Candlemas

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, formerly known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and popularly known as Candlemas, is really the end of Christmastide, coming exactly forty days after our 25 December celebration of Christ’s birth. It used to be celebrated on 14 February, forty days after Epiphany, since, until the 25 December date became general, the birth of Christ was always celebrated on that day. It marks the occasion when, in accordance with Jewish law, Jesus, as a first-born male, was solemnly offered in the temple and redeemed or bought back by the offering of a couple of  doves or young pigeons. In the monastery we ‘remember’ Christmas by eating one of the special foods associated with it. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good!’

The liturgy of the feast has evolved slowly. It was not until the eleventh century that the practice of processing with lighted candles seems to have become common (suggested, no doubt, by the words of Simeon in the gospel) but I think some of the old customs help to explain the dual nature of this feast, the looking back and looking forward, the joy and the sadness. Purple vestments used to be worn for the procession (probably because processions at the beginning of Mass have a penitential character) but were laid aside in favour of white, the colour of rejoicing, once the altar was reached. Just so we have in the gospel the joy of welcoming the Messiah for whom Simeon and Anna and the whole people of Israel yearned and those dark words of prophesy about the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart. It is a bittersweet celebration of the Child and his destiny.

It sounds lame, but much of life is bittersweet. I think this feast is a great encouragement as many of us are more than a little agnostic about why we are here or how free we are. Accidents of birth or education, or circumstances over which we have no control such as the economic situation, determine much of what happens to us. We can feel as though our destiny is thrust upon us. Yet we also know that as children of God we are supremely free, that grace is unconfined ; and so we live in this tension between constraint and freedom. The joy of today has the shadow of the Cross over it: a reminder, if we need one, that God’s ways are not our ways. He can bring light out of darkness, life out of what we experience as death.

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Intercessory Prayer

A reader emailed to ask how to pray for others, meaning principally, I suspect, how to intercede for them. What follows is sketchy and imperfect but I hope that others will add their own insights.

First of all, I think we have to distinguish between mediation and intercession. There is only one mediator between God and ourselves, Jesus Christ our Lord. We know that he is always praying in and for us, which means that our prayer is always united to his. That is what makes our prayer powerful with God: however inept or inadequate it may seem to us, it is the prayer of Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest. As such, it is perfect.

When we ask others to pray for us — Our Lady, the saints, our fellow Christians — we are asking their intercession, asking them to pray for us and on our behalf; and we use a different kind of language from that which we use when we are addressing God. The nearest analogy I can find is friendship. When something matters to us, we take our friends into our confidence and share with them our hopes and fears. What more natural than to ask our friends to join their prayers with ours? In doing so, we have the example of the apostles and early Church to encourage us: St Paul, for instance, asks the prayers of the believers in Rome (Romans 15.30) and himself prays for the needs of the Philippians (Philippians 1. 3-4). That is no more than we should expect from our reading of the Old Testament. Who can forget the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom or Moses interceding for the Israelites in battle? When things really matter, we are moved to pray about them, to ask God’s help.

Whenever we pray, we pray as dear children of God, whose every concern is of interest to him. That does not mean that God necessarily agrees with our ideas about how things should be, any more than a human parent might. Sometimes people imagine that if they pray “hard” enough, if they have faith “enough”, they can somehow force God’s hand, and if they fail, it is because they lack faith or perseverance. I’m not sure I believe in such a strange God. I think it is much more likely that they are praying with false expectations. It is not as though God has made his mind up and we can nag him into changing it. He is not so fickle. We ask that we ourselves may change in accordance with his will. Take our sick person again. When we pray for him we don’t tell God what to do, although we do have the courage to ask for what we desire. We may be longing for the sick person to recover, but God may see things differently. As a result, our prayer may not be answered as we hope: the sick person may not recover, but the prayer is not wasted. God is never outdone in generosity. Some other gift will follow, something we or the sick person need more, peace and acceptance perhaps, a gift made possible because we have opened up the channel, so to say.

One of the wonderful things about God is that he does not compel. He invites, he urges, but he leaves us free either to accept or reject his invitation. Interceding for others opens up a way for God to act that would otherwise be closed. Take our sick person once more. Say he has no faith and cannot or will not pray himself. If we pray, we allow God to come into a situation from which he is otherwise excluded. That is part of our dignity as Christians, part of the gift of prayer poured into hearts at baptism.

Some people think that to intercede for others means endlessly repeating some formula of prayer. To do so would be beyond the strength of most of us. Here at the monastery we receive many requests for prayer each day through our email prayerline or some other means. We print them out and place them in the oratory. Each member of the community will read them through and then go to her prayer with the intention of holding them before God. No words are needed, indeed they get in the way. What matters is the intention: the “simple, naked intent unto God” of which Fr Baker speaks. At times prayer may be prolonged by the inspiration of grace; at other times it may  be cut short or distracted. Again, I don’t think God is counting the minutes but I do think he is counting the seriousness and earnestness of our prayer.

To pray for others is not easy but I believe it is extremely valuable. There are no barriers of time or space or understanding in prayer. We may never know in this life what prayer has achieved because we see “as in a glass, darkly”, but one day all will be light.

Oremus pro invicem. Let us pray for one another.

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Et Incarnatum Est

Eric Gil: "And" THE WORD was made flesh, Et Incarnatum Est. What an immensity is contained within that  phrase! We kneel before the Mystery when we proclaim it in the Creed. We sing it over and over again, this Love of God made visible in a tiny human frame; this Strength of God Almighty in the fragility of a new-born child. Can the God whom we adore be a God far off? Surely not. He is forever Emmanuel, God-with-us. So, as St Basil says, let us dance with the angels and sing.

A HAPPY AND BLESSED CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL.

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O Emmanuel

The last of the great O antiphons is so rich in allusion and imagery that we could spend hours unpacking its meaning. We begin with a string of titles: Emmanuel (God-with-us), King, Law-giver, Desired of the Nations and Saviour. Each one enlarges our understanding of what we mean by “God” but it is significant that we consider God not as he is in himself but as he is in relation to us. There is an honesty about that which is refreshing. How can we know anything about God except what he chooses to reveal to us?

The prayer we make in the antiphon is the deceptively simple one, “come and save us”, but for the first time we ask it of the Lord our God, Domine Deus noster. Everything else is now stripped away. We stand before God in our nothingness and call upon him to save us. Our prayer is urgent and simple as prayer always is when it comes from the heart: God is God, we need his help. It may have taken us all Advent to get to this point. What matters is that we have finally arrived here, acknowledging our need of God.

Tonight we end our Advent journey. With Christmas Eve we begin to focus on the Nativity and there is a dramatic change in the liturgy. Tomorrow morning, when all is cold and dark and silent, we shall sing the Martyrology, the ancient proclamation of the coming Birth of Christ. It situates in time and place the birth of him whom tonight we call Emmanuel, “Jesus Christ, God and Man.”

Even if we have had very little time for spiritual preparation until now, it is worth trying to find a few minutes today to reflect on Israel’s longing for a Messiah and how wonderfully God fulfilled that longing in Christ. More than that, let us reflect on how God has acted in our own lives. The Fathers used to say of the Blessed Virgin Mary that she conceived God in her heart before she conceived him in her flesh. So too with us: Christmas begins inside before we can celebrate outside.

(Texts, recordings and suggested scripture readings may be found on the Advent page of our web site.)

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O Rex Gentium

We live in a world where kings rarely figure, except as costly buffoons or relics of some barbaric past. Even in Britain, where we have a Queen who has served with dignity and steadfastness for many years, kingship is not a subject to conjure with. Yet today we address the Saviour we are awaiting as King of the Nations. We invite him into our lives as absolute sole Lord, one for whom we long. Again we are faced with a paradox: we desire this apparent annihilation of our freedom which leads to true freedom.

If that were not enough, we pray for the coming of the Corner-stone who will unite both Jew and gentile and redeem this creature of clay. Stone and clay are so different. You would think that clay, being malleable, would do a better job of uniting disparate elements than stone; but the corner-stone is a brilliant piece of architectural engineering which gives strength and stability to a structure which brick (baked clay) cannot achieve. (Sometimes it pays to think  the obvious.)

Where does that leave us, with Christmas just around the corner and ourselves perhaps a little weary with all the preparations? I think it leaves us contemplating our own fragility, certainly, but also the miracle of grace which is our salvation. It reminds us, too, that no matter how much the Christmas story is sentimentalised or trivialised, the birth of Christ is an event that has changed the world for ever. God has become man and we can never be the same again:

I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

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O Oriens

One doesn’t have to be an astronomer to be fascinated by the sky. This morning, for the first time since 1638, a full lunar eclipse will coincide with the Winter Solstice and tonight, as the shortest day of the year moves into deep darkness, we shall be singing of the Morning Star, splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice. The paradoxes fly so thick and fast it would take a Chesterton to do them anything like justice.

What is this Light that we Christians are so excited about it? Why does it matter to us? We identify the Light with our Saviour, Jesus Christ, readily enough; but it is disconcerting to discover how many of us are not quite convinced that we actually need saving. We prefer not to examine our faith too often, lest it be found weak and wanting, so we hide it even from ourselves. What we hide from sight is usually something of which we are ashamed; and shame is one of the most crippling of all emotions. It is  a kind of inner darkness, and the darkness within is the most terrible of all. That is why we pray so ardently that the coming of Christ will illumine the most hidden recesses of our being. Christ comes to us as Light and Life, if we will allow him. The question is, will we?

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O Clavis David

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.

(It is a monastic tradition to give a chapter-talk today on the theme of the Annunciation. Ours is still awaiting approval for listing by iTunes but in the meantime you can listen to it on the Podcast page of the monastery web site. Unfortunately, it requires a Flash player so will not always work on the mobile version of the web site — it depends on the device you use to access it.)

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O Radix Jesse

Tonight’s O antiphon is traditionally intoned by the gardener of the community, probably because the word radix or root suggests working with the soil. Even a window-box gardener can identify with the idea of tilling the earth and watching the amazing transformation of tiny, apparently lifeless seeds into mighty plants.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, when the world around us covered is in snow and the prospect of spring and warmth far distant, the idea of growth is not uppermost in our minds. Yet the astonishing fact is that the earth brings forth our Saviour. He is born of human stock, one like us in all things but sin. He before whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek is sprung from the line of Jesse.

In the middle ages Jesse was often portrayed, as on the screen behind the high altar of Christchurch Priory, dreaming of the child who was to be born from his stock. Dreams are important in scripture, but no dream of Jesse is recorded. Instead we have the reality, Jesus Christ, true Man and true God, Saviour of us all.

(Note: you can listen to the O antiphon being sung and read some suggestions for further reading on the Advent page of the monastery web site.)

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Gaudete Sunday Distractions

My thoughts wandered during the homily today, and I found myself wondering, yet again, what it was that gave both Jesus and his forerunner, John the Baptist, such power over people. I suspect the “correct” answer is love or compassion; but part of me can’t let go the notion that it was truth that set them apart from others and at the same time drew others to them.

Integrity, being truthful in every aspect of one’s being, is a difficult quality. We admire it but often find it impossible to live with, either in ourselves or in others. Yet without integrity, all the other qualities we find attractive can easily become much less than they should be. Love, for example, can become mere sentimentality or, even worse, a form of self-gratification (“I do like to watch myself being loving and compassionate”).

There was in both Jesus and John something uncompromising, something utterly truthful. If we can have a share in that truthfulness of theirs, we can indeed rejoice.

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