On the Eve of Holy Week

St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500
St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today we celebrate the feast of the carpenter, Joseph; tomorrow we begin tracing the course of events that led the carpenter’s Son to the cross. The smell of wood shavings, usually so sweet and comforting, is suddenly infused with menace and horror. There is a terrible irony in the fact that the boy taught to love and cherish wood is to die on a wooden cross, pierced with nails such as no carpenter would ever use. The boy learned from the man, and I have said before why I think St Joseph’s role in forming Jesus’ charcter was so important (see the blog post here or do a search of the blog via the sidebar search-box for other posts on St Joseph).

We think of Joseph today as a man of unassuming holiness — obedient, faithful, true; a good father, quietly brave. Perhaps we should also think of him as a migrant, taking his family on the painful journey into Egypt, to live and work among an alien people. What did it cost him to remain a good Jew in such circumstances? How much hostility did he and the Holy Family have to endure? What did Jesus learn from that experience of exile, young as he was?

This week-end we are asked to pray especially for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. That can sometimes seem remote from our own experience in the comfortable West. It is not remote, however, from the experience of St Joseph, nor is it remote from the experience of Christ himself. As our thoughts turn towards Holy Week and we trace, step by step, the road to Calvary, let us not forget those who also travel that way, and more completely than we.

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Email and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas and Companions

The death of Ray Tomlinson, the creator of email, probably made many of us pause for a moment. Email is both a blessing and a bane. It is immediate, cheap and a huge help in keeping in touch with multitudes of people, especially for those of us who have not yet adapted fully to the smartphone and social media. It is also a significant time-waster, a source of scamming and dangerous when one is rattled about something. As far as I know, no one has yet published, electronically or otherwise, a collection of the world’s greatest emails; and I have a hunch no one ever will. Email is essentially transient, read this moment, forgotten the next.

What a good thing, therefore, that email didn’t exist when Perpetua wrote her account of the circumstances leading up to her martyrdom and that of Felicitas. It is a kind of prison diary, written in the first person and full of the sort of detail that gives the story an amazing vigour. There are two versions of the Passio, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here, and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation into English here. It is one of the earliest texts, if not the earliest, written by a Christian woman to have survived. We are at once under the Carthaginian skies of 7 March, A.D. 203 and can feel the heat, hear the brutal cries and smell the sweat and blood of the arena where an extraordinary display of courage is taking place. There is pathos, too, for Perpetua, the nobly-born, is a nursing mother and Felicitas, a slave, is in an advanced state of pregnancy. As we read the text, we begin to realise that this account is not merely historical, something from nearly two thousand years ago that belongs to a vanished world. It is appallingly, violently contemporary; and the dreams and the arguments Perpetua records as leading inexorably to her death still have the power to shock because they have their dreadful equivalents today.

Let us pray for persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East, especially those who are subject to the brutality of IS and its imitators; and let us not lose hope. SS Perpetua and Felicitas remind us that death is not the end but the entrance into life, and that those who kill the body cannot kill the soul.

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Easter Sunday 2015

Last year we celebrated the Resurrection in the A & E department of our local hospital, quietly praying our way through the Great Vigil. This year we celebrated it at home, in our little oratory, but with this difference: we were able to sing as well as read, although we had no priest to say Mass for us. It brought home to us how privileged we are to be able to celebrate our faith openly, wherever we happen to be. For many today Christianity is driven underground, mocked, a dangerous religion to espouse if one wants to live securely. Two thousand years on the ‘pale Galileean’ continues to demand choices that may lead to suffering and death.

The oratory on Easter morning

Is there a lesson to be drawn from this? Whether our Easter is liturgically splendid or not, whether it is celebrated openly or secretly, in union with others or alone, the Resurrection is the most important event in the whole of history; and today we celebrate not just its memory but its present reality. There is nothing that compares with this fact: that God in Christ has redeemed us. We have nothing left to fear. He has triumphed. Alleluia!

Our chapel just before Lauds, Easter 2015

 

We wish you all a very joyful Easter and thank you for all the lovely letters, cards and gifts you have sent. Pray for those who are less blessed, especially our persecuted brothers and sisters, and the poor.
(The photographs show our oratory just before Lauds this morning.)

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A Non-Existent Future

The first email I read today told me of the death of an old friend. He was 95 and had had heart failure for some time. His last letter told me he was ready for death and hoped it would not be too far off. He was a doughty unbeliever, and a frequent joke between us was that one day I’d say to him, ‘I told you so!’ I fully expect to be able to do that one day. The future does not depend on our believing in it, any more than the existence of God depends on our belief in him.

Consider, next, this tweet from Dr Kate Granger, who has an advanced sarcoma: ‘Hardly surprising I can’t sleep. . . Massive decision to make tomorrow with such uncertainty – one that will determine my non-existent future.’ It is very easy when faced with an aggressive disease that, humanly speaking, can have only one outcome to feel that words like ‘the future’ have no meaning. No matter how brave or positive one is (and Dr Granger is both), there are moments when everything seems bleak and meaningless. One goes on because one must, because the end is not yet, not because one believes one has any future to speak of.

People often think that having faith is a great comfort at such times. I wonder. Faith tends to come and go. It cannot be summoned up at will, however hard one tries. Of course, one can lie — even to oneself; but a lie will not sustain one through a really difficult patch. We have to face up to the reality of our situation and embrace it. That is why, here in the monastery, we pray every day for the gift of faith to be given to us, not merely renewed in us. That is also why we pray for the faith of our fellow Christians to be strengthened, whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves. Those persecuted by IS or by their neighbours in India or Pakistan need our prayers because, ultimately, only grace can assure them any future on this earth. As to the future that we look forward to in hope, well, please pray for my friend and Dr Granger, too.

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The Scandal of Christmas

Very early this morning, while everything was cold and dark, in our little oratory a single voice sang the ancient Christmas martyrology — the announcement of Christ’s coming into the world as the son of Mary, at Bethlehem, in first-century Palestine, under the pax romana. For me, that haunting chant expresses as no other the scandal of Christmas: not only does the Word of God take flesh and live among us, He does so as a member of a particular family, in a particular place and time. I’m fairly confident that had we or any of our Church leaders been involved in the decision, we would have opted for another place and time, for another family, perhaps even for a different sex for the baby in question. Which brings me, as so often, to my point.

The scandal of Christmas is not that God chose to become human but that He chose to become human in a way that still stretches our imagination and turns many of our ideas upside down. He lived and died a faithful Jew, under an alien occupation. For thousands of Christians in the Middle East, there is a bitter parallel today in the circumstances of their own lives — and not only in the Middle East. Yet, for many of us, it seems to matter little. Two thousand years after God became man to save us from our sins, we continue to live as though He had never come, as though nothing had changed. We go on making war, killing, hating, profiting from the poverty and need of others, congratulating ourselves on our own success, mocking God under the guise of being ‘free’ or ‘humorous’.

Soon after the martyrolgy had been sung this morning, a thin, faint line of light appeared on the horizon, above the Black Mountains. It was a reminder to me that no matter how much we may seem to fail, God has a way of putting things right. The sin of Adam and Eve has been redeemed by the New Adam. That obscure birth in Bethlehem has changed the world. I think, on reflection, I am wrong about the scandal of Christmas. The true scandal of Christmas is our failure to recognize that with God all things are possible. He has saved us. He is the Prince of Peace, the King of Israel, God with us, our Lord and God.

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