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!

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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O Rex Gentium: a new kind of authority

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.

Here are a few scripture texts to ponder before listening to the antiphon: Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians 2.14; Genesis 2.7

 

We live in a world where ‘authority’ is conferred by the search engines or the ratings agencies and many individuals chase after Twitter ‘followers’ or Facebook ‘friends’ as a form of personal validation. The idea of inherent authority is quite alien to lots of people, so the imagery of today’s antiphon needs working at.

Christ is presented to us as King: one who, in the Ancient World, had absolute power, an unassailable authority, but who, as a consequence, had an obligation equally serious toward his subjects, best expressed by the idea of covenant. We are not talking about someone unconcerned with our fate but someone involved in it.

It is, however, the next phrase of this antiphon that I find most striking. The translation doesn’t quite capture the force of desideratus. To invoke Christ as the Desired of All Nations is to make a strong claim for his universality. This title for the Messiah rests on the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: ‘I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour’ (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). As though to say, there is in all of us, whether overtly religious or not, an impulse towards what is good and beautiful and true which will be gloriously fulfilled.

The reminder that we are divided among ourselves, needing a Saviour to redeem and reunite us, is hardly news, but so often we think salvation is some kind of self-help process we can achieve through myriad self-improvement projects. At a national/international level we rely on agreements and legislation which often fail at times of crisis. The truth is, with God everything is possible; without him, nothing is.

The antiphon ends with a reference to our creation from the dust of earth. It is full of hope. Who can forget that, according to the Christian understanding of things, our very humanity has been transformed:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Jew and gentile have been made one through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he has formed from the dust of earth. This Christmas we celebrate not just the birth of Christ but our own birth in Christ, our own glorious recreation.

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O Oriens: light for our darkness

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.

Let us read through Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6.12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2 and the Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14-18 (alternative for the day) and Luke 1.39-45, then listen to the antiphon:

This is the shortest day of the year, a day of darkness. All around there is a sense of political, economic and moral darkness, too. We read of the loss of lives in Syria, the effect of tropical storms in the Philippines, the fear that the work of scientists on swine ‘flu could be subverted to terrorist ends, the death of small children the world over because they don’t have clean water to drink. Beside all this our own the anxiety about the Eurozone and the economic structures of the west looks a little indecent, yet we know that for many it means the difference between a job and no job. It is into the heart of this darkness and uncertainty that the gospel comes as light and life. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Does the birth we look forward to at Christmas makes us want to sing and dance for joy at the nearness of our God? Are we prepared for what that birth demands, the risks we shall be called upon to take? Many of us, I suspect, prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary’s part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, ‘Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’

A little bit of pedantry
It may spare us a few comments from those who wish to point out that the winter solstice occurs at 5.30 a.m. on 22 December if I remind everyone that liturgically the day runs from evening to evening; so the day that begins at Vespers tonight, embracing as it does the winter solstice, is the shortest liturgical day of the year. I myself would say, let’s not get too hung up on these details: the truth of Christ’s lightening our darkness is what the liturgy celebrates and makes clear.

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O Radix Jesse: hope that does not disappoint

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!

Some scripture texts worth pondering as we listen to the antiphon are Isaiah 11.1; Isaiah 11.10; Jeremiah 23. 5-6: Micah 5.1; Romans 15. 8-13; Revelation 5.1-5; Revelation 22.16

 

We all have a tendency to believe in D.I.Y. salvation or, if not that, to put our hope in political/economic solutions. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ opened up the hope of greater freedom and self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East, but the latest news from Syria and Egypt, as well as disturbing reports from Libya, suggest that we may have been over-optimistic. The death yesterday of Kim Jong-il, while welcomed by some as removing a tyrant, has raised the spectre of an unstable nuclear power. Add to that the fragility of the Eurozone, the British economy in the doldrums and the prospect of a rather bleak New Year, and one can see why some fear the emergence of new dictatorships in place of the old. It is in this context that we sing O Radix Jesse. It reminds us that Christian values are never the world’s values; that the promise we rely on is one that will transform the world; that our hope and trust are in a Saviour who will be given to us, not in anything we can do ourselves*.

The symbolism of the antiphon is beautiful. We think of Jesus as the flower that blossoms on Jesse’s ancient stem and fills the whole world with its scent. Paul helps to articulate the theology underpinning it, especially in Romans 15. 8-13. He says Christ became a servant of the Jewish people to maintain God’s faithfulness by making good God’s promises to the patriarchs and by giving the gentiles cause to glorify God for his mercy. He quotes Isaiah also, for Christ is that scion of Jesse who will rule over the gentiles and in whom they will place their hope. The promise to Israel, the mercy shown to the gentiles, the hope we all share is freedom from sin and death and the enjoyment of eternal life made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. The Messiah for whom Israel has prayed and longed is become the Saviour of the World. All the jangling discordances of humanity are quieted, the divine harmony restored; but here on earth we have yet to experience the fullness of redemption. So we pray, ‘Come and free us; delay no longer!’

* That does not mean we need do nothing. On the contrary we must do all we can to bring about the Kingdom.

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