Countdown to Advent

You read that right: countdown to Advent, not Christmas. On Saturday evening, when we sing or say First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon what is, for many of us, the best-loved season of the liturgical year, shot through with silence and mystery and Old Testament prophecy as we await the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The haunting chants of Advent are unforgettable, and as we sing them out into the darkness, hope is reaffirmed. Whatever difficulty we face, whatever loss we experience, we know that God’s love embraces us all. We may not feel it; we may indeed doubt it; but it is there.

Advent allows us to trace the lineaments of his love through what scripture scholars call, a little glibly I sometimes think, salvation history. This year, with Advent beginning in lockdown and several cautions in place about what we may or may not do once the severest restrictions are eased, may I suggest that a good way of preparing for Christmas would be to reflect on our own personal ‘salvation history’? Often we are so busy that we do not have time to note how God has been at work in our lives, or we feel so battered and bruised by negative events that we choose not to dwell on them. The unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves this year may give us a little more time, certainly a different kind of time, in which to do some thinking and praying.

Regular readers know I am no great fan of setting oneself an elaborate programme for Advent. If you can read the daily Mass lessons and find time to say part of the Divine Office to connect with the prayer of the Church throughout the world, you are doing well. If you do a search on this blog, you will find various posts about Advent; and if you go over to our main website, you will find something on the history and traditions of Advent here: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html
You will also find great riches available to you on the web — more than ever this year.

The important thing to grasp is that Advent is a time of preparation, a precious time leading to Christmas but not yet Christmas itself. We have only a few short weeks and we do not need to cram them with activity, no matter how good that activity may seem. I myself draw inspiration from the darkness of our Herefordshire skies. It is the blackness that enables us to see the beauty of the moon and stars. Without that large emptiness, we would barely register the dazzling pin-pricks of light in the night sky. Without Advent, and its own special emptiness, we might barely register the glory of the Incarnation at Christmas. Let’s try to make the most of it.

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Christmas Eve in the Monastery

Christmas Eve in the monastery is, like Holy Saturday, a time out of time. We are still in Advent, but we have half a foot in Christmas as we put up the Christmas decorations and begin to think about sending Christmas greetings. Key to the whole is the singing of the Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation). I shall be thrifty and recycle what I wrote about it last year:

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?

May you have a happy and holy Christmas!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Silence of Holy Week

This is a week when words buckle under the strain of meaning. Already yesterday’s hosannas are forgotten. We are left with the dust and anonymous noise of the city streets, the quiet plotting taking place in private rooms. We are moving inexorably forward to the Lord’s Passion. The sense of looming menace increases hour by hour.

These first days of Holy Week are very precious. They are a time for silence and reflection. One of the ways in which we prepare in community is by reading the Last Discourse in John’s Gospel before Compline. As the words echo through the darkness of the oratory, we enter into our own darkness and know our need of a Saviour. Such knowledge does not cast down, because to know our need of God is also to know that he has bowed down to meet it, that throughout the terrible events of this Week we are held by a Love that is infinite and eternal.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Preparing for Sunday

Trinity Sunday is our patronal feast, so there will be special preparations in the monastery today: mainly, I suspect, additional polishing in the oratory and some baking in the kitchen! Life, as we often remind ourselves, is not all liturgy and loveliness, but we need our highs as well as our lows and Sunday is the great feast of every week. It is our sabbath, and everything about it should have a sabbath quality of joy and blessedness. That doesn’t happen without preparation. So, if you would enjoy your Sunday and make of it a true sabbath, you need to do a little preparation today, especially since rest is an essential part of sabbath blessedness.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail