Gaudete Sunday 2021: Pure Joy

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Today the whole Church rejoices at the nearness of her salvation. Put like that, the prospect can seem worthy but a little dull — not something to get excited about. Salvation is an important theological concept, but most of us do not go around leaping for joy at what is promised us. Maybe not, but God does. Today’s first Mass reading, Zephaniah 3.14–18, has God exulting for joy over us, dancing his delight in us. That means all of us, even those we privately have a few doubts about as being rather unpleasant or, in our view, ‘not what they ought to be’. It can be difficult to accept that God loves us all, but accept it we must. We need to remember that we cannot earn God’s love; we can never ‘deserve’ it; and we can never see another quite as God sees them. God’s love comes to us as a free gift, ‘an unmerited gift of grace’. Whatever our personal difficulties, whatever the sorrows that beset us, God’s love is a constant in our lives. So, let’s be joyful; and if we cannot dance outwardly, let us dance in our heart which God desires to make his own.

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Mountains and Molehills: In the Desert with John the Baptist Again

The Second Sunday of Advent sees us back in the desert with John the Baptist. The call to action is clear and direct: Prepare a way for the Lord! In practice, that means levelling the mountains and molehills of pride and self-sufficiency we each have within ourselves, filling in the potholes of hopelessness and despair, straightening whatever we have allowed to become crooked or devious. It sounds easy in theory but most of us find it quite hard. We are attached to our engaging little foibles, enjoy our little grumbles, smile upon our little white lies and other little naughtinesses. That is the problem. What we perceive to be mountainous in others is in us merely an endearing little molehill: little, so very little.

It won’t wash. Without becoming scrupulous in the bad sense, we have to be honest about and with ourselves. The closer we get to God, the larger and more horrible those ‘little’ sins and imperfections appear. There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation, however — another blow to our pride. We must allow God to come and sweep away all that is false within us, remake us, change us. Then truly we shall see the salvation of God, and it will be glorious.

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O Oriens | 21 December 2020

Photo by Vivek Doshi on Unsplash

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

At about 4.30 to 5 o’clock this evening, on the shortest, darkest day of the year here in Britain, if we look to the south-west, we may be able to see a bright light: the grand conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that many think may have been the star of Bethlehem which led the Magi to Jesus. How fitting, then, that we should be singing O Oriens at Vespers. For the first time since we began the sequence of O antiphons, the coming of God as Saviour and Redeemer is hailed with three different titles, all of them luminous: Morning Star, Splendour of Eternal Light, Sun of Justice.

With all the current talk of Christmas being ‘cancelled’ and the sheer misery of being separated from those we love or seeing them suffer, it is hard not to think of the world as being very bleak and very dark. But today’s antiphon is a reminder that light will always overcome darkness. God will deal with it in his own way and his own time. Christmas has not been cancelled, though much that we associate with the celebration of the feast is going to be off-limits this year; hope is not diminished though we may find it more difficult to hold onto. We can and should rejoice at Christmas because the Son of God has chosen to be our Morning Star, our Light in the darkness, our source of justice and healing. Salvation is still the gift he offers us; we are still loved infinitely, tenderly, far beyond our human imagining.

Of course, there is another kind of darkness many are experiencing, the interior darkness of distress and mental confusion we associate with this time of year, and made worse by months of COVID19-induced anxiety and isolation. It is a prison, a shadow, an all-enveloping gloom causing much pain and suffering, horribly intensified when it cannot be shared with anyone. Loneliness makes any kind of wretchedness much bleaker, and frequently there is a sense of failure, too, because, of course, no one actually wants to be ‘down’ or out of step with the season. It is easy to say that from this too Christ comes to redeem us, but although that is true, it is not a truth everyone accepts. Add to that the moral darkness and confusion we see in the unceasing violence and corruption the news headlines reveal to us day by day and we can argue that despair is understandable. Understandable, perhaps, but not an option for a Christian. We continue to hope; we continue to trust — not blindly, nor against all the evidence, so to say, but because we have placed our hope and trust in One who never disappoints and will never let us down.

I’d like to end with something I’ve said before because I think it expresses these ideas as well as I can. Today’s antiphon turns them into prayer:

Sometimes in the early morning, when I go into the oratory to pray, everything is dark, as only a house in the countryside can be dark. Gradually, there is a little glimmer of greyness that marks the beginning of dawn. Then slowly, beautifully, light begins to flood the room until everything is transformed. Even the dust sparkles. Our lives are like that. For some, in this life, there is only darkness and the light will come later; for others, probably the majority, the light begins to shine even now, but uncertainly, by fits and gleams; and for a few, a very few, life is irradiated with sunshine from the very first. What we have to hold to is this: the light will come. ‘His coming is as certain as the dawn.’ Indeed, yes: come, Lord Jesus.

As scripture, I suggest reading Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6. 12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2

Blog subscribers: the update to WordPress 5.6 has broken the plug-in used to send out automatic notifications. I’ll try to sort it out when we come to the end of our Silence Days.

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Christmas Day 2017

Christmas Dawn

A few hours ago we began celebrating Christmas, and we now have a whole Octave we can call ‘Christmas Day’. To some, that might seem like one of the ‘funny games’  theologians and liturgists play with words; to others it makes sense. The Octave has always been a measure of perfection, a way of linking finite linear time with eternity; so how could the birth of God in the flesh be anything other than the perfection of our humanity, the way in which time and eternity are made one? And when God chose to do that, he didn’t do so in the way we might have chosen. He elected to be born as a baby, a fragile, dependent baby, who would have to grow in knowledge and understanding of the things of God, just as his body and mind would have to grow. Thinking about that should change our ideas of what constitutes perfection. It is more of a process than something we attain once and for all, and it is inevitably messier and less predictable than we should like.

This morning, as we contemplate the Christ Child in the crib, let us try to forget the impossible standards we often set ourselves and others. God asks nothing but our love. In the person of Jesus Christ he came into the world to redeem us, and one of the most humbling things we can learn is that he loves and accepts us as we are. That doesn’t mean he condones sin — far from it — or that ‘anything goes’. What it does mean is that God has always loved us and will always love us; we can rest secure in his love. Today may be happy or sad; we may feel completely out of tune with the time and its season. That doesn’t change the fact that with Christ’s birth salvation dawned upon the world. We rejoice and are glad, and we accept the gift he offers.

A blessed Christmas to you all!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Our Need of Wholeness

Last year, when I wrote about today’s antiphon, O Rex Gentium, at some length (see here), I concentrated on the idea of God’s authority, which is so different from our usual experience. Today, however, I’d like to focus on what the antiphon says about wholeness.

Most of us would probably admit that we are broken in some way, discordant, at odds with both ourself and others to a greater or lesser extent. Most of the time we bumble along quite happily and only really register that something is amiss when we see the fruits of that inner discordance: a row with someone perhaps, or a sudden feeling of flatness and weariness in the midst of what ‘ought’ to be unalloyed happiness. It can be distressing. Of course we have to live with imperfection, in ourselves as much as in others, but we do not like it. I think the antiphon’s insistence on our fragility — mere vessels of clay that we are — and on God’s strength — the corner-stone of our lives — is a powerful reminder that the wholeness we seek comes to us as a gift. There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation.

Today, as we pray for the coming of the King of the nations, the corner-stone who has made both Jew and gentile one, let us pray that whatever in us is broken or out of tune may be restored to wholeness through his mercy. And may the mercy shown to us teach us to be merciful to others.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Praying for the Sick

The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes prompts a few thoughts about praying for the sick. What do we think we are doing?

First of all, we are obviously obeying biblical injunctions to pray for the sick that they may recover; but what are we doing when recovery is unlikely: for example, when the person for whom we are praying is very old and tired and wants to go home to God? I think prayer for the sick in such situations is praying on behalf of the sick person. Even a bad cold can make it difficult for us to do the things we normally do, and prayer is no exception. It can be a thousand times worse when we have a serious illness that exhausts us or makes us so ‘down’ that our spiritual lives go blank. It is then that knowing others are praying for us, that the communion of saints is holding us up before God, may yield a grain of comfort and encouragement. Finally, when we pray for the sick, we pray for ourselves. There is none of us who is not in need of healing, but most of us don’t know our own sickness or refuse to acknowledge it.

Today, when we pray for the sick and those who care for them, let us not forget to pray for ourselves, for the forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation in Christ.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Life, Death and Holidays

I have been spending the time after Christmas typesetting an Order of Service for a Requiem Mass and Funeral. It wasn’t what I intended, and I’m quite sure the bereaved family would much rather not have to deal with such things. They have lost someone they love at a time when everyone else seems to be holidaying and making merry.

My own father died shortly before Christmas 1999, so I have an inkling of how difficult it can be to deal with grief when the rest of the world is in festive mood. The sudden stab of memory, the tears rising in the throat, the effort it takes to appear cheerful when one has to accept invitations/attend events one would much rather refuse or ignore — they all seem much worse when tinsel and the popping of corks form the backdrop.

It is at such times that we confront the truth of Christmas. Christ was born, not so that we might indulge in some syrupy romanticism but so that we might confront the reality of sin and death. Bethlehem leads inexorably to Calvary. We know the story does not end there, that the Resurrection transforms defeat into victory and that at the end of time, when, please God, all are gathered into the Kingdom, the purpose of Christ’s earthly life will have been achieved: the salvation of mankind.

We know that, but when the heart is aching and the world seems cold and bleak, it is difficult to believe. Spare a thought (and a prayer if you can) for those who have been bereaved this Christmastide.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail