Dying to Self and Unassuming Holiness

Most of us will have heard, at some time or other, uplifting little talks about the importance of dying to self in order to follow Christ. Today the Church celebrates someone who did just that, and so completely that he remains a somewhat shadowy figure: St Joseph, husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus, patron of the dying and pattern of unassuming holiness. In the Middle Ages he was often treated as a figure of fun, but from the seventeenth century onwards his greatness has been more generally recognized. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph was a man of dreams and singular purity of life whose mission was to hear and obey the word of God and to protect the family entrusted to his care. His kind of holiness is one we can all aspire to. It is the holiness of everyday life, of family and work, and lets us see being a ‘background person’ for what it truly is: a way of allowing Christ to take centre stage so that he may be all in all.

I think there is a close connection between Joseph’s role as a father and his role as patron of the dying. Fatherhood isn’t easy, nor is dying. Joseph had to lay aside all his own dreams of happiness when he accepted the role God had marked out for him. He taught Jesus how to be a man; how to conduct himself in the company of others; how to be tender towards women and children; how to stand up for what was right in the face of opposition; and ultimately, how to die. When Jesus hung upon the Cross and turned to his heavenly Father, it was with the honesty and trust he had learned from Joseph. He did not hide his pain, nor did he seek a way out. He surrendered his life as, many years earlier, Joseph had surrendered his, that the Father’s will might be done. We have much to thank Joseph for, and much to learn from him, too.

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Temptation

I wonder how many homilies on the temptations of Jesus will concentrate on the theological aspects to the exclusion of the psychological? I ask because I think one of the reasons many find it difficult to relate to the person of Christ is that, practically speaking, we  have an either/or approach, making him wholly human or wholly divine, but not both. The result is an impoverishment of our reading of the gospels. That is especially true of the temptation narrative we read today, where the reality of the choice facing Jesus is often played down, as though he were merely play-acting. The idea of Jesus being genuinely attracted by evil is deeply shocking. It brings home to us with startling clarity the importance of the choices we ourselves make as well as the salvation opened to us by his decisive rejection of all that is contrary to God.

Jesus did not succumb to temptation; we often do; but as the Letter to the Hebrews points out, we now have as intercessor a High Priest who has experienced everything we have — but without sinning. That is a great encouragement to us all. It reminds us that evil can be overcome. We are not the weak and feeble beings we often think we are, and we give thanks that we have ‘such and so mighty a Redeemer.’

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A Just Appraisal of Self: the Seventh Degree of Humility

Today’s passage from the Rule of St Benedict, RB 7. 51–54, again confronts us with ideas that are easily misunderstood or rejected as being ‘unhealthy’, although I wouldn’t mind betting that many of those keen to lecture others on what Christians (especially nuns!) ought to do tend to take them literally. Humility, as I have often observed, is very attractive — in other people. The problem is we frequently have wrong-headed notions about what humility is and does, so it is worth pondering this wisdom from the sixth century which has produced so many fruits of holiness.

Benedict begins briskly

The seventh step of humility is not only to admit openly to being inferior and of less account than anyone else, but also to believe it in one’s inmost heart . . . (RB 7. 51)

Genuinely believing one is of less importance than another is actually quite difficult. It doesn’t mean underestimating oneself, denying one’s gifts or pretending one doesn’t have any rights. In fact, the opposite is true. It means making a very just appraisal of oneself and recognizing not only what is given one as sheer gift but also the obligations that gift implies and, crucially, how both oneself and one’s giftedness are at the service of others. To exalt the group above the individual doesn’t sit well with our individualistic age, but it does make for a stronger society. It isn’t only our own giftedness we have to consider, but also our weaknesses and shortcomings and the gifts and weaknesses of others.

What I think Benedict is trying to bring home to us in this seventh step of humility is the fact that we are social beings and the common good demands that we make no special claim for ourselves — nothing that sets us apart from or above others. This, however, is not merely a social good, it is also, pre-eminently, a spiritual good. Clarity and truth about ourselves free us from many of the things that hinder spiritual growth. We are to look to Jesus, ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’, and walk in his light. That is the humility that give life in abundance.

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The Baptism of the Lord

Christ baptized by Juan Carreño de Miranda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Baptism of the Lord is the last of the Christmas feasts.* In some ways, it is a strange end, but Christmas itself is strange in its refusal to allow us to linger at the crib. In a few short days we go from the birth in Bethlehem, via the coming of the Magi, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the martyrdom of St Stephen and a nod in the direction of the hidden life at Nazareth, to this: the beginning of the public ministry with the baptism by John in the Jordan and that voice from heaven proclaiming, ‘This is my beloved. Listen to him!’

It is a reminder that life is not to be measured in length of years or in achievements, as we usually consider them, but in fidelity to vocation. The Baptism of Jesus marks the point where he definitively accepted the public phase of his mission, but there was no denial or denigration of what had gone before. The ‘hidden years’ are just as important for our salvation as the last three.

Each one of us is a vocation, called and chosen by the Lord to live in this particular place, at this particular time. Everything we do is, potentially at least, a means of attaining the holiness to which we are called. That knowledge is both a great freedom and a great responsibility As we celebrate the baptism of the Lord, let us ask his help in rededicating ourselves to his service — in the way that he chooses rather than the way we would choose for ourselves.

*The final ‘look-back’ at the Presentation is devotional rather than liturgical but provides an excuse, if excuse were needed, for Christmas pudding and other festive delicacies.

Note on the illustration A favourite of mine. Juan Carreño de Miranda (Spanish, 1614 – 1685) Christ Baptized, about 1682, Charcoal, red and white chalk, with stumping 35.2 x 20 cm (13 7/8 x 7 7/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Used by permission under the Open Content Programme, with thanks

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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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On the Third Day of Christmas

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People often ask what Christmas is like in the monastery and are sometimes disappointed to learn that it is much like any other day, only with even more liturgy, and it lasts longer: twelve days rather than the one or two allowed in the secular calendar. It is a feast, but like all monastic feasts, eating and drinking are secondary to the liturgy.* It is also a time when many people turn to us for prayer or help, and our email prayerline and our telephone are kept busy with requests of various kinds. Despite that, I would still say that the most distinctive feature of the monastic Christmas is its silence. It is a silence that I think St John the Evangelist, whose feast we keep today, would have understood and shared. Before the Word of God we are all rendered dumb. But our dumbness is not the muteness of one who is embarrassed or ashamed. It is the quietness of wondering love and adoration; and even in a monastery, we have to work hard at focusing mind and heart so that no exterior noise or activity can disturb our inner stillness.

If your Christmas has, until now, been filled with activity and noise, try to find a moment or two today when you can simply lap up the love of God and know, as if for the first time, that he is your Saviour and Redeemer. Happy feast!

*BBC Radio 4’s Christmas Eve edition of ‘Woman’s Hour’ included a feature on our kitchen and monastic attitudes to food and drink:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03m79cl (starts about 11.48 in).

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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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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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O Clavis David or Missus Est?

Today puts me in a quandary. Do I write about the day’s O antiphon or follow monastic tradition by commenting on the day’s gospel in what is known as a Missus Est because it focuses on the words, ‘An angel was sent from God’? Or can we have something of both?

Today’s O antiphon is

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is impossible to sing that antiphon without thinking of St Bernard’s words in a Missus Est written nearly nine hundred years ago. He addresses Our Lady, daughter of David’s royal line, urging her to give the waiting angel her consent to what God asks of her, to give the word which will give us the Word made flesh. He pictures all creation on its knees before her, including Adam and those imprisoned in darkness and the shadow of death.

I think we can identify with all those on the fringes with Adam, as it were, whose faith is sometimes wobbly, whose lives are sometimes messy but who are sure (most of the time) of this: our need for a Saviour. We are reminded today of both our fragility and our glory as human beings. Mary gave her consent to be the Mother of God in a moment of unequalled faith. Had she not done so, we would be in darkness still.  Jesus is the one and only Key, but his Mother provides the lock and wards that allow the Key to work.

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Roots: O Radix Jesse

Today’s O antiphon is

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!

In the Middle Ages, Jesse was almost always depicted lying on his side, with a great tree of descendants spreading out from his body, ending, of course, with the person of Jesus. As a child I used often to look at the beautiful stone reredos in Christchurch Priory, where Jesse continues to dream of the salvation that would come from his line. Now, whenever I go to Abergavenny, I make time to look at its lovely Jesse figure, carved from a single piece of oak. Both artefacts remind us of what we have lost: an abundance of religious imagery carved in wood and stone. Sometimes, I think we have lost more than that. We are no longer easy in the world of sign and symbol the medieval sculptor inhabited. We are often only half-familiar with the story he tells and go clumpingly and uncertainly where he trod with assurance. We ‘spiritualize’ where he was happy to accept the human and imperfect.

The antiphon we sing tonight at Vespers forces us to confront the importance of roots, of knowing where Jesus comes from. We too must acknowledge the human ancestry of the Son of God, the play of genes in his make-up, the quirks of character and physiognomy that marked him as an individual. The Saviour we await did not come into the world fully-developed like Pallas-Athene sprung from the head of Zeus. He came as a baby, fragile, with a long and flawed human history behind him. Yet he was to be the Man before whom kings would fall silent, and whom the gentiles would seek. He is the guarantor of our freedom; and if we would be truly free, we must throw away our complicated ideas about what God should do and simply marvel at what he has done — and give our consent to his continuing that work in us. ‘He that is mighty has done great things: holy is his name.’

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