Today the whole Church rejoices at the nearness of her salvation. Put like that, the prospect can seem worthy but a little dull — not something to get excited about. Salvation is an important theological concept, but most of us do not go around leaping for joy at what is promised us. Maybe not, but God does. Today’s first Mass reading, Zephaniah 3.14–18, has God exulting for joy over us, dancing his delight in us. That means all of us, even those we privately have a few doubts about as being rather unpleasant or, in our view, ‘not what they ought to be’. It can be difficult to accept that God loves us all, but accept it we must. We need to remember that we cannot earn God’s love; we can never ‘deserve’ it; and we can never see another quite as God sees them. God’s love comes to us as a free gift, ‘an unmerited gift of grace’. Whatever our personal difficulties, whatever the sorrows that beset us, God’s love is a constant in our lives. So, let’s be joyful; and if we cannot dance outwardly, let us dance in our heart which God desires to make his own.
On the Second Sunday of Advent we hear the Lord’s call to comfort his people, and Isaiah’s answering call to prepare a way for him in our hearts (cf Isaiah 40). Then Mark’s Gospel opens with the figure of John the Baptist in the wilderness, quoting the prophet and plunging us into the drama of welcoming the Messaiah into the most secret parts of our being (cf Mark 1. 1–8). Surely we are in a dry and dusty desert, under searing skies, contemplating the stoniness of our own hearts? Perhaps we are, but for those of us in northern Europe the illustration above may resonate a little more than some romantic image of a desert we have never personally experienced — our hearts may be frosty, tangled, fenced in. Without pressing the analogy to absurdity, it is easy to see there are many ways of avoiding God, of refusing to engage while all the time preserving our chosen sense of self. Advent is a time of stripping ourselves of our defences, of allowing God to work in and on us. There is nothing romantic about that. The barriers we put up against God have to be taken down. It may be painful, but it is also liberating and a great joy.
One reader has expressed disappointment that I’m not posting every day during Advent. I’m having chemotherapy and my brain cells are ‘socially distancing’ at present. But I’ll write when I feel I can.
There are some lines from the collect we use for Christmas Vigils that always send a shiver down my spine:
Your eternal Word came down from heaven in the silent watches of the night, and now your Church is filled with wonder at the nearness of her God. (referring to Wisdom 18. 14–15)
They take us away from the sentimentality of ‘Jingle Bells’ and “Santa’ hats and plunge us deep into the mystery of God. All very well for those who dwell in monasteries, you may think, but for most of us the warmth and humanity of a family Christmas is a mixture of sentimentality and church and a thousand and one other things. True, and there is nothing wrong and much that is very right in that; but not everyone has a family Christmas to enjoy or grumble about. The news this morning is filled with stories of those made suddenly homeless by the Indonesian tsunami or other catastrophes across the globe. Indeed, we do not have to stray far from our own front doors to find the homeless, the sick or the suffering, for whom Christmas is not at all the brilliant superabundant feast of Dickensian myth. When there is no room for sentimentality, we are thrown back on the mystery, on the truth of the Incarnation and the meaning of Christ’s birth for each and every one of us.
For me that mystery is expressed in the line about the Church being filled with wonder at the nearness of her God. Wonder is not fashionable. It has no street cred. It is the reverse of ‘cool’, yet wonder is one of the most generous and joyful of emotions. We are surprised with wonder at the unexpected or even the familiar seen or heard as for the first time. It is not dependent on our circumstances. I remember once being moved almost to tears by the luminous beauty of a raindrop slowly coursing down a window-pane. At the time, I was busy with many things, distracted and irritable, but my attention was suddenly held and a rainy day transformed by that glimpse of loveliness. Christmas Day is a little like that. At one level, it is a day like any other; at another, it is a day out of time, a day that allows us a glimpse of eternity and of God himself.
Today we are invited to wonder at the miracle of God made man, the mighty Word reduced to a baby’s wail. This we can celebrate no matter where we are or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Too much family or too little, feasting or forced to fast, our God is near to us. All glory, honour and praise be to Him for ever and ever!
And a very happy Christmas to all my readers!
I was taken to task this morning for not mentioning St Valentine in my first tweet of the day, which is always a prayer tweet. I daresay many will be celebrating him, or rather the popular romantic parody of him we have in the West, but 1.2 billion Catholics and millions of Reformed and Protestant Christians will be keeping today as a holy fast in honour of the Lord. We shall be doing our best to look cheerful, and many will be wearing a smudge of ashes on their foreheads as a reminder that we were created from dust and to dust we shall return.
With Ash Wednesday comes a wonderful freedom. Whatever we have decided to ‘do’ for Lent, we do with the joy of the Holy Spirit (RB 49.6). We are indeed ‘looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing,’ as St Benedict says (RB 49.7). The particularities of our penances melt into insignificance beside the fact that the Lord has invited us to make a Lenten journey with him and to him. He has spoken to us the words of the prophet Hosea, ‘I will lead her into the wilderness, and there I will speak to her heart.’ All he desires is our love.
I was thinking about those words of Hosea and realised that, without being soppy or sentimental, the gift of Lent can be seen as a kind of Valentine from the Lord in which he reaffirms his infinite love for us, and we try to respond as fully as we can. We know that parts of Lent will be hard, that the penances the Lord sends us will be much more demanding than anything we have taken on ourselves, but we have faith and hope that the journey will lead us closer to him. So, be of good cheer. Ash Wednesday gives us a fresh start and the assurance that the Lord will never abandon us. Let us set out boldly in his footsteps.
If you wish to know more about Lent and some of its practices, you may find this link useful: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/lent.html
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.
One of the joys of living in rural Herefordshire is the beauty of the night sky. We don’t have street lights — or many houses, come to that. Step outside the door on a clear night and the sky is velvety black, studded with silver. Stars I could never see in Oxfordshire are here visible with a brilliance and definition that make one gasp. It reminds me of an evening in Cambridge during one of the power-cuts of the 1970s when I cycled down Castle Hill and saw the whole city spread out in the moonlight, rather as I imagine Newton must have seen it: soft and shadowy, quivering with a life it did not possess during the daytime.
Night transforms many things. Fears may grow, but the mind often sees with a clarity it lacks at other times. Distractions fall away. It is the time of sleep, of abandonment, of trust. In the monastic tradition, it is also a privileged time of prayer, of keeping vigil while others sleep, a time for God alone.
Looking up at the night sky and seeing the promise made to Abraham glittering from every corner, one can but marvel. We are so very small, the universe so very great, and there are worlds beyond worlds we have no knowledge of, yet God holds all things in being — not as a remote and indifferent spirit but as a Father, intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. The beauty we see is a reflection of his unseen Beauty. As Hopkins said,
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
The Second Sunday of Advent sets before us the gaunt figure of John the Baptist, a man of luminous integrity to whom even Herod delighted to listen. I think what always strikes me about John is his joy. Even when he is giving us a tongue-lashing — ‘you brood of vipers’ — one senses underneath the excitement he feels at the nearness of God and his desire to make him known. Sometimes, when I read the fulminations of some of my fellow Christians, I am left feeling that I do not want to know their God. I simply cannot reconcile the God in whom I believe with the harsh and unwelcoming figure they portray. That is not to say that we should reduce God and his message to a cosy, wishy-washy liberalism that won’t say anything is wrong because it is not convinced anything is right. On the contrary, the God in whom I believe is a Person of immense holiness, awesome in his otherness. I think it is because John was utterly captivated by the holiness of God that he was so joyful. Could the same be said of us?
Here in the U.K. 28 November is ‘nothing special’. Our Jewish citizens are celebrating Hanukah, and our ex-pat U.S. citizens are celebrating Thanksgiving, but the average Brit is going about business as usual, which probably means more or less glumly, depending on such factors as weather, traffic and what they had for breakfast. The truth is, we are not a demonstrative people and it would be quite difficult to tell whether we are happy or sad just by observing us. Contentment, however, is something else, distinct from states of happiness or sadness. It is possible to be perfectly content while enduring the most appalling circumstances. That doesn’t mean acquiescing in what is wrong, or refusing to work for an improvement. Colluding with injustice is never right, nor should we confuse contentment with complacency. Contentment means, rather, not allowing what is, by definition, imperfect to destroy our serenity and joy. It is a way of transcending circumstances, allowing our inner self the freedom to be.
Serenity, joy, inner freedom, these are all, to my mind, attractive qualities we can cultivate. The art of contentment is to know that they are attainable and allow them to play a more important role in our lives than their opposites. That means a certain amount of discipline, especially over our thoughts. St Benedict was very keen on this disciplining of the mind and attention. He was, so to say, an early ‘positive thinker’, but he never intended that we should do violence to our nature. Instead, we work at recovering our true nature, our true identity, learning how to be content in any and all circumstances. If you wish to put a name to this, you could call it living the Beatitudes.
If we are content, we are grateful; and grateful people are happy people. So I would suggest that if you wish to know the secret of happiness, don’t make happiness your goal, as though this person or that activity could fulfil all your dreams. That is likely to end in disgust and disappointment. Seek contentment instead.
The above image, taken from the Benedictine Monastery of Sacro Speco at Subiaco, is the only known contemporary portrait of St Francis of Assisi. It shows a young, strong, clear-eyed man who could so easily be a campaigner for social justice or ecological issues today. There is a temptation to see Francis in exactly those terms: as a champion of the poor, the marginalised, a lover of animals and plants, a man who was spectacularly ‘alternative’ in his simplicity and poverty, a thorn in the side of the Establishment. All that is true, but there is another portrait of Francis, done long after his death by El Greco, which shows St Francis receiving the stigmata, and I think it captures the other side of the saint, the one that even today makes us uncomfortable: the man of God whose fierce, all-consuming love of Christ led him to identify with his Master in everything, but especially his suffering and sacrifice.
It is easy to sentimentalise St Francis. We can get a warm, fuzzy glow about Franciscan simplicity (especially when it is lived by other people) but without that intense love of God as motive, every renunciation is essentially hollow. It lacks heart, and St Francis never lacked heart no matter what else he and his first companions did not have. His poverty was embraced tenderly and joyously, so we forget that an iron will was also called into service. Francis was an uncompromising realist. For all his exuberance and light-heartedness, there is a steady determination about his desire to live and die in union with Christ.
Today Pope Francis will journey to Assisi and is scheduled to make six(!) speeches in the course of the day. I shall be very surprised if we do not hear something of that more hidden side of St Francis: the call to union with Christ as the well-spring of every action, of every service of the poor. In the meantime, a very happy feastday to all our Franciscan brothers and sisters!
Last night I stayed up to welcome BigSis home after her return from York. I thought it was very sneaky of her to leave on Monday morning while I was having my post-brekkie nap, so I intended to do a dignified but distant kind of welcome, the sort that says, ‘I forgive you’ but means, ‘I’m putting you on probation: don’t you DARE do that again, or else!’ Well, you know me, once she walked through the door, my tail went into orbit (so much for dignified) and though I did manage to look soulful (my default look), I forgot about the distant bit. Then she said, ‘Hello, old rat-bag. Am I forgiven then?’ and something I didn’t quite understand about how there is joy among the angels when a sinner repents and is reconciled to God, which I think means that forgiveness is really rather wonderful and transforms everything, and my waggly tail is a good image of the sheer joy there is in heaven when humans come to their senses and are reconciled with God and one another; and then there was something about how stupid humans are to store up resentments, which is like taking poison and hoping the other person will die. I forget the rest, ‘cos I was really just pleased to have her back, but don’t tell her or she will become proud, and that is not good for her humility, not good at all.
I think I might do less of the dignified and distant in future and settle for forgiveness, plain and simple. It’s more fun, and if you try it, you may get a surreptitious bikkie or two like me.