Light and Darkness, Fire and Flame

Throughout Advent, and especially at Christmas, we tend to think of God as Light in darkness. In many ways, it is a comforting image: warm, reassuring, beckoning us to  a richer, fuller life. We hail Christ as the Rising Sun, the Light that enlightens the gentiles, and our liturgy is full of dawn imagery and glorious sunbursts. We can forget the shadows because that wonderful Light bathes us in its blessedness. We do indeed think of the Holy Spirit as flame and fire, but here in the northern hemisphere we do so predominantly in springtime, when we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, and if we are honest, the ever-growing daylight and abundance of sunshine weakens our sense of the fiery. This morning, however, we are in a world of flaming torches and brilliant red-gold sparks set against an inky darkness. We are with Elijah and John the Baptist, and their words sear our souls (Ecclesiasticus 48. 1-4,9-12 and Matthew 17.10-13). Fire is not to be trifled with. It surrounds the very throne of God and is an image of his love for us. We can never forget that the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ of the hymn is one with the God whose love is a consuming fire.

I think we sometimes downplay the ‘otherness’ of God because it reminds us that we are not in control. We like to think that we have got our lives more or less sorted out and only need to bring God into things when it suits us. Thus, we pray for a particular blessing (and get very annoyed when it isn’t granted) or make a pefunctory acknowledgement of God’s omnipotence by going to church once in a while. Of course, I exaggerate; but even monks and nuns, who are in choir several times a day and have a solemn commitment to private prayer and reading, know how easily routine can blunt our sensibility. There are times, for example, when I come to the end of an Office and wonder whether I have prayed at all (though, to be fair, there are others when I have only to pass the oratory door and am filled with an overwhelming sense of the majesty and beauty of God).

Today we shall all be busy about many things. Some of them will be very good things — part of our Advent programme. But perhaps it would be a good idea, just before Gaudete Sunday, to slow down, drop our busy-ness and our own ideas of what constitutes a good Advent and simply spend a few minutes registering the utter transcendence of God — his infinite beauty, power and holiness. This is the God of Elijah and John the Baptist, a God who dwells in inaccessible fire and flame but who also willed to become man, that we might share his divinity.

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Those Money-Changers Again

This is one of the days in the year when the money-changers of the gospel (John 2. 13–25) get turned into money-lenders in popular parlance. It’s an apt malapropism in a way. We in the West have had our share of financial scandals involving outrageous rates of interest charged by pay-day lenders and the like. But the gospel isn’t about charging exorbitant rates of interest as such. The Temple money-changers played an essential cultic role, providing the special coinage which alone could be used in the Temple precincts. The sellers of pigeons and sheep provided the animals to be offered in sacrifice, again an essential service. When Jesus drove them all out of the Temple, he was doing more than making a protest at the way in which the profit-motive had invaded its sacred space. He was asserting the absolute holiness of God in the place of worship, just as the Ten Commandments assert the absolute holiness of God in the midst of everyday life (cf Exodus 20.1–17)

I wonder whether the holiness of God has become a bit problematic for us. We often compartmentalise our lives, setting boundaries to our religious activities in a way that would have seemed entirely alien to an observant Jew of Our Lord’s day. Just as today’s gospel challenges us to examine our attitudes to the Law, so it also challenges us to examine our attitudes to religion in our lives. God is not just for Sundays; nor is holiness something we can confine or control. What Hopkins said of God’s grandeur is equally true of his holiness, ‘it will flame out, like shining from shook foil’ — as the money-changers discovered to their cost.

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After Charlie Hebdo

At the time that news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre broke, I was lying on a PET scanner, meditating on life and death and praying for the needs of my friends, online and off. I mention this detail because it underscores the fact that the most horrific events take place while most of us are unaware and quietly going about our own business with its small joys and griefs and interludes of boredom and dissatisfaction. We all  ‘knew’ something of this kind would happen ‘one day’, but when it did, we were unprepared. The rush to comment, to express shock and horror, reflects our unpreparedness. Some has been predictable. Many, especially professional media types, have been asserting that Charlie Hebdo stood for all that we most value in western democracies, especially freedom of speech and expression in which satire and humour play an important part; for others the murder of twelve people was an act of war by militant Islam against the West; others again, including the majority of French Muslims, maintain that this outrage was perpetrated by a sick minority who do not represent Islam and have called for unity and solidarity in line with that urged by M. Hollande; a few, who disliked Charlie Hebdo’s approach and thought it rash at best, have stuck with Voltaire’s view that one may detest what someone says but nevertheless defend to the death the right to say it; and, inevitably, a handful have trotted out the ‘all religion is violent’ line.

Where does this leave us the day after? Although I think we are still reacting rather than reflecting, I’d say that, first and foremost, it leaves those of us who pray with the duty of praying for the repose of the souls of those murdered. None of us knows how prepared or otherwise they were for death, what unresolved conflicts were weighing on them or those they love. This may not mean much to anyone in good health with, please God, a long future before them; but to anyone who knows their time may be short, it is the wrongs done to others, the sins of which we may have not repented, the things we may not be able to put right, that press most heavily. One of the (to me) most beautiful aspects of Catholicism is its confident prayer for the dead: we trust in an infinitely loving and merciful God, but we are in such awe of his holiness that we do not presume. To pray for those who have died is a work of charity, one we in the monastery undertake several times a day; and we do so not with abject fear but with what I call peaceful insistence. It is a way of sharing in the experience of, and expressing solidarity with, the whole human race.

We must pray for those who grieve. How many families said goodbye yesterday morning in a typical Wednesday morning rush, not realising it was the last goodbye they would ever say? It was not only the magazine staff who were gunned down, but also the police whose task it was to protect them, at least one of whom was apparently a Muslim. That surely drives home to all of us how senseless and brutal was that attack, and how very far from any conception of justice and right action. We must pray, too, for those who must deal with the aftermath: those who must search out the murderers; those who must maintain order in society and prevent further violence; and finally, and most importantly, we must pray for the perpetrators and whatever it was that inspired them to such a heinous crime and legitimized it in their own eyes and the eyes of many others.

It is that last point I find especially troubling. I believe in reverence and would no more mock or denigrate the beliefs of others than I would my own. But, of course, as a Christian, I distinguish between mockery of God (which I find painful) and mockery of the Church and her saints (which can be useful, and, if well done, extremely funny). It seems to me that many Muslims accord Mohammed an inviolable status we Christians give only to God, and not always to him. We don’t understand that the prophet is off-limits for any kind of jesting. There is in Islam nothing I can think of that corresponds to our medieval mystery plays, for example, where love and devotion are accompanied by poking fun at the object of devotion. That is a cultural difference, certainly, but I think it is legitimate to ask whether or to what degree western society, which is now largely secular, should accommodate to the cultural sensitivities of the many groups within it.

France is proudly secular and appears to be having great difficulty coming to terms with the very different world-views of some sections of its population, especially its Muslim population, which is the largest in Europe. As a westerner and a Christian I can sympathize with the difficulty, but we mustn’t forget that the men who carried out the murders at Charlie Hebdo were themselves Frenchmen. Much is being made of their Algerian descent, but it is a western principle that we do not have second-class citizens. We are French or British or American or whatever, with equal rights and obligations under the law, and our legal systems, although imperfect, are precisely what we rely upon for the working out of our differences. We do not take the law into our own hands. We do not privatise justice or exact personal vengeance. As Lord Denning once remarked, ‘Be you never so high yet the law is above you.’

I hope that the Charlie Hebdo massacre will not lead to further polarisation of our society, or attacks on Muslims, in France or elsewhere. At the same time, I also hope it will lead to more questioning. The question I have for my Muslim friends is very simple. What is it in Islam, however perverted a form of it we may be talking about, that leads people to think that they are doing a godly act by killing others, including that Muslim policeman gunned down outside the Charlie Hebdo offices? How is it legitimized? How can justice be privatised in this way? I truly do not understand, but until that question is answered, I think we shall all live in fear. I do not think the question can be answered by saying it is a response to western aggression in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the result of French colonial activity in the past. We are not talking about the past: we are talking about here and now, today, this very minute; and human beings who, for me as for many others, are created in the image and likeness of God, the holiest of all symbols of his presence and action in the world. To some, that will seem ridiculously naive. To others, it will merely be the truth, and the reason what happened at Charlie Hebdo has to be explained.

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The Holiness of God: O Adonai

Today’s O antiphon is

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm!

Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush makes one tremble. God’s holiness flaming out from an insignificant shrub is a thought to strike awe; but the thought of not seeing it, of mistaking his presence, is more terrible still. I suspect many of us would admit that there have been times in our lives when God was there but we didn’t register his presence. We were too caught up in other things. We ignored the hand he stretched out to us.

If we do nothing else this Advent, let us open our hearts to embrace the salvation offered us, seizing the moment and not putting off to a tomorrow that never comes the conversion of heart the Lord desires.

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Our Need of Holiness

Having posted on today’s O antiphon, ‘O Adonai’, every year since I began blogging, I thought I would give both you and me a rest; but I find I can’t, because our need of holiness, of redemption, of the gift of prayer, grows ever greater. So, you will find the text, translation, music and some scriptural notes here, and if you want to know what I’ve said in previous years, please type ‘O Adonai’ into the search box on the right.

What strikes me this morning is the humility of holiness. God could have impressed Moses with a sense of his infinite transcendence in many ways, but he chose to capture his attention using a burning bush. Moses’ curiosity led him to God; and only after he had heard God speak did he realise that he was on holy ground. Prayer is rather like that. We tend to think that we are calling on God, only to realise later that God first called to us; and just as Moses’ life was transformed by his encounter with the mysterious presence at the heart of the burning bush, so our lives too are transformed by the encounter with God in prayer.

Sometimes we try to avoid prayer because we are afraid of what God may ask of us. We try to run away like Jonah, or we get into a huff like Naaman because things don’t go the way we expect and want. Sometimes we just give up on it because it seems too hard or unrewarding. We want to be mystics and have wonderful supernatural experiences and forget that, for most people, most of the time,  prayer is a much humbler, much more plodding business. There is no mystery about prayer, although prayer draws us into the heart of a great Mystery. God speaks to us where we are, in the desert of our lives, through the ordinary and everyday much more often than through the strange and spectacular. Our job is to listen and allow ourselves to be transformed: God will not force us. We tend to overlook that, because we have never quite understood the humility of God.

The prayer we make in today’s antiphon requires our consent to be answered — the searing holiness of God desires our redemption, but only if we will allow it. To have such power over God is the paradox of being human.

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