Mercy and Tears

There are some things we see most clearly through tears or after we have wept, and often the mercy shown us enables us to recognize what formerly was dim or distant. Mary Magdalene sees the Risen Christ through her tears, hears the word of mercy addressed to her and recognizes Jesus as her Teacher. Today’s Mass readings place us in the same dynamic. Sorrow turns to joy even as all hope appears gone. Isaiah’s vision of the Lord wiping away the tears from every cheek and furnishing his people with a rich banquet (Is 25. 6–10) becomes in the gospel Jesus healing the sick and providing an abundant meal (Matt 15.29–37). In both we see echoes of the Eucharist and of the Heavenly Banquet to come at the end of time. At their core, though, are those two elements: the experience of pain, hopelessness even, and the experience of mercy, of what the Bible calls ‘salvation’.

Advent is a time of joyful preparation, but it still makes demands on us. We see our sin through our tears: which means we see how far we have fallen short of the glory of God. That might make us despair were it not for the way God invites us to something better. He invites us to accept forgiveness and mercy in the person of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We are to become a new creation and walk upright where formerly we were bent over under the weight of our own wrongdoing. In short, we are to be sons in the Son.

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Monday of Holy Week 2015

Monastic life is sometimes presented in terms of today’s gospel, John 12.1–11: as the jar of nard broken and poured, a scandal to those with a social conscience because, of course, monks and nuns don’t do anything ‘useful’. It is a beautiful analogy and reminds us how close we ought to be to Christ in his Passion; how all-embracing our prayer should be, so that the wideness of our charity wafts abroad as a pure fragrance. But — and it is a very important ‘but’ — that gospel is set alongside the reading from Isaiah 42.1—7 about the Suffering Servant and the bringing of true justice. No matter where we are, no matter what our role in the Church, we ALL have a duty to share in the work of Jesus Christ our Saviour, bringing about a right order — true justice — and in so doing ‘opening the eyes of the blind, setting captives free, releasing those imprisoned in darkness.’

During Holy Week it is easy to live in a kind of bubble, just God and us, if I may put it that way. We think and pray — rightly — about our relationship with God, all that he has done and continues to do for us; but today’s readings remind us that it can never be just God and us. The whole world is involved. The little circle of the monastery; the bigger circle of the Church; both these are part of a bigger circle still, that of the entire globe. As Christians we have been given an immense privilege, but with privilege comes responsibility. We must work tirelessly for true justice — and break that jar of nard over some surprising feet.

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Advent Waiting and Christmas Happiness

As a community, we are blessed with a small but very insightful group of oblates who often say or do things that leave me amazed at both their perceptiveness and their charity. Yesterday I was mulling over a few thoughts about the race towards Christmas and the failure to allow Advent to be Advent. Many people already have their tree up and their house decorated, and some, at least, will have eaten a handful of Christmas dinners before the ‘real’ one on 25 December. To me, living in a monastery, where the liturgy is full of poignant longing for a joy not yet attained, and the house is as bare as can be, with not so much as a Christmas card yet allowed (we do all our decorating on the afternoon of Christmas Eve), it seems a strange waste of opportunity. Advent: the very word means ‘coming’. We are waiting in hope, and if we would celebrate Christmas in all its richness, it is helpful to spend these few short weeks of Advent preparing, not acting as though we were already at Christmas itself. So I was thinking when one of our oblates broke in on my thoughts.

The oblate in question has cancer (please pray for her) and had been nonplussed by some people who were reluctant to wish her a happy Christmas on the grounds that she couldn’t really be happy because she is so ill. Now, I happen to know that the oblate in question is a woman with a delicious sense of humour and a lively interest in all that goes on around her. She has coped with more than one serious illness gallantly and good-humouredly. But that reluctance to wish her a happy Christmas, that awkwardness in the face of illness, what was that about? Why shouldn’t she be wished a happy Christmas, even if, especially if, which God forbid, it should happen to be her last? Wouldn’t we want to surround her with love and good wishes? I certainly would.

Our Christmas happiness stems from the fact that we have a Saviour, Jesus Christ; it does not depend on what we happen to be thinking or feeling on Christmas Day, or any of the days that follow. If it did, some of us might admit that we were not the happiest of people as we struggle with mass catering or try to cope with World War III breaking out among the assembled family and guests!

I think myself the reluctance to wish our oblate a happy Christmas has a double aspect. Part of it stems from a very British awkwardness in the face of illness and death. We are afraid of putting a foot wrong, which generally means we end up making a hash of things. But I think part of it also stems from a fundamentally skewed conception of the feast now gaining ground. Just as many start celebrating Christmas days (even months!) before the actual date, and often take down their decorations before the festivities have run their course (to Epiphany or Twelfth Night), so I think a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that Christmas is about Christ — about God made man, anointed to suffering and death to free us from sin and open the way of salvation.

We celebrate Christmas because God has heard our cry and come to redeem us. We rejoice that he comes among us as a baby, the mighty Word of God crying and gurgling like the rest of us, and that he comes as Saviour of all. Whether rich or poor, young or old, in good health or bad, we share the joy of his coming because we all need his salvation. We are happy because our Christmas joy does not depend on us but on him. That is the crux of the matter.

So, please wish our oblate a happy Christmas if you meet her; and, if you can, let these days of Advent be days when you experience to the full Israel’s longing for the Messiah. Let there be a little darkness, a little spareness, so that when we come to the great festival of light and warmth that is Christmas, we can do so with hearts ready to receive the gift. Sometimes we have to appreciate the vastness of our need if we are to appreciate how amply it has been met. Let us make the most of this waiting time, remembering that it is not about us but about Him; yet the wonder is, we are His happiness even more than He is ours.

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