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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A Terrible and Bitter Irony

There is a terrible and bitter irony in the fact that Egypt, the land to which Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled to find refuge from the murderous pursuit of Herod, should today stand as a land of blood in which Christians are being persecuted unmercifully. The struggle between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood grows every day more violent. The crackdown on the protest camps has cost the lives of hundreds of innocent people.

So today, instead of writing about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I would simply ask your prayers for the people of Egypt. Perhaps those of you who have a devotion to Our Lady as Mother of God would join me in asking her intercession: for peace, for the dying, for all her sons and daughters.

Note: if you would like to read something about Catholic devotion to Mary, this short post may be useful.

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The Annunciation 2012

When I wrote about this feast last year (see here), I mentioned that it reminds us youth can do great things for God. More than that, I think this lovely feast tells us that our dreams and ambitions are all too little for God. He called Mary to be theotokos, God-bearer, in the fullest sense. Just think for a moment what that must have meant to her, a young Jewish girl with the ordinary expectations of her place and time. What an upset of all her plans and expectations!

God calls each one of us to be something special. Often we are so conscious of our ordinariness, and rightly so (heaven spare us the person who thinks (s)he’s special!), that we overlook or undervalue the unique grace he has given us. For those of us who live in monasteries, our only talent may be that of living the monastic life, but it is for us the essential talent, the one that endows us with grace to respond to our vocation, to be what God desires us to be. As we give thanks for Mary’s acceptance of what God asked of her, let us pray for ourselves, that we may be equally generous and fearless in accepting what is asked of us.

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Facing Both Ways

1 January, Octave Day of Christmas and Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (the oldest Marian feast in the calendar), the day when we make (and break) our New Year resolutions, is, as its name proclaims, the doorway of the year, facing both ways like the old pagan god Janus* from which it takes its name. It wasn’t always the beginning of the year, of course: that used to be Lady Day, 25 March, feast of the Annunciation. But calendar reforms and changes in public perception (‘in the year of Our Lord’ and ‘in the year of grace’ being seen as rather quaint, if not unacceptably exclusive) mean that we now end one year and begin another with barely a nod in the direction of religion.

That facing both ways, however, is valid whether we are religious or not. We look back on the old year and assess its triumphs and failures and look forward to the new, assessing its potential. We are not altogether there, not altogether here. The religious might say we are at the interface of time and eternity.

Today’s feast is so rich in allusion, so deep in theology that we can forget that it too faces both ways: back into time, forward into eternity (which is outside time). The Word which was from the beginning took flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. That is what we celebrate throughout the Christmas season. We start our secular year with a reminder that God’s love for us is infinite, Incarnate Love, which wills that all should be saved. Just as the circumcision of Christ on the eighth day foreshadows the shedding of his blood on the cross, so the symbolism of the eighth day expresses perfection, salvation.

We face both ways, into the abyss of our nothingness and the abyss of God’s love, but with this assurance: ‘The eternal God is your dwelling-place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ That must give us confidence as we begin 2012.

A happy and blessed New Year to you all.

* I originally wrote Januarius: my old Latin mistress would have boxed my ears for such a mistake and many thanks to John for pointing out the error.

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The Assumption of the B.V.M.

In previous years I have written about the Catholic Church’s teaching on this subject. Rather than go over that again I thought I would spend a minute or two this morning reflecting on the position that Mary holds in the life of ordinary Catholics. For a fuller treatment, take a look at one of my earliest eBooks, Magnificat (link opens in new window).

Our essential belief about Mary is that she is the Mother of God, Theotokos, God-bearer. Everything else flows from that. Her preservation from the stain of original sin, her assumption, body and soul, into heaven after death, her invocation as greatest of the saints: all these derive from her role as Mother of God. The Church describes the reverence we show Mary as hyperdulia, not to be confused with latria, the adoration given to God alone, or dulia, the reverence we show, or should show, one another as human beings.

What this teaching doesn’t really convey is the warmth of Catholic devotion to Mary. She is both God’s Mother and ours: someone whose prayers we ask with confidence because she knows exactly what it is like to cope with the multitudinous demands of ordinary life. She is one of us, yet shows us what it means to be truly blessed. Hence all that tacky ‘art’, those sentimental hymns, the slightly over-the-top expressions of love and devotion. They are our imperfect human way of rejoicing in the gift she has given us: Jesus Christ our Saviour. Perhaps because we are women ourselves, or perhaps because we belong to such an ancient tradition in the Church, Benedictine nuns tend not to talk much about Mary. We have no special devotions, no flamboyant gestures. We don’t need them because Mary is very close. She is, in truth, Our Lady.

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