Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"Written in Red" - Father Alexander Tefft's homily

Seasoned readers of this blog know that every now and then I share with you a homily of Father Alexander Tefft, who I think is one of the truly great preachers of our age. Father Alexander serves the Antiochian Orthodox Parish of Saint Botolph, London, U.K., (the parish founded by the late Father Michael Harper). His homilies are uniquely powerful, both in their expression and their spiritual impact. Father Alexander comes from Toronto, Canada, and has lived in London for over ten years. He is the Assistant to the Dean of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of the British Isles and Ireland, the Theological Advisor to its Ordination Committee, and Chaplain of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. 

WRITTEN IN RED (based on Matthew 2.13-23 & 21.33-42) was preached last Sunday, 27th December, 2015

This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance (Matthew 21.38).

Red on gold, gold on white. Silver tinsel strews the floor. Slipping over scraps of tartan red, burnt gold, and soiled white wrapping, a Brussels sprout boiled spongy-grey slides into a pile of discarded cards. Wishbone of a turkey carcass, paper-dry glob of gristle. A chunk of lard and a crushed cranberry cling to cracked glass. Shard from a star, half-broken, swept from the floor. Placed wobbling, atop a tree. ‘Never mind’, you say. Setting red ink to gold bond. ‘Thanks ever so much, Olivia, for the lovely hyacinth blue lip gloss’. Never mind the tear in her little girl’s eye, her mother placing her in front of the dinner guests: ‘Bad girl, a bad, bad girl. No gifts from Father Christmas this year’. Behind her, barely visible, shadow of a small boy’s face. All caked with dirt. ‘Thank you, so much, dear Nigel, for the Pure Chronos DAB digital radio’. Never mind the fluffy bundle out by the bin. A puppy’s neck twisted, curly hairs wet with leaves and mud. A lesson to teach him to be good. Almost invisible, an armless figure, neck twisted, overshadows the sobbing boy. Gold ink on bond, you scribble a third note. ‘Dear Jack, many thanks for the Max Mara silk mikado dress’. Never mind that twelve year old girl, wriggling under his gropings below the mistletoe. Shadow of a child, spine snapped, resting a tiny hand on her shoulder. ‘Never mind. Never mind’, you repeat, straining to read red letters on white. Shut your eyes. It will all go away.

Grinding your teeth, stopping your ears, you force a chilly grin across a stiff jaw. ‘Christmas peace and joy, joy and peace. Our inheritance. Above all, at Christmastime. If to keep that one must sometimes look away …’ But for every tear from every tortured child ignored …

Out of a memory repressed rises another child’s shadow. Above all, at Christmastime.

What is Christmas to you? Tinsel and tassels, punch and pine? No winter’s wild laments, no cruel frost blazing its trail across the night sky. Leaving the moon fiery clear. Too clear. Our customary Christmas, you ponder, our inheritance. A soft, misty vapour hanging heavy over a village green. Creeping cosy-quiet into the nooks and crannies of an old stone church in the square. Snowy surplice atop a red cassock, a boy soprano’s note wafts woolly on the breeze … and you are in Royal David’s City. What do you see? Horse-and-cart, clambering over the bridge, waving cheerfully to the blue-eyed boy in the stable? On the hill, a legionary draws a short sword. First one, then another. Soon, dark-eyed women run in from the fields around Bethlehem. Bundles in arms. Hidden in the earthenware jar, a two year old’s face caked in dirt. A newborn’s neck twisted, curly hair wet with rain leaves and mud. Tossed off a rooftop, a spine soft and snapped. The small dimpled body left bleeding, arms pruned at the root. The women bite at soldiers’ wrists … and blades rise up from cradles, wet with blood. Do you see? Or look away? Stop your ears, shut your eyes. Hum a harmonious carol to your anaesthetised heart. Then every child shamed, scarred, abused politely disappears.

Only Rachel still weeps for her children. Every child-martyr, reaching out its hands to you.

Slipping over scraps of discarded dogmas, paper-dry sermons on how to ‘be good’, and the red-white banners at the country Christmas fair, a Christianity boiled spongy-grey slides into oblivion. A gospel of tinsel and trivia, of discretion – that is, denial. Eyes foggy in the mists of candles can make out the holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Not the Child who stands evergreen amid the biting snow. Ears dulled by the cackle of carollers only hear the gossip of the dinner guests. Not a child’s pitiful cry. Heard by the Child in the cave. The Heir himself, as helpless as they. He who is born at this time to claim his inheritance …

Not in glittering gold or wondrous white – but in the red of a martyr’s blood.

Blood rushing, hearts pounding, they hear him out. Crafty, cold eye, chilly grin of irony. Grey beards of the synagogue, soiled with gristle and gossip. When they argue, mists of memory rise up from vapid ponds. Evasive answers, vain formulas well-rehearsed. When he argues, fire burns bright. Too bright. Bright as a seraph’s wings. Paid witnesses testify: ‘This young man speaks against the custom of our forefathers, our inheritance!’ ‘Brethren and fathers’, says the young man dressed in white. ‘Did not Abraham leave the old customs behind and go to a land of new promise? Have you kept the promise? When the Transcendent sent us prophets to challenge you, did you not beat one, kill another, stone a third? And when God sent his Heir, did you not kill him – and claim his inheritance? You stiff-necked, stiff-jawed, grinning cowards, how long will you look away?’ Grinding teeth, stopping up ears (as pious folk are wont to do), one picks up a rock. One, then another. Under a hail of stones, fervent Stephen shouts: ‘I see the heavens opening and at the right hand of God, the Son of Man!’ As the last stone cracks his brow, he raises his eyes. ‘Lord Jesus’, the dying martyr gasps, ‘lay not this terrible sin against them’. His last gaze fixes on the ringleader, that young rabbi from Tarsus, whose eyes shine furious and confused … but never look away.

A fierce young fanatic named Saul. Who will change his name. And his life.

Beloved in Christ: setting red ink to gold as you sign a thank you note, mutter your mindless ‘never mind’ – if the only peace that you seek is old Herod’s peace. Purchased at the price of a cradle, dripping with milk and blood. Mumble ‘never mind’ – if the only joy that you dare to expect is chilly nostalgia and icy denial. Shut your eyes and block your ears – if Christmas means no more than hiding from whatever pinches a nerve or pierces a heart. But if a Child, born in the cave of his death, is Life himself …

Then dance with the martyrs on the Feast of Stephen.

Bright moon, cruel frost, and winter’s rage will not freeze your blood, if your heart can break with every child tortured and every martyr crowned. The Dayspring from on high dawns, cloudless and clear. If red blood spilt for the sake of a newborn Child waters the gardens of our God. A closed ear cannot hear the crackle of your fiery footprints in the white. A closed eye cannot make out the word ‘Peace’, inscribed on spotless ice and crisp, clean snow.

Little wonder. It is written in red.

Holy First Martyr Stephen and all ye innocent children of Bethlehem, pray to God for us!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The blood that flowed in Canterbury

The Assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, 1170
Hulton Archive/Getty Images Credit

It was July 1998, and I was one of two Australians on the international Forward in Faith team working on the edge of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. One of the highlights of the month for me was being able to experience a wonderful production of T.S. Eliot's play, MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL, by "Group 81" (a Canterbury based theatre company). In the context of the emotional and spiritual highs and lows of the Lambeth Conference itself, reflecting (even then) the greatly troubled Anglican world, it is difficult to overstate the impact of "Murder in the Cathedral" on many of us, especially given the venue - the Crypt of the Cathedral itself!

Thomas Becket was born in London, studied in Paris, and became Chancellor to the King. When he was chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 he underwent a conversion experience and from being "a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds" became a true "shepherd of souls." He absorbed himself in the duties of his new office, even defending the Church's rights against Henry II. For this he was exiled to France for six years. Upon his return he endured many trials and was murdered by command of the King.

Go HERE for a more detailed outline of St Thomas Becket’s story.

The following is from T.S. Eliot's play. It is the Christmas Day sermon preached by Becket days before his martyrdom. Eliot at his best:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate on the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men"; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overcome by mourning or mourning will be cast out by joy; so that it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. But think for a while on the meaning of this word "peace." Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples: "My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you." Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember that He said also, "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you." So then, He gave to his disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The blood that flowed in Bethlehem

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 many. Today, however, contrasts even more with the joy of Christmas, for we are confronted with 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. History tells us that he was an extremely cruel man in a cruel age. In fact, 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. (As Bethlehem was a small town, it is often thought that there would have been about 25 of them.)

Christians have always considered these baby boys to be martyrs. Today we are reminded of just how routine martyrdom has been in different periods of Church history, and also how many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the trouble-spots of the world face the very real prospect of martyrdom today. May the lives WE live, the choices WE make, as well as the outward behaviour of our Churches in relation to the values of the world, not betray all those who have given their lives as martyrs for the Gospel and the Faith once delivered to the Saints. 

O God, whom the Holy Innocents confessed
and proclaimed on this day,
not by speaking but by dying,
grant, we pray,
that the faith in you which we confess with our lips
may also speak through our manner of life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (Today's Collect)

Here is a meditation on today’s commemoration by scientist/ priest John Polkinghorne, from his book Living with Hope: a Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

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.

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 spiritual direction.

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.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Was there a baby in the manger?

In light of a Church of England survey that found that as many as 4 in 10 British people don’t believe Jesus was a real person, Australian historian John Dickson explains why the academy is in no such doubt that Jesus existed. With his colleagues at the Centre for Public Christianity (in Sydney), Simon Smart and Justine Toh, he also discusses the meaning and significance of the Christmas story today – in other words, why it absolutely matters that there was a baby in the manger.

This audio is from the Website of the Centre for Public Christianity which you can visit HERE.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O EMMANUEL

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.

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

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

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

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.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O REX GENTIUM

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O ORIENS

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.

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

Brightness of Eternal Light, 
and Sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those
who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

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

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.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O CLAVIS DAVID

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."

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

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.

Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38 

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 19, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O RADIX JESSE

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 
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 
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.")

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

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 18, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O ADONAI

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. 

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

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.

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

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.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Today's Advent Antiphon: O SAPIENTIA

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. 

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

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.

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

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 and in those around us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Second part of Advent: the "O Antiphons"

In the Church's traditional cycle of prayer, Evening Prayer, also called Vespers, always includes the great song of Mary known as the Magnificat (luke 1:46-55). 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."

For the remainder of Advent I will provide the day's "O Antiphon" as well as a short reflections on the Scripture readings set for the day's Mass, adapted from Homilies for Weekdays, by Don Talafous (Liturgical Press, 2005).

Of special note is the 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.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

North Korea to allow ‘regular’ visits by South’s Catholic priests

A friend drew my attention to this report in the Japan Times of Monday last week describing a mission initiative, and, indeed, a wonderful breakthrough, for Christians in North Korea. 

South Korean Archbishop Kim Hui-jung speaks at a press conference in Seoul 
on December 7, 2015 after his recent trip to North Korea. 

Changchung Cathedral in Pyongyang, North Korea 

SEOUL – South Korea’s Catholic Church said Monday it had reached an agreement with North Korea to send priests there on “a regular basis,” seeking an opening in a country with a long history of tight religious control.

The agreement, which should see priests leading services in Pyongyang on major holy days starting next year, followed a visit to the North Korean capital by South Korean bishops last week.

Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Catholic Association (KCA) has no ties with the Vatican and is often referred to as the “Church of Silence” by Catholics in the South.

Although religious freedom is enshrined in the North’s constitution, all religious activity is subject to extremely tight restrictions and completely banned outside of state-sanctioned institutions.

There is no resident Catholic priest anywhere in the country and just one Catholic church building in Pyongyang, Changchung Cathedral. Experts say it holds no confessions, baptisms or any other sacraments.

The South’s Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Korea (CBCK) said in a statement that priests from the Seoul Archdiocese will visit the cathedral “on major holy days each year and hold a Mass on a regular basis.”

CBCK spokesman Lee Young-sik said the first visit is scheduled for Easter next March.

“And then we will iron out details on how frequently they would visit and lead a mass there,” Lee said.

The KCA claims there are 3,000 Catholics in the country, while the U.N. estimates around 800.

In the early 20th century, Pyongyang was a regional missionary hub with scores of churches and a thriving Christian community that earned it the title of “Jerusalem of the East.”

For North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, Christianity threatened his monopoly on ideology and had to be effectively eradicated, a goal he reportedly achieved with executions and labor camps.

The current regime allows Catholic organizations to run aid projects in North Korea, but direct relations with the Vatican are nonexistent.

When Pope Francis visited South Korea last year, he held a special Mass in Seoul dedicated to reunification of the two Koreas.

“All Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people,” the pope said in an address that was cloaked in a religious context and avoided any overt political statement or mention of religious oppression in the North.