Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things

Memory plays an important role in forgiveness — or lack of it. The anniversary of the Battle of Culloden may be historically remote from today, but the feelings it evoked and continues to evoke are still powerful. Quietnun has often explained to me, as  something self-evident to anyone less intellectually challenged, why many Scots loathe the English. Being English myself, and therefore by definition phlegmatic to the nth degree, I have never quite understood the intensity of feeling to which memory of

Old, unhappy, far-off things
And battles long ago

may give rise. Perhaps living here, in the border country where England embraces Wales, I may come to understand better. At least I shall try.

Today it is not Culloden that we are thinking of so much as the tragic events in Boston, or the endless suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the seemingly irreconciliable differences between Israelis and Palestinians which so often lead to violence. We do not know whether the Boston bombings were the work of someone with a grudge against the U.S.A. or ‘simply’ the work of someone very sick. Either way, there will be calls for vengeance, usually described as calls for ‘justice’. I sometimes wonder what we think we are doing when we make such calls, especially when the calls are made by people who were not actually involved in the original event. Recently, we have seen several instances of the kind of thing I mean in Britain, where the vicarious anger directed at the Philpotts or the late Margaret Thatcher has disclosed a troubling ugliness below the surface of ‘civilized’ society. If we are no longer our brother’s keeper (a position I dispute), we are certainly not our brother’s judge, jury and executioner.

As we pray for those killed or injured in Boston, it would be good to ask ourselves about our own record on peace and forgiveness. Holding a grudge, wanting to get even, paying others back just means more suffering — for ourselves as well as for others. We drink the poison we mean for them. The posturing we have seen in North Korea in recent weeks is a reminder that when such attitudes are combined with access to weapons, the security of the whole world is placed in jeopardy. The planet on which we live is small and fragile. Whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them, surely we need to learn to get along together? And sometimes, to do that, we have to be the first to drop the hatchet.

I cannot rewrite the history of Culloden, but I can learn from it.


O Clavis David: liberation theology

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.

I suggest we read Isaiah 22.22 and Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock . . .’ as we listen to the antiphon:


I had hoped to write something fresh and new for today, but my mind is taken up with the chapter talk I’ll be giving this afternoon, the Missus Est. The story of the Annunciation reveals layer upon layer of meaning and every year I find myself marvelling at some new facet, which is not really ‘new’ at all but something I had been blind to previously. I suspect we all feel like that. This is a day for doing theology on our knees.

So, I’d like to repeat something I’ve said before. Read it in the context of our current preoccupation with what is happening in North Korea and elsewhere. The key image is telling. Don’t we all feel powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which we have no control? Don’t we need some sort of key to understand them? If we feel entrapped, don’t we need some sort of key to set us free? O Clavis David is liberation theology for today.

Today’s O antiphon links beautifully with the gospel of the day, Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Both remind us of the freedom we have been given in Christ. Yet how many of us think of ourselves as being really free? We are bound by our history, our genetic make-up, the choices we have made through life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These can be both limitation and opportunity, but being human, we tend to concentrate on the limitations rather than the possibilities. The sad fact is, we are often quite happy in our bondage: if we are not free, we are not responsible. We can be moral Peter Pans all our lives.

Or can we? It may not be so much a case of being Peter Pan as a prisoner. The key image in the antiphon is a powerful one. To be locked into a room, even accidentally, can be an unnerving experience. To know that one’s release is entirely dependent on another challenges all one’s belief in one’s ability to impose one’s own will. We are reduced to waiting and hoping that the key-holder will let us out.

Two thousand years ago a young Jewish girl held the fate of all of us in her hands. Would she consent to be the Mother of God, to accept the Key of David who alone could set us free? That she did is the cause of all our joy this coming Christmas. Our liberation is close at hand.