Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1117-1170)



The martyrdom of St Thomas from the St Thomas Altarpiece by Meister Francke,
commissioned in 1424 by the Guild of English Merchants in Hamburg

Born in London of a wealthy Norman family in 1117, Thomas was educated at Merton Abbey and in Paris. For a while he was a financial clerk; then he joined the staff of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also a close personal friend of King Henry II of England, and from 1155 served as his chancellor.

When Theobald died in 1162, Henry saw an opportunity to exercise control over the Church and detemined to have his chancellor elected to the Diocese. Thomas saw the dangers of the king’s plan and warned Henry that, if he became archbishop, his first loyalty would be to God and not the king. He told Henry, “Several things you do in prejudice of the rights of the Church make me fear that you would require of me what I could not agree to.” What Thomas feared soon came to pass.

In fact, following his consecration, Thomas, who had a real conversion to Christ, became a champion of the Church. To the surprise of all who knew him, he adopted a spiritual and austere way of life in near-monastic simplicity. He celebrated or attended Mass daily, studied Scripture, distributed alms to the needy, and visited the sick. He lived by Gospel values and rejected Henry’s claim of authority over the Church of England. Eventually he was sent into exile and spent six years in France. He decided that he had to return when the Archbishop of York and six other bishops crowned the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, in contravention of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rights and authority.

Returning to England with letters of support from the Pope, Thomas immediately excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the six other bishops. On Christmas Day 1170 he publicly denounced them from the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral. These were the actions that prompted Henry’s infamous angry words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Four knights took the king at his word and travelled to Canterbury where they slew Thomas. According to eyewitness accounts, Thomas processed calmly into the cathedral and refused to bar the doors against his attackers. When the four rushed in yelling, “Where is Thomas the traitor?”, he replied, “Here I am. No traitor, but a priest of God.” As the first blow was struck, he said, “For the name of Jesus and in defence of the Church, I am willing to die.” He was hacked to death between the altar of Our Lady and the altar of St Benedict.

All Europe was outraged by the murder of Thomas in his own cathedral at the behest of the king. Henry was universally condemned and forced to do public penance.

Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173.


PRAYER
O Lord God,
who gavest to thy servant Thomas Becket
grace to put aside all earthly fear
and be faithful even unto death:
grant that we, caring not for worldly esteem,
may fight against evil,
uphold thy rule,
and serve thee to our life’s end;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.



Monday, December 27, 2010

The Holy Innocents



The day after Christmas Day is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, reminding us that following Jesus has meant sacrifice and pain for some. Today, however, contrasts even more with the joy of Christmas, for we remember the blood flowing in the streets of Bethlehem as all the boys under two years of age were slaughtered by order of Herod the Great, the Governor of Galilee. He was an extremely cruel man. He killed a number of his wives and sons when he thought they were plotting against him. Every challenge to his power was met with a swift and final response. Threatened by the birth of a king prophesied in the Jewish scriptures, Herod - enraged by the "betrayal" of the Magi - ordered the killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years of age and younger.

Christians have always considered these baby boys to be martyrs. (As Bethlehem was a small town, the number of them was probably no more than 25.)

Here is a meditation on today's feast by scientist/ priest John Polkinghorne, from his book Living with hope: a scientist looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

HOLY INNOCENTS: THE BITTERNESS OF SUFFERING

Three days after the joyous Feast of Christmas comes the sad remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered at the command of the ruthless King Herod as he sought to protect himself from any threat to the tenure of his throne. If Jesus had not been born, and if the magi had not called in at Jerusalem in the course of their search for him, naively enquiring where the new King of the Jews had been born, those children would have lived on into adult life. The adoration of the magi and the slaughter of the innocents are opposite sides of the same coin. Those mothers weeping in Bethlehem are the shadow side of the Christmas story.

Holy Innocents Day sets before us, with peculiar intensity and sharpness, the strange character of this present world, with its mixture of joy and sorrow, promise and pain. We are glad indeed that the Christ child was born, but why did it have to be at the cost of the deaths of his tiny contemporaries? Why did God not intervene to stop the massacre of the innocents? Come to that, why did God not intervene to stop Auschwitz? One of the saddest sights of that terrible place is a room where the Nazi guards piled up shoes taken from those who were about to enter the gas chambers. Thousands of pairs are stacked there, each one representing some person whose life was untimely destroyed. Many of those shoes are children's shoes.

Before the mystery of suffering we necessarily fall silent. We can understand that God has given humans free will and that this means that it can be, and it is, exercised in ways that are totally contrary to the divine purpose. But the bitterness of suffering is too great to be assuaged by logical arguments of this kind, true though they are in their own way. If there is to be a theological response to the problem of suffering, it has to lie much deeper than that. I believe that the Christian response does indeed lie very deep, for it speaks of a God who is not simply a compassionate spectator of the travail of creation but One who, in the cross of Christ, has actually, participated in that suffering. God is truly a fellow sufferer with creation, for the Christian God is the crucified God. The life of the baby Jesus was saved by the flight into Egypt, but there was a cup waiting, prepared for him to drink, and when the time came, he drained it to the dregs.

Prayer
God of love, whose compassion never fails; we bring before thee the troubles and perils of peoples and nations, the sighing of prisoners and captives, the sorrows of the bereaved. the necessities of strangers, the helplessness of the weak, the despondency of the weary, the failing powers of the aged. 0 Lord, draw near to each; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
(St Anselm)

And here, from today's Office of Readings, is part of a sermon preached by St Quodvultdeus (died c. 450) a bishop of Carthage who had been taught by St Augustine of Hippo, and to whom St Augustine dedicated some of his writings. Quodvultdeus knew what it was to suffer for the Lord. He was exiled when Carthage was captured by the Arians. He and the bulk of his priests were loaded onto leaky, unseaworthy ships, and taken to Naples in Italy (c. 439), from where he then exercised a ministry of teaching and direction.

EVEN BEFORE THEY LEARN TO SPEAK, THEY PROCLAIM CHRIST

A tiny child is born, who is a great king. Wise men are led to him from afar. They come to adore one who lies in a manger and yet reigns in heaven and on earth. When they tell of one who is born a king, Herod is disturbed. To save his kingdom he resolves to kill him, though if he would have faith in the child, he himself would reign in peace in this life and for ever in the life to come.

Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.

You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself.

Yet your throne is threatened by the source of grace, so small, yet so great, who is lying in the manger. He is using you, all unaware of it, to work out his own purposes freeing souls from captivity to the devil. He has taken up the sons of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children.

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself. See the kind of kingdom that is his, coming as he did in order to be this kind of king. See how the deliverer is already working deliverance, the saviour already working salvation.

But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious. While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.

How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

What Now?




There is another part of the story that we do not often hear or tell. It is the part of the story when the angels stop singing and go back into heaven and the shepherds return to the fields. At some point Mary and Joseph will gather their things, pick up Jesus, and travel home to Nazareth. That is the part of the story that is often left untold. It is that part when everything looks like it did before the birth; when the manger is again empty, the night sky is again dark and silent, and the shepherds are again living in the fields keeping watch over their flocks. That does not, however, signal the end of Christmas. It is, rather, the beginning. Christmas really begins when we quit talking about the story and allow our lives to become the story . . .

Jesus' birth did not take the shepherds out of the fields or away from the sheep. Before Jesus was born they were shepherds living in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. After Jesus was born they were shepherds living in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. Jesus' birth does not allow us to escape the reality of our life and world. It is just the opposite. Jesus is born into the circumstances of our life and world. There is no place you go or circumstance you encounter in which Jesus is not being born. Look at your life. What do you see? Name the reality, whatever it might be, because that is a place in which Jesus is being born, a place where God's divinity meets your humanity.

He is born in the joys, celebrations, and thanksgivings of your life. He is born in the sorrow, losses, and griefs of your life. He is born in times of hopes and fears, in your words and in your silence. He is born in your successes and accomplishments as well as your failures and disappointments. He is born in times of heavenly transcendence as well as earthly immanence. The salvation of God's presence, love, and healing fills every aspect of your life.

So let the angels depart and the shepherds return to the fields. Let the sky become dark and silent. Let the Holy Family go home. Let Christmas become real. The manger of his birth is not in Bethlehem. Your life is the manger of Jesus' birth and that, as the angel says, is "good news of great joy."

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Message by Mother Basilea Schlink



Klara Schlink, was born at Darmstadt, Germany on 21st October 1904. After finishing school in Braunschweig and Darmstadt, she was educated at the Fröbelseminar in Kassel, and at the Inner missions girls' school in Berlin. In 1929 she became a teacher at the Mission House Malche in Bad Freienwalde (Oder) in German, psychology and church history. After matriculation in 1930 she studied psychology, art history and philosophy in Berlin and Hamburg. This study was completed by a religious-psychologic thesis about "Consciousness of Sin in adolescent girls and its significance for their battle of faith."

Some years later she was living in a badly bombed Germany with few resources, and came to believe she should repent for Germany's cruel treatment of other nations during the war, especially the Jews. On March 30, 1947, she and Erika Madauss founded The Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt. In 1948 both the founders and the first seven sisters became nuns; Klara took the name "Basilea".

The community dedicated itself to a Christian literature and radio ministry. Basilea was herself a prolific writer, her devotional books, pamphlets and hymns being translated into more than 60 languages.

The Sisterhood of Mary, initially Lutheran but now interdenominational, today numbers more than 200 women from 20 countries, with 14 men in the affiliated Canaan Franciscan Brothers. It has branched out from its centre in Germany, at Darmstadt near Frankfurt, to Australia, Israel and the United States, and the U.K. The Sisterhood publishes tracts in 90 languages and distributes them on all five continents, while its radio and television programmes are broadcast in 23 languages.

Mother Basilea died in Darmstadt on 21 March 2001.

This is a Christmas message written by Mother Basilea which can be downloaded in its original format HERE.

We were bestowed with a gift that offers us the solution to all our troubles - a Child born on Christmas Day, born to accomplish the purposes of God and bringing them to a wonderful outcome! A Child, upon whose shoulders the government will rest (Is.9:6). He will be Lord of the universe and bring peace and healing to all nations - this Child Jesus, who came into our world as the Son of God.

This is the message of Christmas. But does not real life present us with a different picture? Not Jesus, but His enemy is steadily gaining power. With ever increasing might the adversary is exerting his influence over men and nations. More and more the earth is being enveloped in darkness. Countless numbers of people are affected by the powers of darkness and no one seems able to check their advance. Yet all this is in fulfillment of the words of the Lord, "Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples" (Is. 60:2); injustice and lawlessness, chaos and the horrors of sin will gain the upper hand, and His own will be hated by all nations (Matt. 24).

Now at this crucial point in the history of mankind, the birth of Jesus is of the utmost significance. To Him and not to His enemy is given the future dominion - no matter how mighty the adversary may appear to be. The title, "Mighty Victor", is conferred upon Jesus - and not on the prince of darkness. Jesus' power lies in His lowliness, freely given out of love for us. This love led Him to Calvary where He was nailed to the cross. Meek as a lamb, the Almighty Son of God lay in the manger as a small, weak Babe, given into the hands of men; later, delivered up to the cruel hands of men, He hung on the cross.

Yet this humble, enduring love of Jesus is the very source of His victorious might. The Child Jesus grew up, performed signs and wonders, and proved Himself Lord over death. He rose from the grave and defeated Satan and hell. The Church of Jesus Christ was born.

Throughout the centuries, His own have experienced that He is truly the Mighty Victor as His name says. For ever anew Jesus has performed signs and wonders for those who believe in His name.

But more is said of this Child. "The government will be upon his shoulders." The dominion will not remain forever in the hands of the prince of this world and his followers who have assumed almost universal control. No, their reign during this last stage in the world's history will actually usher in the day when Jesus Christ will triumphantly take over all the kingdoms of the world. He will establish His kingdom of peace and salvation. Then, everything will be made new (Rev. 11:15). His victory over all the nations will be displayed. This Child is born under the prophecy that He would sit upon the throne of David and have a kingdom that will never end! (Luke 1:32f.)

Even now from heaven, Jesus is constantly at work. In apparent weakness He is preparing the victorious outcome of His purposes. He carries out His plans in the increasing darkness of our times.

At Christmas we behold the Child Jesus, so small and insignificant as He lies in the manger; but His smallness is the secret of His greatness and kingship, and His humility the key to His authority. He possesses all power and might, for He is the Son of God. In this small Child, lying on a bed of straw, we see the King of kings. He will be revealed in power and glory at His second coming.

What a joyful Christmas message this is in these dark days when the waves are raging, and sorrows and hardships try to weigh us down! Indeed, Christmas is a special reality in this very day and age. The Child Jesus has been born. Jesus has come into this world. He yearns to establish His kingdom in our hearts today. Whoever accepts His kingship will find himself immersed in peace and joy.

And so the Child Jesus, the Mighty Victor, calls us to His manger, longing to grant us His power and aid. Let us say to Him with believing hearts:

Dearest Child, You came to darkness,
Brought Your gleam to this earth's night,
For the world is ripe for judgment,
Helpless in its woeful plight.

Yet Your radiance shines the brighter
O'er our sinful misery,
And You lead mankind in triumph
Out of death to victory.

Dearest Child, You are so tiny,
Yet Your love flows mightily.
May the world now re-created
Follow Your humility.

Baby Jesus, little Monarch,
Ruler of this sinful world.
Safely in Your hands we'll shelter
When the judgment is unfurled.

With this comfort in our hearts, let us gather round the manger and worship the royal Child Jesus.

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of angels!
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Did the Church REALLY turn a pagan festival into Christmas . . . or was it the other way round?

I heard it again yesterday. A well-meaning TV commentator patronisingly telling us that he doesn't mind if Christians celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world; but as Christmas was not originally a Christian festival, why should we be allowed to complain if secularists and atheists want to return Christmas to it's pre-Christian character?

So, for those readers who have joined this blog since last year, it's time I referred again to the article by Dr Bill Tighe, an historian of note, who shows how the Ancient Romans actually copied the Christians!!!


William J. Tighe on the Story Behind December 25

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ's birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus' birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the "Birth of the Unconquered Sun" instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the "pagan origins of Christmas" is a myth without historical substance.

Go HERE for the rest of the article. It's a fascinating read, and it will resource you with something to say at all those (secular) parties and barbeques!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O EMMANUEL : God is with us

SOME OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND
Isaiah 7:14
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.


THE ANTIPHON
This is the old chant for "O Emmanuel". You can listen to it HERE.


O EMMANUEL,
our King and Lawgiver,
the Desire of all nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.


MASS READINGS:
Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; Luke 1:57-66


SOMETHING NEW
In the Bible people's names are very important. Names do not merely identify someone in a crowd. Biblical names tell us something about who that person is. "Isaac" means "he laughs"; the name "Isaac" echoes the laughter of Abraham and Sarah when they're told that the aged Sarah will have a child. The name "Israel" means "one who strives with God", and is given to Jacob after his night of wrestling with God. Jesus gives Simon a new name - "Peter", which means "Rock", a name as solid as the foundation of his confession of Jesus as the Messiah.

Today, Zechariah wants to name his son "John". The trouble is that Zechariah ignores the custom of naming a child after the father or grandfather. Zechariah was being obedient to the angel's message. However, the family responds in a way that any of us might: "We've never done it that way before."

Naming the child "John" points to the new thing that God is doing. "John" means "The Lord shows favour." As Zechariah sings in his canticle, a new day dawns. The Lord shows favour to all people. John will declare a new day dawning in Jesus Christ.

"We've never done it that way before" is precisely the point. As we move forward trusting in God, we, too, will see and experience new things in our lives by his grace.

Zechariah's song:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel :
for he hath visited and redeemed his people;
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us :
in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy Prophets :
which have been since the world began;
That we should be saved from our enemies :
and from the hands of all that hate us.
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers :
and to remember his holy Covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham :
that he would give us;
That we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies :
might serve him without fear;
In holiness and righteousness before him :
all the days of our life.
And thou, Child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest:
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people :
for the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God :
whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death :
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.


REX GENTIUM : King of all Nations

SOME OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND
Isaiah 9:7
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 2:4
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.


THE ANTIPHON
This is the old chant for "O Rex". You can listen to it HERE.

O KING OF NATIONS,
thou for whom they long,
the Cornerstone that makest them both one:
Come and save thy creatures
whom thou didst fashion from the dust of the earth.


MASS READINGS:
1 Samuel 1:24-28; 2:1,4-8; Luke 1:46-56


MY SOUL DOTH MAGNIFY THE LORD
Today's Gospel is the response Mary made to Elizabeth's acknowledgment of her blessedness. Mary's words are infused with expressions found in other Biblical canticles and songs which she clearly knew off by heart. On her lips, however, the words are imbued with a far deeper meaning than they had in the Old Testament. Mary's rejoicing begins with the stark acknowledgment that she is "saved by grace" ("my spirit hath rejoiced in God MY Saviour"). Incidentally, this is one of the truths that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception seeks to guard.

In union with Mary and the Church down through the ages we pray her song, "the Magnificat" every day at Evensong (or "Vespers"). The Church makes these words her own, singing exuberantly the song of Mary's rejoicing, and, incidentally, reminding ourselves that our only hope of salvation is God's grace.

With Mary - who is often said to have "foreshadowed" the Church - we bless and thank God for his loving-kindness and grace, and all the other blessing he has given us.

Mary is struck by her own lowliness before the immensity of God's power and greatness, for he has worked wonders. As we sing her song, we, too, will be humbled by that same power and greatness; most of all we will be smitten by his love.

We are approaching the end of Advent. Today Mary shows us the way. Mulling over her prayer in faith, humility and love, and making it our own by faith, will help us to be ready for the coming of Jesus.

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,
For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gabriel's Message

This carol has an unusual history. While it is based on a Basque carol (Birjina gaztettobat zegoen), its melody and words may actually have roots in the thirteenth or fourteenth century hymn Angelus Ad Virginem.

The Basque carol was copied down by French composer and musicologist Charles Bordes, who published it in an 1895 volume of Basque folk tunes. The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, best known for his hymn Onward Christian Soldiers and author of more than 100 books, took some liberties in translating the text and produced verses of great beauty.

The melody has a stately, yet angelic quality about it, having what some think is a more "spiritual" character than many of the perkier, more commercially fit Christmas carols. The theme has an almost ecstatic glow and seems quite the perfect match for its text about Mary and the angel Gabriel, about whose appearance to her ("His wings as drifted snow/His eyes as flame") Baring-Gould describes with some of his most striking poetry. This is a fine Christmas carol that deserves to be better known. (Adapted from Robert Cummings)



The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
'All hail', said he, 'thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favour'd Lady,
Gloria!

'For known a blessed Mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honour thee,
Thy son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
Most highly favour'd Lady,
Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her heard,
'To me be as it pleaseth God', she said,
'My soul shall laud and magnify His holy name,
Most highly favour'd Lady,
Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel the Christ, was born,
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
Most highly favour'd Lady
Gloria!


Monday, December 20, 2010

O ORIENS : O Dayspring

SOME OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND:
Isaiah 9:2
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

Isaiah 60:1-3
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.


THE ANTIPHON:
This is the old chant for "O Oriens". You can listen to it HERE.

O DAY-SPRING FROM ON HIGH,
Brightness of Eternal Light,
and Sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those
who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.


MASS READINGS:
Song of Songs 2:8-14, Luke 1:39-45


ANOTHER FOCUS
Most of us have realized at one time or another, no matter how fleetingly, that the solution to many of our personal problems may be found in just forgetting ourselves, more positively, in concentrating our attention and energy on someone else or on some good cause. Today we think of Mary - after her words of acceptance to the Angel - "making haste", climbing up into the hill country to share with her cousin Elizabeth (and John the Baptist discerning the sacredness of this Visitation from the vantage point of his mother's womb!). Possibly Mary went in order to share with Elizabeth what had happened to her; but undoubtedly she made that arduous journey so as to assist Elizabeth - a much older woman - in her pregnancy. We read that Mary stayed there for three months.

But what a visit! No wonder it has a feast day of its own in the middle of the year. Notice that the older woman says she is "honoured" with a visit from "the mother of my Lord."

It is also significant that Elizabeth says to Mary, "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (v.45). May we be known as children of Mary who always believe that the Lord will fulfil his word!

There is, of course, a sense in which the Church is foreshadowed in Mary's visit to Elizabeth. As Mary carried Jesus within her and brought great joy to her cousin, so our vocation is to bless others by bringing Jesus to them.

This beautiful prayer is very appropriate for today:

Almighty Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
you have revealed the beauty of your power
by exalting the lowly virgin of Nazareth
and making her the mother of our Saviour.
May the prayers of this woman
bring Jesus to a waiting world
and fill the void of incompletion
with the presence of her child,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.

"Be it done to me according to your word." (Mary)



I always look forward to this day, 20th December, because of the following passage from a sermon St Bernard (1090 -1153) that is read in The Divine Office. It captures the immensity of our Lady's fiat:

"You have heard that you shall conceive and bear a Son; you have heard that you shall conceive, not of man, but of the Holy Spirit. The angel is waiting for your answer: it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for the word of pity, even we who are overwhelmed in wretchedness by the sentence of damnation.

"And behold, to you the price of our salvation is offered. If you consent, straightway shall we be freed. In the Word of God were we all made, and lo! we die; by one little word of yours in answer shall we all be made alive.

"Adam asks this of you, O loving Virgin, poor Adam, exiled as he is from paradise with all his poor wretched children; Abraham begs this of you, and David; this all the holy fathers implore, even your fathers, who themselves are dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death; this the whole world is waiting for, kneeling at your feet.

"And rightly so, for on your lips is hanging the consolation of the wretched, the redemption of the captive, the speedy deliverance of all who otherwise are lost; in a word, the salvation of all Adam's children, of all your race.

"Answer, O Virgin, answer the angel speedily; rather, through the angel, answer your Lord. Speak the word, and receive the Word; offer what is yours, and conceive what is of God; give what is temporal, and embrace what is eternal.

"Why delay? Why tremble? Believe, speak, receive! Let your humility put on boldness, and your modesty be clothed with trust. Not now should your virginal simplicity forget prudence! In this one thing alone, O prudent Virgin, fear not presumption; for although modesty that is silent is pleasing, more needful now is the loving-kindness of your word.

"Open, O Blessed Virgin, your heart to faith; open your lips to speak; open your bosom to your Maker. Behold! The Desired of all nations is outside, knocking at your door. Oh! if by your delay he should pass by, and again in sorrow you should have to begin to seek for him whom your soul loves! Arise, then, run and open. Arise by faith, run by the devotion of your heart, open by your word. 'And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord : be it done to me according to your word.'"


Sunday, December 19, 2010

O CLAVIS : O Key of David

SOME OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND:
Isaiah 22:22
I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

Isaiah 9:6
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."


THE ANTIPHON:
This is the old chant for "O Key of David". You can listen to it HERE.

O KEY OF DAVID,
Sceptre of the house of Israel,
who openest and no man shutteth,
and shuttest and no man openeth;
Come and bring forth out of the prisonhouse
him that is bound.


MASS READINGS:
Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38


ON THE WINGS OF PRAYER:
We all know friends or relatives in difficult circumstances: struggling with cancer, separated from loved ones, depressed or discouraged, saddened by death or other losses. What can we say or do?

"I'll pray for you", "I'll remember you at Mass", or "I'll light a candle for you" are the kind of things we might say. To those without faith those expressions might mean very little. But when Christians promise to pray for others, our promise is based on what the Angel said to Mary: "Nothing is impossible with God" (better translated as "No word of God is lacking in power".

Speaking to Ahaz, God makes the same statement: "Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven." (Isaiah 7:11)

Mary models the kind of faith that makes "I'll pray for you" really mean something. In his sonnet, "The Lantern out of Doors", Gerard Manley Hopkins, speaks of his and our concern for friends who for various reasons are no longer within the reach of any good we can do. Where we can't go, he says, Christ follows and cares; in his words, Christ is "their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend." One of the lessons of Advent is persistence in prayer. Because we believe nothing is impossible for God, we trust that he can care for others and do for them good beyond our little conceptions.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

O RADIX JESSE : O Root of Jesse

SOME OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND
Isaiah 11:1
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

Isaiah 11:10
In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious.

Michah 5:1
Now you are walled about with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike upon the cheek the ruler of Israel.

Romans 15:8-13 should be read in this context:
I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will praise thee among the Gentiles, and sing to thy name"; and again it is said, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people"; and again, "Praise the Lord, all Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him"; and further Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope." May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Revelation 5:1-5 should also be read in this context:
I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, "Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.")


THE ANTIPHON:
This is the old chant for "O Root of Jesse". You can listen to it HERE.
MASS READINGS:
Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24


HIS DYNASTY WILL LAST FOREVER
The prophet Isaiah spoke words of hope in a hopeless situation for Israel. The Davidic dynasty had become corrupt and unfit for a Messianic King. Apostates like King Ahaz (2 Kings 16) and weaklings like Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38) occupied the throne of David. When God offered King Ahaz a sign, the king refused. God, nonetheless, gave Israel a sign to assure his people that he would indeed raise up a righteous King who would rule forever over the house of David.

We understand the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy and the unfolding of God's plan of redemption to begin with the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. This child to be born is the fulfillment of all God's promises.

As today's Gospel indicates, those who were to be used by God to bring his plan to pass required faith and trust in his promises, as well as considerable risk-taking. Mary and Joseph, therefore, are examples of faith for us.

We need to grow to the point of really believing the promises of God, especially when we are faced with perplexing circumstances and seemingly insurmountable problems. God has not left us alone; he has brought us his only begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Let us draw near with faith and take him at his word.

Friday, December 17, 2010

O ADONAI : O Lord

SOME OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND
Isaiah 11:4-5
With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.

Isaiah 33:22
The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.


THE ANTIPHON:
This is the old chant for "O Adonai". You can listen to it HERE.


O ADONAI,
Captain of the house of Israel,
who didst appear to Moses in the flame of the burning bush,
and gavest him the law on Sinai:
Come and deliver us with thine outsretched arm.


MASS READINGS:
Jeremiah 23:5-8; Matthew 1:18-25


HOME FROM EXILE:
Even people who like travelling say, "How good it is to be home." This is much more the case for those who have been forcibly driven out of their homes or even deported. In our own time we are familiar with the sight of wandering, homeless refugees.

In today's first reading, the prophet Jeremiah promises that God will give the Israelites a new king, a good king, unlike the previous ones who had been responsible for the people's hardships, including their exile. It is said of the new king that he will bring the house of Israel back from all the lands to which thy were banished. "They shall again live on their own land."

In celebrating the season of Advent, the Church helps us to come back home from our exile, our state of being away from God, of being lost in a world of greed, violence and selfishness.

No matter how well life goes for us, or how well adjusted to it we become, in this world we will always have a sense of exile from our true and lasting home. In fact our REAL exile is self-imposed whenever we try to organize our life around something other than the Lord Jesus Christ.

By using the Advent season to point us day after day to the coming of Jesus, the Church tries to make sure that we are focussed on our true home. That true home is, of course, life in eternity with God; yet that same life bursts in upon us here and now wherever Jesus is allowed to be king over our lives.

O SAPIENTIA : O Wisdom

THE LAST PART OF ADVENT
In the Church's traditional cycle of prayer, Evening Prayer, also called Vespers, always includes the great song of Mary known as the Magnificat. This song is preceded and followed by a short verse or "antiphon" that links it to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the Magnificat antiphons are very special. Each begins with the exclamation "O" and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the cry becomes increasingly urgent.

These "O Antiphons" were composed in the seventh or eighth century when monks put together some of the key Old Testament texts and phrases looking forward to our salvation. They form a rich, interlocking mosaic of Scriptural images; in the Middle Ages the custom grew of ringing the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.

A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin: the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS. These are understood as the words of Jesus, responding to his people's plea, saying "Tomorrow I will be there."

I have provided short reflections on the Scripture readings set for Mass on each of these days adapted from Homilies for Weekdays, by Don Talafous (Liturgical Press, 2005).

Of special note this year is the recently released recording of a haunting and beautiful setting of these Antiphons by the Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis (b. 1954) who began his work on them in 1995 but did not complete the set until 2003. They are for a double choir, and contain numerous overlaid harmonies. The music was recorded by the Royal Holloway Choir, conducted by Rupert Gough, at St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, in January 2010.

You can listen to Miskinis' O Antiphons HERE. (You will also find details of the other works on the CD and how to purchase it.)


O SAPIENTIA : O Wisdom

SOME OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND:
Isaiah 11:2-3
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear

Isaiah 28:29
This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom.


THE ANTIPHON:
This is the old chant for "O Sapientia". You can listen to it HERE.


O WISDOM,
that camest out of the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to another,
firmly and gently ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of understanding.


MASS READINGS:
Genesis 49:2, 8-10, Matthew 1:1-17


THAT FAMILY TREE:
In our personal reading of Scripture we are likely to skip over genealogies and assume there is nothing interesting in them. Matthew's genealogy, however, is very interesting. In this list of names, we see God's grace at work in ways we do not expect. The patriarchs are the first group of people mentioned. Not all of them were noble or saintly. Jacob, for example, stole his father's blessing, cheating his older brother. Israel's kings make up the next group. They reflect the best and the worst of human nature. Some are idolaters, murderers, and adulterers, like King David. Unknown people make up the third group. Yet God is at work among them. (It has often been pointed out, too, that the women in this genealogy have marital histories that include scandal and scorn.)

Jesus has an interesting family tree! It emphasises the work of God's grace in the flow of real history with real people, saints and sinners alike. It encourages us to look for signs of his grace in our lives.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

An EXTRA VERSE for "O Come, all ye Faithful", Honouring Our Lady

By now priests and their liturgically minded helpers are preparing for the great Christmas services, and in particular, Midnight Mass.

When I became Rector of the historic Anglo-Catholic "shrine church" of All Saints' Wickham Terrace (in Brisbane, Australia) in 1995, I had to adapt myself to a number of local liturgical customs, most of which, I hasten to add, were very moving and beautiful.

In particular it was no hardship to learn the "extra" verse of O Come all ye Faithful for the wonderful and joyous procession in connection with the blessing of the Crib at Christmas Midnight Mass. I've always been accustomed to pausing the hymn for a Collect when the procession reaches our Lady's Shrine; but I'd never seen this verse honouring our Lady before.

So, just in case you would like to use it, here is the entire hymn, with that verse added. And - in case you're looking for a suitable blessing of the crib in traditional liturgical English - it's here, too.


BLESSING OF THE IMAGE OF THE CHRIST CHILD
The choir sings: In the day of thy power shall the people offer the free-will offerings with an holy worship: the dew of thy birth is of the womb of the morning.

Priest: Our help is in the name of the Lord:
People: Who hath made heaven and earth.

Priest: The Lord be with you.
People: And with thy spirit.

Priest: Let us pray. O Almighty God, who hast given us the spirit of thy creative power to use for thy glory, and to inspire thy people with a greater devotion: Bless and sanctify this image of the infant Child, and grant that we, beholding this figure, may be so imbued by the infinite love and deep humility of this redemptive act, that we may bring forth the fruits of joy and service. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost one God, world without end. Amen.

The image of the Christ Child is sprinkled with holy water and incensed.

It is then carried in procession to the Crib and placed therein.


BLESSING OF THE CRIB
Priest: Let us pray. O Almighty God, who didst cause thine only-begotten Son to come down from heaven, and to be born of the blessed and glorious Virgin Mary for our salvation: vouchsafe, we beseech thee, thy blessing upon this Crib, where will be shewn forth the wonders of that sacred birth; that all they who, beholding the same, shall ponder and adore the mystery of his holy incarnation may be fulfilled with thy heavenly benediction unto life eternal. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.


PROCESSIONAL HYMN
Deacon: Let us proceed in peace.
All: In the name of Christ. Amen.

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord.

God of God,
Light of Light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin's womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created: O come . . .

See how the Shepherds,
Summoned to his cradle,
Leaving their flocks,
draw nigh with lowly fear;
We too will thither
Bend our joyful footsteps: O come . . .

Child, for us sinners
Poor and in a manger,
Fain we embrace thee, with awe and love;
Who would not love thee,
Loving us so dearly? O come . . .

Station at the Shrine of Our Lady
Priest: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
All: Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Priest: We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts: that, as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

The processional hymn resumes:
Hail to his Mother,
Mary most holy,
See how she cradles the Son of God.
Mother of mercies,
Mother of salvation: O come . . .

Sing, choirs of Angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above;
Glory to God
In the highest: O come . . .

Yea, Lord we greet thee,
Born this happy morning,
Jesu, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing: O come . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The other thing we did was to sing this verse - much more slowly but with grandeur and accompanied by the full organ - as an acclamation at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer just before the Our Father. The celebrant and his ministers would kneel before the Blessed Sacrament as it was sung:

Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
'Throned upon thine altar,
Jesu, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father,
Sacrament Most Holy: O come . . .



Michael Ramsey on the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ

The following is taken from a sermon preached on 2 Corinthians 13:12 by Archbishop Michael Ramsey at Trinity Church, New York City, on Sunday, October 14, 1962. Go HERE to read the full sermon.

Think how stupendous the words are: "the grace of Christ". That means nothing less than the personal impact of Christ Jesus Our Lord upon us, to make us quite different from what we were before. It means that here, this morning, we have in our midst the Lord Jesus very near to us, just as he was so near to those who saw Him in the towns and villages of Galilee, or by the lakeside, or in the streets of Jerusalem; and that He here and now can have the same effect upon us, that He had upon them. That is what His grace means. You know, perhaps, the old child's definition of grace, and I think it is impossible to improve upon it:-"Grace is the power Christ gives me to make me like Himself.”

And what were the effects that Christ first had upon those who encountered Him? There were some who felt very guilty on account of their sins, and He brought to them the assurance of forgiveness that lifted a load off their hearts, when He said, "go in peace and sin no more." And if that's you - if you are burdened with a feeling of guilt, be very sure that the absolution that Christ brings - that is, if you confess your sins and ask His forgiveness--can be real and overwhelming.

And there were those, alas, who did not realize their sinfulness, because they were just complacent about themselves; and His grace brought home to them the real state of their need, so that they could see themselves in the sight of God, and not just in the sight of their friendly and congratulating neighbours. And if that's you - and perhaps it is - be very sure that the grace of Christ can bring you to a sense of what you really are in the sight of God's love and righteousness, and beget in you a real contrition for your sinfulness and a longing for His pardon. That's another thing that the grace of Our Lord can do for you.

And then there were others who were filled with sorrow. Sorrow, fear and anxiety about themselves or about their friends or about the world was in their hearts. And Christ brought to them a Heavenly peace and joy; a peace and joy which He could give as a Heavenly gift, but the world and the world's environment could not possibly give to them. And if that is your case, and if that is your need, be sure that the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ can bring to you a supernatural joy and peace through the fixing of your will upon the Divine Will. Remember the great words of Dante: - "in His will is our peace." And in today’s Collect we have just been praying, "grant that Thy grace may prevent and follow us". Remember that grace means the personal presence of the Lord Christ with its great impact upon you. And would that when those words come, as they do at the end of so many of our services, "the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ", we realize that it means no less than that for us.