No moans, please, about celebrating this great feast on a Sunday instead of the more familiar Thursday (I don’t like it either), but a moment’s pause to consider what it is we are celebrating. The ‘automatic’ answer isn’t wrong, but it may be inadequate. IF we really believe that the Holy Eucharist is what we say it is, our only possible approach is in awed silence, on our knees before a Mystery so profound. Love and reverence go together, as St Paul was wont to remind us. Let today therefore be a day of great joy, great love, great and holy fear, for truly, God is with us.
St John the Baptist tends to be a great favourite among monks and nuns. His humility, courage, joyful asceticism and fiery proclamation of the Truth are immensely appealing. I have written so much about him in the past that I feel obliged to limit this post to a single thought.
Jesus, Mary and John were related by blood and possibly shared a few character traits along with their DNA. We are accustomed to thinking about Christ in isolation, save for a few incidents where Mother-and-Child interaction reminds us that he did indeed live as a family member for most of his life. Where was John, his slightly elder contemporary? In boyhood, did Jesus look up to John; or was Jesus always the leader? Did they play together at family gatherings, or were Elizabeth and Zechariah not the mixing types? The family life of Jesus began in Bethlehem. Today’s feast reminds us that it did not end there.
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is a day when we are exhorted to pray for vocations. Anyone who has followed this blog or its predecessor for any length of time will know that I believe every one of us IS a vocation, uniquely called into being by God and playing a unique role in his creation. I tend to fidget a little when ‘vocation’ is limited to priestly vocations. The bidding prayers for this day sometimes include a nod towards religious vocations as well, but often I am left wondering whether we know what we are actually praying for and whether we would assent to it if we did. Praying for vocations is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come and turn our world upside down. The world of family and friendship, of career and future expectation: all are broken into by the Holy Spirit, changed for ever by the gift and acceptance of vocation.
For us as Benedictines, vocation has both a personal and a communal aspect and it is a mistake to dwell on the purely personal dimension. We are called as individuals to be members of a community, certainly, but our focus is on God and God alone. It is not we who are interesting but God. Concentration on self, whether ‘self’ be the individual or the community, is a sign that we haven’t quite grasped what our vocation is about. It is understandable that in the early stages we may be attracted to some exterior form or sign, the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or the promise of silence and seclusion in which our experience of prayer may grow and deepen; but we eventually learn that God must be loved for his own sake, not for any gift that he gives. We may become deaf or blind or lose the ability to sing which made the liturgy such a joy; we may be forced to leave the buildings which made a stately celebration possible; the community to which we belong may not be able to provide the silence and seclusion we desire or we may be placed in an obedience which demands that we be always at the end of a telephone or in the infirmary, where the needs of the elderly and the sick are paramount. It doesn’t matter. What we have vowed is to seek God when and where he pleases, to do whatever he asks.
None of us knows at the outset what ‘doing whatever he asks’ may lead to, but if you who are reading this are wondering whether God is calling you, remember that a vocation can only grow and become sure in the context of prayer. Remember too that we do not become nuns to please ourselves but to please God. He demands everything. There can be no holding back, no limitation. You will never know in this life what your gift of self may have achieved but you can be quite sure that God is never outdone in generosity. As a Christian you are called to make up in your own flesh what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ; as a nun, you can never forget that your vocation is an ecclesial one. You may be derided and thought little of, even by members of the household of faith. What matters is your fidelity and perseverance; and if my own experience is anything to go by, no matter how hard you may find some of the way, there will be great joy and gladness too.
Loveliest of all Marian feasts, the Annunciation reflects a moment of unequalled faith, both on the part of God and of Mary. That God should put such trust in humanity, and Mary such trust in him! One cannot fail to be encouraged. We are, as Hopkins rightly perceived, not mere carbon but immortal diamond, capable of holding within ourselves the immensity of God.
I think it is the little details of the story that make such an impact. We see Mary almost thunderstruck by the angel’s message. As so often, awe comes out of a dazed kind of doubt or disbelief. A momentary questioning, followed by a wondering acceptance of so great a destiny. How many of us would be reckoning our lost hopes and fears rather than embracing what God asked of us?
Mary is a model for all who would be contemplatives in the way in which she treasures things in her heart. She is a model for every Christian, male or female, in her readiness to embrace the demands of the Word. On this day, above all others, she is a reminder that youth can do great things for God, that age and experience count for nothing beside love of God. It is a day for wonder and gratitude, a day for reaffirming our love and trust. It is also a day for rejoicing that God has such great love for us.
Sundays are very busy days for monks, nuns and clergy. That doesn’t mean that they lose everything we mean by ‘sabbath’: sacred leisure, silence, joy in the Lord. We have the custom of saving the best of what we have for Sundays, so even the food we eat marks out this day as special; and because Benedictines often work in solitude at their appointed tasks, we try to make this day one on which we share something as a community — a walk, perhaps, or that most British of institutions, tea at four o’clock.
I wonder whether many Christians have lost the sense of the importance of sabbath. We are so busy with all the multitudinous activities that fill the week-end that Sunday can end up being just another day with church on top. If so, it would be a good idea to think again about how we keep the Lord’s day holy. ‘The sabbath was made for man’: we are meant to have time to enjoy it.
We are made of stern stuff here in the monastery and are celebrating the feast of SS Cyril and Methodius, apostles of the Slavs. Not for us the wine and roses of St Valentine’s Day, although I did hear someone reciting Donne after breakfast and stopped what I was doing to listen. There is no finer poet of love in the English language, engaging mind as well as heart.
Donne, however, is not my subject this morning but the misapplication of the Bride of Christ theme. From time to time I look at an American web site frequented by (mainly) young people discerning a vocation and cringe at some of the soppier expressions of what is, I am sure, at base a very genuine love of the Lord. The sponsa Christi imagery applied to nuns and consecrated virgins is certainly valid, but one should remember that it can only be applied to the individual because it has first been applied to the whole Church. Christ has no other Bride but his Church, whom he espoused on Calvary.
It follows that there is no other way for any of us to go to heaven save as a Bride of Christ. That applies as much to the curmudgeonly old bachelor as the lissome girl. Strange thought! But if today you are alone and feeling that there is no one very much to care about you, and no one in particular for you to love in return, consider this: by virtue of your baptism you are espoused to him before whom the sun and moon bow down. Jesus is not your boyfriend, but he loves you more than you could ever possibly imagine.
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.
This is Blue Monday, the worst day of the year, or so Quietnun informed me straight after Lauds. (She has been reading too much social anthropology recently.) Why should the mere fact of New Year resolutions crumbling to dust, credit card bills plopping through the post box and the darkness outside seeming never to end have any effect on people’s mood? And why should feeling a bit low be construed as moral failure? Is it all some vast conspiracy to make us feel worse than we do? Aren’t we allowed to be miserable any more?
Personally, I find quite trying the relentless joyfulness of those who wish to assure us that “Jesus loves you” while we’re attempting to deal with some catastrophe or other. It’s true, I agree, but maybe I don’t need to be reminded while I’m struggling to clear the drains or heading towards the bathroom with some malady or other. Anyway, what’s wrong with being tired and tetchy on occasion? Blue Monday is as good an excuse as any to be a little grumpy — just don’t make anyone else as miserable as you are yourself.
Not the comfort of a warm fire and a good meal but the comfort of which Isaiah sings in today’s Mass reading, VNKEARQ7ZXZF. Most of us know that forgiveness is a rare gift. When we have offended, or even more, when someone has offended us, “forgiveness” tends to mean being put on probation. It is all a bit half-hearted, a rather grudging acknowledgement that there is the possibility of reform, but with something of the thought that it is really rather unlikely.
God knows no such half-measures. When he forgives, he forgives utterly and we are recreated by his love. It is precisely because God forgives so completely that we are able to start afresh. It is worth re-reading chapter 40 of Isaiah as a test of our own forgiveness of others and the joy we could release in them.