The Scandal of Christmas

Very early this morning, while everything was cold and dark, in our little oratory a single voice sang the ancient Christmas martyrology — the announcement of Christ’s coming into the world as the son of Mary, at Bethlehem, in first-century Palestine, under the pax romana. For me, that haunting chant expresses as no other the scandal of Christmas: not only does the Word of God take flesh and live among us, He does so as a member of a particular family, in a particular place and time. I’m fairly confident that had we or any of our Church leaders been involved in the decision, we would have opted for another place and time, for another family, perhaps even for a different sex for the baby in question. Which brings me, as so often, to my point.

The scandal of Christmas is not that God chose to become human but that He chose to become human in a way that still stretches our imagination and turns many of our ideas upside down. He lived and died a faithful Jew, under an alien occupation. For thousands of Christians in the Middle East, there is a bitter parallel today in the circumstances of their own lives — and not only in the Middle East. Yet, for many of us, it seems to matter little. Two thousand years after God became man to save us from our sins, we continue to live as though He had never come, as though nothing had changed. We go on making war, killing, hating, profiting from the poverty and need of others, congratulating ourselves on our own success, mocking God under the guise of being ‘free’ or ‘humorous’.

Soon after the martyrolgy had been sung this morning, a thin, faint line of light appeared on the horizon, above the Black Mountains. It was a reminder to me that no matter how much we may seem to fail, God has a way of putting things right. The sin of Adam and Eve has been redeemed by the New Adam. That obscure birth in Bethlehem has changed the world. I think, on reflection, I am wrong about the scandal of Christmas. The true scandal of Christmas is our failure to recognize that with God all things are possible. He has saved us. He is the Prince of Peace, the King of Israel, God with us, our Lord and God.

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New Year’s Day 2014

It is New Year’s Day, the Octave Day of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. All three remind us of an important truth: we are part of a sequence. One year passes into another; the Incarnation marks the passage of the Creator into his creation, the intersection of eternity and time; and Mary stands as a hinge between the Old and New Covenants, making possible the fulfilment of the one and ushering in the promise of the other in the person of her Son, Jesus Christ. We look back, and we look forward, like the old pagan god Janus, after whom this month is named, but we are never alone, never complete in and of ourselves. As we pray for a blessing on the year that is to come, it’s good to remember that we are just one more link in the chain of humanity — but it is a chain which, since the Word became flesh, links heaven and earth for all eternity.

May you have a blessed 2014.

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Holy Innocents 2013

Those who don’t have children of their own are inclined to be sentimental about the children of others — provided they remain at a safe distance, of course. At Christmas such sentimentality is not only indulged, it is almost obligatory. We are invited to become misty-eyed at the thought of children hanging up their stockings for Father Christmas or coo and goo over Nativity Plays where the actors are barely three feet tall and Baby Jesus is all blue-eyed plastic perfection. Then comes the feast of the Holy Innocents and our sentimentality is ripped to shreds by the brutal fact of child murder.

Why does this feast come before Epiphany, when, chronologically speaking, it should follow after? The answer is that the Holy Innocents gave their lives for the Infant Saviour and their feast is therefore included among those of the Christmas Octave so that the link between the two may be more clearly seen. It is a disturbing feast, turning upside down our ideas about the special status of childhood and the protection every adult should afford every child.

In the Catholic Church this feast is often appropriated to two causes: the pro-life, anti-abortion movement which seeks to put an end to abortion and the situations that make it ‘necessary’ or ‘desirable’; and the attempt to end the evil of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) and exploitation. Both are, in my view, very worthy causes, though I sometimes hesitate over the methods adopted by some groups. What I find difficult, however, is the way in which appealing to the Holy Innocents as patrons of these causes dulls our sense of outrage at the original event. What was God thinking of to allow such a horror?

There is no easy answer to such a question, but unless we take on board the scandal of this feast, I think we are failing to take on board the enormity of the Incarnation. When God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, he overthrew every previous notion about God. The feast of the Holy Innocents urges us to rethink our own ideas about him, which may well have become tinged with some of the sentimentality I wrote about earlier. We are confronted with a God who is above and beyond anything we can think or imagine. Our only certainty is that he loves us, loves us enough to become one of us and suffer and die for us. The little children slain by Herod may be to us a type, an abstract of innocence, but to him they are individuals, chosen and precious in his sight. Thinking and praying about that may teach us something we never knew before.

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Christmas Eve in the Monastery

Christmas Eve in the monastery is, like Holy Saturday, a time out of time. We are still in Advent, but we have half a foot in Christmas as we put up the Christmas decorations and begin to think about sending Christmas greetings. Key to the whole is the singing of the Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation). I shall be thrifty and recycle what I wrote about it last year:

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?

May you have a happy and holy Christmas!

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God’s Holy Mountain

They do no hurt, no harm,
on all my holy mountain,
for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters swell the sea.

These words, taken from Isaiah 11, express the dream of every religious person: a world at harmony with itself because it is filled with knowledge of God. Not, you notice, a purely secular society, a socialist paradise of the kind that has never yet been achieved but which briefly captured the imagination of many in the twentieth century; not a world which is merely ‘free from’ but one which is ‘filled with’.

Why do I insist on the difference? The answer can be found in that same passage from Isaiah and the gospel for the day, Luke 10.21-24. Quite simply, the world was created by God, redeemed by God and is incomplete without God. That is why our hope is not for this time only. Only God can fulfil the deepest longings of the human heart. That doesn’t mean we can ignore our own part in bringing about the completion to which we look forward. Notice how Isaiah again speaks of integrity. The Shoot of Jesse will judge with integrity; integrity will be the loincloth round his hips. In other words, the wholeness we desire we first find in God but must cling to, must wrap ourselves in, so that it is unthinkable we should ever discard it.

The mountain is an ancient image of the holiness of God, his otherness. We go up to the mountain of God, it is surrounded with fire and smoke, cloud and mystery. Sometimes its holiness is such that we may not touch the mountain itself. It is set apart, holy ground where God and man (it always was man) might, on occasion, meet. The Incarnation has changed that for ever. The whole earth has become the mountain of God, the place where God is at home among his people. Now we are privileged to approach God in human form, to touch him, to know him as simultaneously God and one of us. If we have eyes to see, if we see as God sees, then indeed we know that ‘the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters swell the sea’.

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Irritable Nun Syndrome and St Athanasius

Yesterday I made a joke on Twitter. (I often make jokes and have the pleasure of seeing them descend to earth with all the delicacy of a lead balloon, but bear with me.) Irritable Nun Syndrome is a condition I have sometimes diagnosed in myself when tired or oppressed by the adolescent feeling that others just don’t understand. The lapidary sentence that distills a lifetime of thought and learning being taken a little too literally; the gracious nod in the direction of someone truly great being completely missed; the gentle irony mistaken for something much worse. You know the kind of thing. All terribly humbling, but annoying too.

I was chuntering along these lines when I realised that in St Athanasius I, and all sufferers from Irritable Nun Syndrome, have a wonderful ally. Not because we can compare ourselves in any way to such a great saint but because, as the dauntless champion of the Incarnation with a passionate concern for the integrity of Catholic belief, Athanasius was one of the most awkward men who have ever lived. He bristles, he burns, and he pays the price in exile and obloquy. At heart, I think he was something of a monk.

All monks and nuns are, to some degree, awkward people. We are free, as few other people are free, to follow the logic of our conversion to Christ. That freedom confers a great responsibility on us. There will undoubtedly be times when we wish to shirk it or shrink it to something we feel we can ‘manage’, but as St Benedict reminds us in the opening words of the Rule, we have stripped ourselves of self-will to fight for the true King, Christ our Lord, with the strong and glorious weapons of obedience. Athanasius was throughout his life a man of unwavering fidelity to the obedience he had vowed. May he pray for us all.

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Things A Dog Has Taught Me

Bro Duncan, the monastery dog
Bro Duncan, the monastery dog

A couple of times this week Bro Duncan and I have been viewing Hendred by night because he has been in agony (sic) with his tummy. You don’t think those 3.00 a.m. walks through the village were a sign of mere eccentricity, I trust? No, they were initiated by a large wet nose nudging me awake and indicating that, whatever the clock said, it was time to go OUT.

There is nothing like accompanying a hound to make one think. There is the eager-beaver approach to going walkies irrespective of time or place. All that dancing around and scooting up and down the corridor belies the kohl-rimmed eyes pleading, ‘I’m sick. I need to get out.’ But I fall for it every time and off we go. First there is the obligatory charge down the road and some lawn-mower-like chomping at the grass, which goes on for ages because ‘I’m sick, see, I need medication.’ This quickly passes into ‘How interesting this place is at night. Let’s explore.’ And so we do. We plunge into deeper darkness and hear only the strange, snuffly sounds of night.

In this deeper darkness, Duncan leads. We spend several minutes standing at a gate  while he traces the scent on a single blade of grass, savours it, commits it to memory and moves on, regretfully, as though there were a history he cannot share with me. Medieval rooftops look magical at night, even when there is no moonlight, but the biting wind does not invite lingering. So we walk and walk and I become a little suspicious about the upset tummy.

Seeing the village by night impresses me with how remarkable ordinary things are when viewed under different circumstances or from a different angle. Dare I admit that the familiar can become spooky, yet what was ugly by day can take on a strange  beauty at night? The change of perspective may be of no more than passing interest but sometimes it can lead to a reassessment of accepted values. I’m certainly not claiming that Duncan’s nocturnal ramblings have led me to any profound insights, but I will say this. Wisdom 18 verses 14 to 16 comes alive in a way it never has when read. The leaping down from heaven of God’s all-powerful Word is an event in time as well as beyond time, to be expected now as it was two thousand years ago.

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Light and Darkness

In community we are trying a little experiment for Advent. Instead of singing Vespers (Evening Prayer) at five or six every evening, we are timing it to coincide with the waning of the light. Benedict does, indeed, say that Vespers should be so timed that it can be completed without the use of lamplight, but in the modern world most communities have adopted the practical, if rather prosaic, custom of a fixed hour. At least, that way, most of the community will turn up!

What have we to report of our experiment so far? First, we have been captivated by the sheer beauty of the darkness stealing across the lawn outside; the grey November sky flushed with touches of palest pink; the clouds softly luminous; beads of rain slipping down the windows like liquid crystals. Then there is the power of the words we sing and the haunting beauty of the accompanying chants. All this week we proclaim that ‘on that day there will be a great light’ (et die illa, erit lux magna). The contrast between the gathering darkness and the great burst of light that signifies the Incarnation, between the bleakness of early winter and the messianic promise of mountains running with sweetness (et stillabunt montes dulcedinem) is truly dramatic; but it is with the Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum, ‘Loving Creator of the stars,’ that time and eternity meld and merge. The promise to Abraham realised in the flesh of Jesus is written across the sky in the little points of light we call stars.

The liturgy is a great teacher of prayer and theology but it is not divorced from the world around us. Singing Advent Vespers as light changes to darkness is a wonderful reminder of the dynamic of salvation, of the mystery of the Incarnation and of our own infinite need of God.

Advent Season
The Liturgy section of our main website has information about Advent, recordings of the ‘O’ antiphons and so on.

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Silence Days

Either before or during Advent, we try to have three days of complete silence: no noisy machinery or unnecessary conversation of any kind, no digital noise, no nothing. While this gift of physical silence can be helpful, it is the interior noise that causes most difficulty. For it is from within that the real trouble comes.

The idea of freeing ourselves from every distraction in order to concentrate on God and the things of God may seem wonderful, but as soon as one has switched off the computer, one thinks of writing a letter; one goes into the oratory to pray and immediately contemplates the tasks one hasn’t completed. We cannot escape ourselves, however much we try, so the trick is to bring ourselves into the situation and then let go; register the distraction and then dismiss it. That is especially important during Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, and a time when we revisit the whole of salvation history. It is in silence that we hear the Word speak, but attaining that silence is a struggle.

I tremble slightly before writing the next few sentences because I fear they will be misunderstood. It is absolutely essential that we remember that God is in charge of our Advent, not us. We are likely to fail again and again in the matter of recollection. One of the old Desert Fathers used to say of monastic life, ‘I fall down and get up; I fall down and get up.’ In other words, it is not success in our own terms, or in the terms of our peers, that matters. Our growth comes from humility, and very often the only way of learning humility is through the experience of failure.

So, as our thoughts turn towards Advent, let us be encouraged by the goodness and kindness of God rather than discouraged by our inability to respond adequately to his love. Let us read and pray the scriptures so that when Christmas morning comes we too can say, ‘To us a Son is given.’ Then we can dance with the angels and sing. (cfr St Basil.) Our Advent will have brought us into the ‘now’ of Eternity.

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