As the Waters Swell the Sea

The Second Sunday of Advent pulls us up short. No time now for any more dithering. We have Isaiah warning that the word of the Lord is ‘a rod to strike the ruthless’ and John the Baptist baptising with water but threatening fire to those who prove to be no more than chaff. Meanwhile we sit comfortably with our commentaries and talk complacently about the end times and the eschatalogical hope expressed in the Advent liturgy. We forget that ‘the end times’ are now, as everything the liturgy celebrates is now. We already tread the holy mountain that is the privileged meeting-place between God and human beings, for all the earth has been sanctified and every step we take is on holy ground. The winnowing-fan is already applied to us, to sift through the secret motives of our hearts and minds, and John’s urgent call to repentance has resounded again and again in our ears. But what is our response?

I think many of us would admit that our response is, at best, a little half-hearted. We read Isaiah and are enthusiastic about its messianic vision, but we are not quite so enthusiastic about doing what is necessary to realise it. When we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. We forget that both must learn to live together, in mutual trust and respect. We like the idea of being ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ but we shy away from too close a contact with this strange and terrible God who dwells in fire and flame and whose holiness is utterly other; and yet . . . and yet we are drawn by his tenderness and compassion and end up as confused as John’s hearers, whom he called a brood of vipers but who, far from turning an adder’s deaf ear, longed to hear more. We must prepare a way for the Lord in our hearts, but how?

The answer to that question is very simple. We answer it every night at Compline when we look back on the day’s doings and ask ourselves, ‘What have I wanted today? Where has my desire  been?’ The haunting beauty of the Advent liturgy, all its fine phrases, its plangent music, avails us nothing if it does not lead to that moment of choice, when we choose to be converted, to seek Christ — as he is, and not as we would like him to be. The reality of God must burst in upon us as the sea rushes into a cove. That is what it means to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea, to be God’s pure wheat safely gathered into his barn.

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Poor Worm, Puny Mite

Few of us would be flattered to be called a ‘poor worm’ or ‘puny mite’ by a stranger, but that is exactly how the Lord addresses Israel in Isaiah 41. 13–20. Context is everything, of course, and in Isaiah it is the language of tenderness and intimacy. We can identify with Israel, shivering with fear, shrinking from the violence on every side, but held fast by God’s right hand. The trouble is, although we know it is so, we don’t often feel it is so — or if we do, doubts about our sanity may arise. We have to  live a strange paradox, knowing how weak and vulnerable we are yet at the same time knowing that the victory has been won; and the God we can’t see or hear or touch is closer to us than we are to ourselves because his Spirit dwells within us.

Today’s gospel introduces the figure of John the Baptist to our Advent liturgy (Matthew 11. 11–15). John did not speak of poor worms or tiny mites but broods of vipers, yet there is a tender eagerness about all the Baptist’s doings that is arresting. He, too, lived a strange paradox, as ‘the greatest yet born of woman, though the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’

How we are to reconcile these paradoxes, I don’t know, but they provide ample food for thought. My own private accommodation of these texts may strike you as fanciful, but whenever I think of Isaiah’s poor worm, I think of the glow-worm — not a true worm, at all,  but an insect, destined to have wings and soar to the heights with a beautiful luminescence. There is in all of us, in the black carbon of our being, something of Hopkins’s ‘immortal diamond’ which God has created, treasures and keeps safe. John saw that and spent his whole life trying to get others to see it, too.

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Gaudete Sunday 2014

Every year for the last ten years I have blogged about Gaudete Sunday. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I have been to Mass on this Sunday and shared in the Sacrament of the altar. Today, however, will be different. I shall drive Quietnun to Mass (we live some miles away from the nearest Catholic church, common enough in England, but rarer elsewhere) and while she participates in the Mass inside, I shall be sitting outside, reading the lessons and prayers*. It is, if I’m honest, slightly miserable. Which brings me to my point.

This morning many a priest will be exhorting his congregation to rejoice. The Mass readings are full of exultant joy; and the choir, if there is one, will be raising the roof with glad song. Even the church’s appearance will change today, with a swirl of rose vestments and incense breaking in on our Advent plainness. So what do we do if our own feelings are out of step with the message, if we are, so to say, feeling like outsiders?

We cannot and should not pretend to a joy we do not have, but instead of shrugging off the whole idea and going our misanthropic way alone, perhaps we should reconsider what we mean by rejoicing and why we are exhorted to be joyful. The joy of a Christian has nothing to do with feelings; it has very little to do with circumstances, either, but has everything to do with hope — our hope in Christ and our hope for all eternity. The broken heart is still broken, but now it is bound up; the poor are still poor, but now we hear the Good News; whatever our past failures, now we are wrapped in the cloak of integrity. (cf Isaiah 61. 1-2, 10-11) Like John the Baptist, we look beyond ourselves to the person of Christ; and like John, we rejoice, we find our joy in Him. We may be going through a desert period in our lives; we may be very conscious of our own fragility and unworthiness; but it doesn’t matter. Christ is all in all. As I sit in the car this morning, I shall try to remember that.

* The chemotherapy I’m having means I’m vulnerable to infection.

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Still Thinking About Integrity

You must have noticed how often the the prophet Isaiah mentions integrity. Today’s first Mass reading, taken from chapter 48, is regretful about the integrity we haven’t practised and the happiness we have thereby forfeited:

Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,
I lead you in the way that you must go.
If only you had been alert to my commandments,
your happiness would have been like a river,
your integrity like the waves of the sea.
Your children would have been numbered like the sand,
your descendants as many as its grains.
Never would your name have been cut off or blotted out before me.

Still that word ‘integrity’ tugs at me endlessly. John the Baptist lived with integrity; so did St John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today; so, above all, did our Lord Jesus Christ. We’ve all known people of integrity and how difficult they can be to live with, even as we admire their courage, honesty and so on. That is because integrity has a way of transforming the lives of those who come into contact with it, often in ways that could not have been foreseen and might not have been welcomed if they had.

I like Isaiah’s image of the waves of the sea. That is exactly how the integrity of others frequently affects us: it topples us over, keeps coming back at us, won’t let go, swamps us at times, because it has an energy and force that its inconsequential appearance may belie. Four inches of water is enough to sweep a grown man off his feet. In the same way, it takes only a very little integrity to change things. Perhaps we should remember that and think about the presence or absence of integrity in our own lives.

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