be despised.

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Gifted or Great?

Many people mistake giftedness for greatness. The gifts of some are more spectacular than those of others, but they do not make the possessors great. To be gifted is to bear a responsibility; to be great is to have discharged that responsibility well and faithfully. Benedict’s cellarer (business manager) is entrusted with multitudinous responsibilities. ‘He is to have care of everything’ says the Rule (RB 31.3), spelling out the many duties that fall to his lot:

He should take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will have to account for them all on judgement day. All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels. He must let nothing be neglected. (RB 31. 9-11)

He is given a great deal of power, but his greatness will consist in one thing only: the faithful discharge of his office. That is why the qualities Benedict seeks are so profoundly revealing:

a wise person, of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful, but someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1-2)

In tomorrow’s section of the Rule, we shall find Benedict saying that ‘above all, he should possess humility.’ (RB 31.13)

Clearly, what we have here is a portrait of the ideal steward, one who is obedient to his abbot, doing all things ‘in accordance with the abbot’s instructions’ (RB 31.12), but bringing to his task every gift of heart, mind and soul with which he has been endowed in order to serve God and the community. Benedict knows he will be gifted, but in chapter 31 he asks the person who serves as cellarer to become great, to rise above every natural inclination that may lead him away from his duty or cause him to misuse the power entrusted to him.

I think we can see an analogy here with many different forms of service outside the monastery. It is always tempting to be a little self-seeking, to enjoy one’s progress up the ladder, so to say. Those who have taken the Rule to heart and wish to apply Benedict’s principles to their daily lives are confronted in this chapter with the Gospel ethic, and it may not make comfortable reading. We have been called and chosen to give glory to God by our lives; we have had gifts lavished upon us. How we use those gifts, how we live our lives, is what will make us great — or not.

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Agincourt and After by Bro Duncan PBGV

Today is St Crispin’s Day and the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Given my ancestry, I have mixed feelings about that. Do I get all patriotic about the English victory, or lament the French defeat? I’m a peaceable chap, so my tendency is to lie doggo and keep quiet. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, at home anywhere — especially in a comfy dog basket or beside a roaring fireside — so I don’t go in for arguments or quarrels. That doesn’t mean I lack love of country; but it does mean I don’t have to keep proclaiming that my country is better than yours or running yours down because it isn’t lucky enough to be mine.

I think BigSis is on to something when she says love is never negative about others. Love simply loves. The only competition love seeks is to be first in doing good to the other. I ‘spect that’s quite spiritual really. BigSis says you just have to look at a Crucifix and all your complicated ideas fall away when you see what love really means. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I’d do anything for Them. I’d forgive Them anything—anything at all. I think that’s what love means, don’t you?

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Dull as Ditchwater

Have you ever looked at ditchwater, I mean really looked? In this part of Herefordshire it’s usually a lovely warm rust colour, tinged with streaks of blue, green and purple where tractor oil has seeped into it. When the sun is out (as happens occasionally) it shimmers, and a few late insects hop and glide across the surface. It is a whole world in a little, a miniature ocean with tiny currents and cross-currents, microscopic life-forms and and a green, green tangle of weeds and grasses along its banks. In short, it isn’t dull at all. I’m tempted to say that much of what we find dull in life isn’t really dull, it merely appears so because we don’t actually see what is before us, don’t want to give it time or attention.

For a Christian, prayer is a way of opening our eyes to God and so to all creation. It is a way of seeing, and seeing whole, but it takes time and energy — time and energy we are sometimes reluctant to give. If today you are tempted to neglect prayer on the grounds that you find it dull and unrewarding, go and look at some ditchwater.

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