The Exaltation of the Cross 2014

If you look back on this blog, you will find I have written about this feast every year; and although I have not always taken the same theme or considered the same aspect of the feast, every year I have found myself moved by the thought that the Cross, and all that Christ endured on it, is not only a sign of God’s love for us, it is also, in its own way, God’s apology to us for all that we suffer in our turn. On the Cross the Creator bowed his head, so to say, before his creation. That is a shocking thought — rightly so — but perhaps it helps to make sense of what otherwise is cruelly meaningless.

The news that David Haines, a British aid worker, has been beheaded by an IS extremist is, at one level, simply one more personal tragedy to add to the millions the world has already suffered. Inevitably, we ask why. How can a loving God possibly allow such things to happen? Then we turn to the Cross and realise that Christ himself asked the same question, even as he gave the answer. That paradox lies at the heart of this feast as it lies at the heart of human history: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; for by your Cross you have redeemed the world.

Suggestions for further reading from this blog (link in blue)
Exaltation of the Cross 2011
Exaltation of the Cross 2013

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Pain is Our Friend

Most of us spend most of our lives trying to avoid pain, with good reason. Suffering is not necessarily redemptive, nor is experiencing discomfort or loss in itself admirable. Acceptance of pain is another matter, and as Holy Week approaches it may be useful to consider where we are on our Lenten journey. Pain is our friend, because it reveals to us truths we might otherwise reject or never even come to know. It opens us up to that which is above and beyond our power to control; and Lent is very much about ceding control over our lives to God in ways that we don’t dare at other times of year.

If our prayer isn’t making us feel the pain of God’s absence — and even more, the agony of his presence — are we still too focused on ourselves, on what we do/say in prayer, rather than stretching out to embrace the mystery of God’s silence? If our fasting isn’t making us feel hunger, are we playing at sacrifice — giving up little things in order to avoid the greater surrender of self which can seem so daunting? If our almsgiving doesn’t hurt, is it because we are limiting our giving to what we think we can comfortably manage, rather than letting God determine what the measure of our giving should be?

The trouble about asking these questions is that it can induce guilt or scrupulosity, but that is not my intention. I think Holy Week is so intense, so full of Christ’s pain, that it can be overwhelming. We can be numbed at second-hand, as it were, and perhaps miss the point. It is not Christ’s death that redeems us; it is his obedient acceptance of that death. In these few days before Palm Sunday, it would be good to reflect on the difference. I still say that pain is our friend, but only because Christ has made it so by first embracing it himself as a necessary part of his loving obedience to the Father.

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Come and Save Us: O Emmanuel

Today’s O antiphon is

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, desired of the nations and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

I always think there is a kind of desperation in today’s O antiphon. We pile on the titles of God — Emmanuel, King, Giver of the Law, Desired of the Nations, Saviour of the Peoples — as though by making sure we have missed none out, we could be more certain of being heard. Then, when we have done all that, our exhausted plea is very simple: come and save us. That final, poignant ‘Lord our God’ is wrung from our very heart. God is indeed our hope and salvation, in whom we trust despite ourselves.

If you are blessed with a serene and unhesitating faith, none of this will make sense; but I suspect many wrestle with questions of faith and doubt, presence and absence, and know that we must somehow bring this inner turmoil of thought and feeling to God for healing and redemption. Advent now has almost completed its task in us. Today we stand naked before God, just as, in a couple of days, the Son of God will stand naked before us in the Child born at Bethlehem. Our defences are down, we know ourselves for what we are. Soon, very soon, we shall be privileged to know God for who and what he is: Emmanuel, God-with-us.

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Another Kind of Suffering

We are about to begin Holy Week, the Great Week of the Christian year, and our eyes are already beginning to focus on the Cross and the suffering Jesus will undergo for our sakes. All our own suffering and failure is taken up into that one great redemptive act. That doesn’t mean, however, that what we suffer is somehow less real because it cannot compare with the suffering of Jesus. We can exaggerate, but we can also ‘spiritualize’, not acknowledge how deeply or negatively we experience things. Yesterday I had a negative experience I’ll share with you in the hope that it may help you see that whatever we suffer can be a way in to understanding what we celebrate this coming week. At least, I found it helpful.

I had been invited to take part in a radio programme. The producer had kindly sent an advance list of questions to form a basis for conversation and the interviewer was one I admire. All very promising. I listened to the first two contributors and felt very much in sympathy with them. Then came another, and as she spoke I began to be troubled by what she was saying about something I happen to hold very different views on. When my own turn came, I was distinctly lacklustre. No problem with that (except for my pride!), but then I was taken off-guard by the way in which two further questions were posed: the ordination of women and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Catholics will know that John Paul II placed discussion of the ordination of women off-limits, and for those of us who are priests or religious, it is a tricky question to handle in the public sphere because the way in which it is presented (as one of equality or power in the Church) is not one that corresponds to our understanding of the sacrament of holy orders. One has to tread carefully to be intelligible to the general public and not overstep the boundaries currently permitted by the Church. I made a hash of it. Then came the killer. Would the presence of women in the priesthood help avoid sexual abuse? There are two things to note here. First, I find the idea of women being priests themselves (or priests being allowed to marry) as a way of preventing men from acting wickedly rather insulting to women. To be fair, I don’t think the interviewer meant that. It just sounded like it to me. Secondly, but just as importantly, few seem to recognize that most Catholics — surely the vast majority — are deeply upset by what we have learned of abuse and cover-ups. It reduces me to tears, and yesterday I found myself welling-up on air at the thought of how those children had been abused and the whole Church had been betrayed.

Quite clearly, the narrative of abuse in the Catholic Church is the only one the media are really interested in. I am beginning to wonder, however, whether it is time to ask the un-askable. Are there others who suffer in addition to those abused, and should we be concerned about them, too? A few years ago I wrote about the effect of abuse compensation claims on the diocese of Boston. So huge were they that the diocese had to close schools and hospitals for the poor, and one convent of religious sisters had the roof over their heads sold to help meet the cost (they were generously re-homed by some Episcopalian sisters). It was all very sad. The abuse was dreadful; the price paid by the Catholics of Boston and the poor was also dreadful. This is another kind of suffering which is not, by and large, acknowledged: the suffering of those who are themselves innocent of abuse but who must pay for the sins of the guilty — in terms of money, services, reputation and the constant drip-drip of poisonous remarks.

Some will argue that that is just tough. The awfulness of what happened means that Catholics must put up with whatever the world chooses to throw at us. The latest scandals attaching to the name of Cardinal Keith O’Brien have led to even more gleeful dirt-chucking. Those who believe that a vow of chastity or a promise of celibacy obliges to continence are appalled and saddened. The abuse of power is rightly seen as completely unacceptable. There is no excuse.

But I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the constant negativity does have an effect. To be held responsible for something one had no part in, that one condemns absolutely, isn’t easy. The pain and grief we feel for the wrong done to or by others is not assuaged by knowing that it may draw one closer to Jesus. The only way in which we can make sense of it is by remembering that we are the Body of Christ — wounded, bloodied, it is true, but still intimately united to our Lord and Saviour, who will never fail or forsake us.

As we process with our palms tomorrow, rejoicing in that transient moment of triumph which was a prelude to the everlasting triumph of the Cross, let us give thanks that we have a Saviour who has borne all our sin and shame. In him, we are washed clean, given fresh hope, redeemed.

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Our Need of Holiness

Having posted on today’s O antiphon, ‘O Adonai’, every year since I began blogging, I thought I would give both you and me a rest; but I find I can’t, because our need of holiness, of redemption, of the gift of prayer, grows ever greater. So, you will find the text, translation, music and some scriptural notes here, and if you want to know what I’ve said in previous years, please type ‘O Adonai’ into the search box on the right.

What strikes me this morning is the humility of holiness. God could have impressed Moses with a sense of his infinite transcendence in many ways, but he chose to capture his attention using a burning bush. Moses’ curiosity led him to God; and only after he had heard God speak did he realise that he was on holy ground. Prayer is rather like that. We tend to think that we are calling on God, only to realise later that God first called to us; and just as Moses’ life was transformed by his encounter with the mysterious presence at the heart of the burning bush, so our lives too are transformed by the encounter with God in prayer.

Sometimes we try to avoid prayer because we are afraid of what God may ask of us. We try to run away like Jonah, or we get into a huff like Naaman because things don’t go the way we expect and want. Sometimes we just give up on it because it seems too hard or unrewarding. We want to be mystics and have wonderful supernatural experiences and forget that, for most people, most of the time,  prayer is a much humbler, much more plodding business. There is no mystery about prayer, although prayer draws us into the heart of a great Mystery. God speaks to us where we are, in the desert of our lives, through the ordinary and everyday much more often than through the strange and spectacular. Our job is to listen and allow ourselves to be transformed: God will not force us. We tend to overlook that, because we have never quite understood the humility of God.

The prayer we make in today’s antiphon requires our consent to be answered — the searing holiness of God desires our redemption, but only if we will allow it. To have such power over God is the paradox of being human.

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A Thought for Friday

Some people love Fridays; other people hate them. Friday certainly has a different ‘feel’ about it compared with Monday, say, or any other weekday. In the monastery, Friday is a fast day and has its own atmosphere of cool self-restraint, always associated in my mind with such delicacies as pilchard hash or nuts-and-onions, a particularly unpleasant dish accompanied with sauce made from packet tomato soup (a relic of the Stanbrook tradition long since banished from Howton Grove Priory!) The fact that it is a fast day, however, is a reminder that every Friday is lit up with the mystery of the Cross. It has become rather unfashionable to meditate on the Passion and Death of Christ. We want to rush on to the Resurrection and the performance of good works, bypassing the messy, gory bits in the story. Perhaps today we could spend some time thinking about the redemption won for us by Christ our Lord, the cost to him, the gift to us.

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Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

I’ve written a lot about this feast in previous years but realise I’d never admitted, until recently, that the often syrupy form it takes in some parishes was always a barrier to my appreciation of its theology and, indeed, historicity (it was clearly a pre-Reformation devotion at Netley, which was impeccably Cistercian). I suspect others feel the same. The clue to overcoming this will be found, as so often, in the preface for the feast and its reference to the piercing of Christ’s side with a lance as he hung on the cross, and the streams of grace and mercy which flowed from the wound.

Videos and television may have accustomed us to the sight of gore. Blood flowing from a wound may no longer have the power to shock. But for a Christian, the thought of God’s Son shedding his blood for us is truly awful. (Interesting: I originally wrote ‘bleeding for us’ but thought the more conventional phrase might be less offensive . . .) The blood of Christ washes us clean of sin, nourishes us in the Eucharist and restores us to union with God. Christ’s heart pulses eternally with that redemptive blood. The feast of the Sacred Heart, therefore, challenges us with a love so complete, so unremitting, that we are forced to choose: will we accept that love, or reject it? One of the wisest things ever said to me was to look in the eyes of a crucifix and say, if I dared, that I didn’t give a damn. One might do the same with an image of the Sacred Heart. Who could possibly be indifferent?

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God’s Laughter

Yesterday my friend Richard Littledale and I had a brief Twittervation (conversation on Twitter) about the Book of Jonah (Richard is writing a book on Jonah, which I’m sure will be well worth reading). I mentioned the humour in Jonah as an echo of God’s laughter, and that has inspired today’s post.

God teases Jonah from start to finish, but it is the loving, gentle teasing of one who wants to rescue Jonah from his own stupidity. Jonah’s attempt to flee God was never going to succeed, but being swallowed by a big fish then vomited on the seashore must have wounded his dignity. All the same, his preaching must have been effective, because even the animals in Nineveh don sackcloth in response to his warning! Only, the Lord does not destroy Nineveh as he has forewarned, so Jonah goes off in a huff then has a misunderstanding about the castor oil plant which gives him shade from the sun. Finally God questions him about his right to be compassionate to all those people ‘who do not know their left hand from their right’. God’s laughter is gentle, but it is very, very eloquent.

There are other passages in the Bible where we catch the sound of God laughing. When God and Moses argue about the backslidings of the Israelites, there is a distinct touch of argy bargy: ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt’; ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt.’ It sounds like two parents disowning their offspring to one another. And in the gospels we find Jesus teasing his disciples again and again, especially poor Peter who is always misunderstanding (thank God for Peter, he gives us hope!) Jesus responded to humour in others: the Syro-Phoenician woman won him over by her quick-witted rejoinder about house-dogs eating scraps from the table.

Perhaps we have made religion in England too serious and not allowed God’s laughter to prick our self-importance as we should. There is a laughter that is destructive. We need to avoid that, but as we get closer to Holy Week, it does not hurt to remember that it is the whole person who is redeemed, not just the ‘religious’ bits.  Our antics must make God smile. It may be too anthropomorphic for some, but I trust that when we reach our final destination, purified by purgatory, we shall be greeted with a huge smile and, quite possibly, a great laugh.

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Loss of Enthusiasm

Whether we call it loss of enthusiasm or End of the World Syndrome, we all know what it is: the moment when feelings go flat and the world turns monochrome. We no longer believe, no longer hope, all is is blank and bleak. When this moment comes in the novitiate, then the real work of conversion can begin. We no longer try for perfection by our own efforts but settle for the rather messier, less obvious work of the Holy Spirit in us. (cf RB 7.70) So, too, with life in general. Enthusiasm is a great quality, especially when the inspiration comes from God; but it is not meant to be a permanent state. If, today, you are feeling knee-high to a grasshopper, lacking energy and bored stiff by everything, do not assume that something dreadful has happened to you. You are simply discovering anew what it means to be human. Like it or not, we have to be human to be redeemed; and isn’t that a rather wonderful and inspiring thought?

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O Emmanuel: God with us

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, desired of the nations and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.

Today’s Mass readings, Malachi 3. 1-4, 23-24 and Luke 1. 57-66, taken together with Isaiah 7.14, provide more than enough to think about as we listen to the antiphon:

 

We are very close to the birth we are waiting for. The prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist, and the question with which the gospel ends is one we must ask not just of John’s birth but of Jesus’ also: ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ Sometimes people assume that ‘good’ Christians have no doubts, never ask questions, never experience a sense of bewilderment in the face of cruelty or disaster. That is demonstrably untrue. To be a Christian is surely to live with uncertainty, relying on the gift of faith to bridge the gap between our understanding and our questioning. Tonight’s antiphon reminds us that the God we seek is not a God afar off, but God-with-us, one who has shared our humanity and calls us to share in his divinity.

O Emmanuel expresses the theology of this in a few, meaning-rich phrases. Notice that expectatio gentium, although translated as ‘Desired of the nations’, really has more the sense of ‘hope’ or even more literally, ‘expectation’. The antiphon takes up and develops all the themes of the previous six. Christ is welcomed as God-with-us, King of David’s line, the true Law-giver, one who is the fulfilment of every human (= gentile) hope and longing, whose gift of salvation is open to all. The petition with which the antiphon ends is absolutely clear about the divine nature and mission of the Messiah: ‘come and save us, Lord our God.’

There in a nutshell is what Christmas is about. In his compassion and love, God wills to take our human flesh and blood and redeem us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our salvation is very near. It began with Mary’s generous-hearted consent to be the Mother of God. It will take physical shape with the birth of Jesus on Christmas night. It will be completed only when all are one with Him in the Kingdom. Truly, this is ‘a mystery hidden from long ages, a secret into which even angels long to look!

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