Friday, December 30, 2016

Thomas Becket and Henry II - a very human story

The site of St Thomas Becket's martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral

Here is an article by Renée D. Roden on St Thomas Becket that seeks to fill out the background of the characters involved in the saga that led to Becket's martyrdom through the eyes of  of Peter Glenville’s film "Becket" (1964). The article is from the website of the CHURCH LIFE JOURNAL, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA. Glenville's film goes for nearly two and a half hours and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube HERE. 

“I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man”
—Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot[i]

Thomas Becket, whose feast of martyrdom is observed today, is a highly celebrated figure of English Christianity, commemorated in painting, verse, and drama since his 12th century assassination.

The story of Thomas Becket’s unlikely rise to Archbishop of Canterbury is chronicled in Peter Glenville’s film Becket (1964). Although it tells the story of Becket’s martyrdom, the heart of Glenville’s tale is Becket’s friendship with Henry; he frames the film with scenes of Henry II at Becket’s tomb, addressing his deceased friend. Becket sets up a medieval buddy movie, which is ruined by God.

There is, of course, more to Thomas Becket’s story than simply his friendship with King Henry II. But the particular sacrifice of friendship, love, and loyalty that the film paints is a striking hue of Becket’s portrait, and a touching testament to the singular witness that friendship plays in the life of faith.

The film starts with the puerile shenanigans of Becket and King Henry II, carousing throughout the night, making mincemeat of the clergy in the council chambers, and hunting (women) in every corner of merry old England.

Throughout these exploits, Henry barks out commands, shouting at peasants and courtiers alike, a petulant child and snarling lion. But this willful monarch acknowledges the quiet moral force that Becket exerts upon him. Reflecting on what Thomas has done to him, Henry muses that he was once, “a machine made for belching and whoring, and punching heads. What did you put in mine, Thomas, that stopped the machine?” Thomas’ witness has complicated Henry’s life, and transformed him.

Becket is content to pander to his king and protect the victimized citizens on the sly, until Henry appoints him Archbishop of Canterbury. “If the mitre is on his head, he will no longer be on your side,” says Becket, prophetically, of the role of bishop. In that mitre, the laconic, ironic Becket finds a deeper allegiance than to the crown, and a greater love. Becket declares in prayer, his new role is “like going on a holiday: I’ve never enjoyed so much in my whole life.” He has found a God who is not “a sad God after all,” but who has filled him with a joy lacking in his debaucherous escapades with Henry.

In serving God, Becket finds he can no longer be a slave to his friend’s every whim, but can only bend to the will of the earthly king when it aligns with that of the Heavenly King’s. When Henry opposes the Church, Becket must ever be a challenge to Henry. This is a surprise to Henry. He appointed Becket archbishop specifically to have a friend in the role of that crucial clerical ally. The sting of Becket’s betrayal is not just that of another clergymen opposing Henry’s agenda, it is the bitter betrayal of the friend who is always in your corner suddenly squaring off against you in the ring.

Becket’s conversion—turning away from Henry and towards God—is a bitter medicine for Henry to swallow. “No one on this earth have ever loved me, except Becket!” he roars, pacing about in his chambers like a caged lion. He feels the absence of Becket’s friendship and companionship keenly, and duly seeks to make Becket feel it as well. He cannot forgive Becket for “preferring God to him.” But, even in his rage, his love for his friend continues. “I’d give my life away, laughing, for you, Thomas,” cries Henry, pained, because he cannot see why Becket will not do the same (or, rather than giving his life away, simply giving Henry his way).

While not all of us respond like Henry, I think there are friends who are a Becket to us in our lives. There are friends who love us unconditionally, friends who understand us, who are so simpatico with us they know our thoughts better than we do. They are the friends with whom conversation is hours of congenial agreement, of repeating the same truth forward, backwards, inside out, tossing it back and forth, examining its mirrored shards in our differing experiences, exploring the delight of a shared vision of the world together. They are the friends that C.S. Lewis describes as greeting each other with: “You too? I thought I was the only one.” They are the friends who teach us no man is an island, and can even be a fellow, cherished, pilgrim. They are the friends who, in the words of Henry: “gave me, with open hands, everything that is at all good in me.”

Think, then, of the power that these friends have when they contradict us. Expecting to embark on another conversation of mutual agreement, I launch into a complaint about a co-worker (he’s so dramatic!! This thing she did was absolutely uncalled for; any reasonable person could see this!!) and am instead greeted with a defense of the offending person, and a reminder of the broader truth of their humanity. When a bosom friend takes the side of a perceived enemy, when they call us to charity in the midst of our self-absorption, their words have immense power. The supportive friend who denies you affirmation of your opinion, and instead offers a challenge is a Becket.

The friends who challenge our pre-conceived notions, who push us to examine the world more deeply, who pose an obstacle to our comfortable clinging to our habits of being are Beckets. These are the friends who offer us an opportunity to encounter the great Other-ness of God, who are proof positive Truth is broader than our own experiences. Conversation with God is not always a conversation of congenial agreement, but often an encountering of contradictions. A friend like Becket forces us to confront the fact that God is not simply a convenient buttress to our pet opinions, or a pillar to support our own worldview. A friend can mirror the action of God, as a stone thrown at our edifice of self, crumbling our carefully constructed ramparts with the inconvenient force of Truth.

“The martyr,” writes a successor of Becket’s, Rowan Williams, “dies in the affirmation of God’s lordship—the affirmation that God is the ultimate value to be loved and served.” [ii]

And who can remind us better of this truth, whose witness sings the loudest, than the holy rebellion of those we consider most intimate to us? When those most loyal to us show their true allegiance lies elsewhere, it causes us to question who we ultimately serve. Am I God’s good servant above all else, or am I affirming no one’s lordship but my own?

A friend who is a fellow pilgrim on the road to God is dear, and a friend who is a sometimes-stumbling block on the easy, blind road of self-absorption is doubly dear. The witness of friends like Becket prompts us to examine whose law we live by, and whose love impels us to die to self.

[i] T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral. Faber and Faber: London., p. 276.

[ii] Rowan Williams. Resurrection. The Pilgrim Press: New York. 1984., p. 57.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Holy Innocents' Day and Martin Scorsese's "Silence"

The day after Christmas Day is the feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, reminding us that following Jesus has meant pain and sacrifice for some. Then the 27th December is the feast of St John, Apostle and Evangelist, whose teaching on the Incarnation lies at the very heart of our faith. Today we remember the blood flowing in the streets of Bethlehem as all the boys under two years of age (the "Holy Innocents") were slaughtered by order of Herod the Great, the Governor of Galilee. This Herod 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. (It is thought that on account of Bethlehem being 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.

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 inquiring 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)

I was thinking about these things this morning when checking out Pope Francis' message to the large Taizé youth pilgrimage to Riga. It is HERE and well worth reading. But on the same site is a fairly devastating review by bishop Robert Barron of Martin Scorsese film "Silence." The film is about the suffering and martyrdom that accompanied the original Jesuit missions to Japan. But it is hard to avoid the questions raised by Barron about how Christians seeking a more comfy life can be prone to justify unholy compromise with the prevailing culture (let the reader understand!). I have reproduced Bishop Barron's review here:

I have long been an ardent fan of Martin Scorsese’s films. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, The Last Waltz, Casino, etc. are among the defining movies of the last 40 years. And  The Departed, Scorsese’s 2007 crime drama, was the subject matter of the first YouTube commentary that I ever did. It is certainly the case, furthermore, that the director’s Catholicism, however mitigated and conflicted, comes through in most of his work. His most recent offering, the much-anticipated Silence, based upon the Shusaku Endo novel of the same name, is a worthy addition to the Scorsese oeuvre. Like so many of his other films, it is marked by gorgeous cinematography, outstanding performances from both lead and supporting actors, a gripping narrative, and enough thematic complexity to keep you thinking for the foreseeable future.

The story is set in mid-17th century Japan, where a fierce persecution of the Catholic faith is underway. To this dangerous country come two young Jesuit priests (played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield), spiritual descendants of St. Francis Xavier, sent to find Fr. Ferreira, their mentor and seminary professor who, rumor has it, had apostatized under torture and actually gone over to the other side. Immediately upon arriving onshore, they are met by a small group of Japanese Christians who had been maintaining their faith underground for many years. Due to the extreme danger, the young priests are forced into hiding during the day, but they are able to engage in clandestine ministry at night: baptizing, catechizing, confessing, celebrating the Mass. In rather short order, however, the authorities get wind of their presence, and suspected Christians are rounded up and tortured in the hopes of luring the priests out into the open. The single most memorable scene in the film, at least for me, was the sea-side crucifixion of four of these courageous lay believers. Tied to crosses by the shore, they are, in the course of several days, buffeted by the incoming tide until they drown. Afterwards, their bodies are placed on pyres of straw and they are burned to ashes, appearing for all the world like holocausts offered to the Lord.

In time, the priests are captured and subjected to a unique and terrible form of psychological torture. The film focuses on the struggles of Fr. Rodrigues. As Japanese Christians, men and women who had risked their lives to protect him, are tortured in his presence, he is invited to renounce his faith and thereby put an end to their torment. If only he would trample on a Christian image, even as a mere external sign, an empty formality, he would free his colleagues from their pain. A good warrior, he refuses.  Even when a Japanese Christian is beheaded, he doesn’t give in. Finally, and it is the most devastating scene in the movie, he is brought to Fr. Ferreira, the mentor whom he had been seeking since his arrival in Japan. All the rumors are true:  this former master of the Christian life, this Jesuit hero, has renounced his faith, taken a Japanese wife, and is living as a sort of philosopher under the protection of the state. Using a variety of arguments, the disgraced priest tries to convince his former student to give up the quest to evangelize Japan, which he characterized as a “swamp” where the seed of Christianity can never take root.

The next day, in the presence of Christians being horrifically tortured, hung upside down inside a pit filled with excrement, he is given the opportunity, once more, to step on a depiction of the face of Christ. At the height of his anguish, resisting from the depth of his heart, Rodrigues hears what he takes to be the voice of Jesus himself, finally breaking the divine silence, telling him to trample on the image. When he does so, a cock crows in the distance. In the wake of his apostasy, he follows in the footsteps of Ferreira, becoming a ward of the state, a well-fed, well-provided for philosopher, regularly called upon to step on a Christian image and formally renounce his Christian faith. He takes a Japanese name and a Japanese wife and lives out many long years in Japan before his death at the age of 64 and his burial in a Buddhist ceremony.

What in the world do we make of this strange and disturbing story? Like any great film or novel, Silence obviously resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation. In fact, almost all of the commentaries that I have read, especially from religious people, emphasize how Silencebeautifully brings forward the complex, layered, ambiguous nature of faith. Fully acknowledging the profound psychological and spiritual truth of that claim, I wonder whether I might add a somewhat dissenting voice to the conversation? I would like to propose a comparison, altogether warranted by the instincts of a one-time soldier named Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order to which all the Silence  missionaries belonged. Suppose a small team of highly-trained American special ops was smuggled behind enemy lines for a dangerous mission. Suppose furthermore that they were aided by loyal civilians on the ground, who were eventually captured and proved willing to die rather than betray the mission. Suppose finally that the troops themselves were eventually detained and, under torture, renounced their loyalty to the United States, joined their opponents and lived comfortable lives under the aegis of their former enemies. Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors?

My worry is that all of the stress on complexity and multivalence and ambiguity is in service of the cultural elite today, which is not that different from the Japanese cultural elite depicted in the film. What I mean is that the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright. Revisit Ferreira’s speech to Rodrigues about the supposedly simplistic Christianity of the Japanese laity if you doubt me on this score. I wonder whether Shusaku Endo (and perhaps Scorsese) was actually inviting us to look away from the priests and toward that wonderful group of courageous, pious, dedicated, long-suffering lay people who kept the Christian faith alive under the most inhospitable conditions imaginable and who, at the decisive moment, witnessed to Christ with their lives. Whereas the specially trained Ferreira and Rodrigues became paid lackeys of a tyrannical government, those simple folk remained a thorn in the side of the tyranny.

I know, I know, Scorsese shows the corpse of Rodrigues inside his coffin clutching a small crucifix, which proves, I suppose, that the priest remained in some sense Christian. But again, that’s just the kind of Christianity the regnant culture likes: utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless.  So okay, perhaps a half-cheer for Rodrigues, but a full-throated three cheers for the martyrs, crucified by the seaside.


Friday, December 23, 2016

O EMMANUEL (O God with us)

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

Listen HERE

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.

Almighty ever-lasting God,
as we discern the Nativity of your Son
according to the flesh drawing near,
we beseech thee that mercy may flow from thy Word
to us, thy unworthy servants,
for he become flesh of the Virgin Mary
to establish his dwelling among us,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

O REX GENTIUM (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.

Listen  HERE

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, salvation by grace alone 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 we even say has "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. And, as we do each evening, let us make her great song of praise our own:

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.

O God, who, seeing man fallen into death,
hast desired to redeem him
by the coming of thy Only Begotten Son,
grant, we beseech thee,
that they who profess his Incarnation with humble devotion
may come to know him as their Redeemer.
Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

O ORIENS (O Dayspring)

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

 Listen HERE

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

Most of us have realized at one time or another, however fleetingly, that the solution to many of our personal problems can 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 contemporary  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.

We beseech thee, O Lord,
that of thy loving kindness
thou wouldest hearken unto to the prayers of thy people,
that those who rejoice at the coming
of thy Only-begotten Son in our flesh
may, when he cometh in his glory,
receive the reward of eternal life.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee
in the unity of the Holy Ghost,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

O CLAVIS (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.

Listen HERE

Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38 

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.

From the first generation, the Christian community (taught by Jesus himself see Luke 24) has understood the real and ultimate 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. Indeed, this child 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.

Looking at the response of Mary to the angel, we think of friends or relatives in difficult circumstances: struggling with cancer, separated from loved ones, depressed or discouraged, grieving the death of a loved one, or experiencing 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 Christians say. To some without faith those expressions might mean very little, while others are deeply grateful. The thing is that 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".

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.

O God, eternal majesty, whose ineffable Word
the immaculate Virgin received through the message of an Angel
and so became the dwelling-place of divinity,
filled with the light of the Holy Spirit,
grant, we beseech thee, that by her example
we may in humility hold fast to thy will.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

* * * * * * * * * *

And here is a wonderful passage from a sermon of St Bernard (1090-1153) which captures the immensity of our Lady's fiat:

"You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

"The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

"Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. 

"It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

"Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

"Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

"Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word." 

Ex Homilíis sancti Bernárdi abbátis in Láudibus Vírginis Matris (Hom. 4, 8-9: Opera omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 4 [1966], 53-54)

Monday, December 19, 2016

O RADIX JESSE (O Root of Jesse)

who standest for an ensign of the people, 
before whom kings shall shut their mouths, 
to whom the nations shall seek:
Come and deliver us and tarry not.

Listen HERE

Judges 13:2-7, 24-25; Luke 1:5-25

God loves us as a people, but he also knows us by name. He cherishes us. he loves us. Sometimes he leads us into the desert so as to speak to our hearts. By the power of his Spirit, he transforms us if we are open to being drawn more deeply into his love, and fulfilling the purpose for our lives. In today’s Gospel, we see old Zechariah - possibly trudging along, a bit world weary. The text says that he and Elizabeth were "righteous before God" and obeyed the commandments. But they were childless. Reading between the lines, it seems that Zechariah is bit set in his ways, and not really prepared in his heart to receive God’s message, which is why he needs such angelic encouragement! (How often are we just trudging along spiritually, perhaps dwelling on the disappointments of our lives, and not open to God for him to do some new thing in us, through us, or for us!). 

It has been said that God gave Zechariah two gifts: the gift of a son, and the gift of silence. This period of silence must have been difficult for Zechariah, but it was what he needed in order to get ready for what God was going to do, and to receive God’s love more fully. 

We are fast approaching Christmas. Whether we have had a good Advent or a difficult one, we can still still make some time for silence this week. There is still time for God to make us us into people who will receive Jesus with joyful expectancy this Christmas.

O God, who through the child-bearing of the holy Virgin
didst reveal unto the world
the radiance of thy glory;
grant, we beseech thee,
the grace to cherish with sound faith
and always to celebrate with due reverence
the mystery of so wondrous an Incarnation.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


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.

Listen HERE

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

Even people who like travelling say, "How good it is to be home." How much more is this true of those who have been forcibly driven out of their homes or even deported. At this point in the world's history, there are more wandering, homeless refugees than ever.

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 whose behaviour 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 they were banished. "They shall again live on their own land." 

In her celebration of the Advent season, the Church calls us back home from our exile, our state of being away from God, of being lost in a world of greed, violence and selfishness.

The other side of this for us is that 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.

Day after day during the Advent season the Church points us to the coming of Jesus, to make sure that we are focussed on our true home. That true home is, of course, life in eternity with God. The paradox we live between the first and second comings of Jesus is that that same life bursts in upon us here and now wherever Jesus is allowed to be king over our lives.

Grant, we beseech thee, almighty God,
that we, who are weighed down from of old
by slavery beneath the yoke of sin,
may be set free
by the newness of the long-awaited Nativity
of your Only Begotten Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
world without end. Amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


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.

 Listen HERE

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. Four very unlikely women, who between them have marital histories that include immorality, scandal and scorn, make up the third group: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Unknown people make up the fourth group. Yet God is at work among them all. 

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

O God, Creator and Redeemer of human nature,
who desired thy Word to take flesh
in an ever-virgin womb,
look with favour on our prayers,
that thine Only-Begotten Son,
having taken to himself our humanity,
may grant us a share in his divinity.
Who liveth and reigneth with thee
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. Amen.

* * * * * * * * * *

The artwork featured on these days of the O Antiphons is by Esther Bley. 
Her website is:

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Advent "O Antiphons"

Here is a reflection on our "Advent yearning", adapted from Matthew Woodley's Devotions for Advent (p. 10):

Advent ignites a deep longing in our hearts. Before we rush into “Happy Holidays,” we pause and let that longing rise up within us, and we catch glimpses of a better world.

We catch glimpses of a Messiah-healed world, and long for its coming now. The best of our Advent hymns capture this spirit of groaning and longing for Messiah’s better world. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” with its dark, unresolved melody, cracks our hearts open with longing’s wound. Yet, we know Messiah has come, even as we wait for him to come again. Advent is a deliciously painful mix of expectant joy and anguish.

Advent longing is at the heart of Christian spirituality. Augustine’s Latin phrase desiderium sinus cordis -”yearning makes the heart grow deep”- became a central theme in his pilgrimage on earth. Augustine cried out, “Give me one who yearns . . . give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean.”

C.S. Lewis claimed that in this life the Advent-like stab of longing serves as a spiritual homing device, placed deep in our hearts by God to lead us back to him. Thus, as Psyche realizes in Till We Have Faces, “It almost hurt me . . . like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home . . . The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing . . . to find the place where all the beauty came from . . . The longing for home.”

Advent trains us to ache again. Of all the seasons of the Church year, Advent is the time to acknowledge, feel, and even embrace the joyful anguish of longing for Messiah’s birth and the world’s rebirth. So we sing our aching songs while we light candles and festoon the church with greenery. That is Advent longing, and we couldn’t imagine it any other way.

* * * * * * * * * *

During the last seven days of Advent (17th to 24th December), the Church supports our longing (in Matthew Woodley's words) for "a Messiah-healed world" by giving us a special series of antiphon-prayers from the heart of the Old Testament. Each day our service of Evening Prayer, also called Vespers, includes the wonderful song of Mary we know as the “Magnificat”, taken from Luke 1:46-55. (It's called "Magnificat" because that is its first word in Latin.) Throughout the year, Mary’s song is preceded and followed by a short verse or “antiphon” tied to the theme of the particular feast day or the season of the Church year we are in. During these last days of Advent each of the Magnificat antiphons begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for 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 tapestry of Biblical images, and give shape to our Advent waiting. In the Middle Ages the custom grew of ringing the the church bells each evening as they were being sung.

The antiphons are:

December 17: O SAPIENTIA (O Wisdom)
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

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. (See Isaiah 28:29; Sirach 24:1-5; Wisdom of Solomon 8:1)

December 18: O ADONAI (O Adonai)
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

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. (See Isaiah 33:22; Exodus 3:2; Exodus 24:12)

December 19: O RADIX JESSE (O Root of Jesse)
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, who standest for an ensign of the people, before whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the nations shall seek: Come and deliver us and tarry not. (See Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 11:10; Micah 5:2; Isaiah 45:14; Isaiah 52:15; Romans 15:12)

December 20: O CLAVIS DAVID (O Key of David)
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David, Sceptre of the house of Israel, who openest and no man shutteth, and shuttest and not man openeth; Come and bring forth out of the prisonhouse him that is bound. (See Isaiah 22:22; Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 42:7)

December 21: O ORIENS (O Dayspring)
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Dayspring from on high, Brightness of Eternal Light, and Sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. (See Isaiah 9:2; Isaiah 60:1-2; Malachi 4:2)

December 22: O REX GENTIUM (O King of Nations)
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

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. (See Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 28:16; Ephesians 2:14)

December 23: O EMMANUEL (O Emmanuel)
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God. (See Isaiah 7:14)

* * * * * * * * * * 

A quirky feature of these antiphons is that the first letter of each, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin. That is, the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS, “Tomorrow, I will be [there]” the assurance from Jesus that he is responding to the ancient cry of his people.

Even lay people who don't make daily use of the service of Evening Prayer find that they profit greatly by praying the Magnificat during these final days of Advent, with the particular day's "O Antiphon" before and after it. I encourage you to do that!

* * * * * * * * * * 

A metrical poem in Latin, based on the O Antiphons, emerged in the 12th Century. The melody, usually considered to be of French origin, was added to the text a hundred years later. The Latin, in turn, has been translated into English. This version (from the New English Hymnal) is the work of T. A. Lacey (1853-1931). It has become one of our most popular hymns/ carols for Advent:

O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Redeem thy captive Israel,
That into exile drear is gone 
Far from the face of God’s dear Son. 
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high!
Who madest all in earth and sky,
Creating man from dust and clay:
To us reveal salvation’s way.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Adonai,
Who in thy glorious majesty
From Sinai’s mountain, clothed with awe, 
Gavest thy folk the ancient law.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Root of Jesse! draw 
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From those dread caverns of the grave.
From nether hell, thy people save.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Lord of David’s Key!
The royal door fling wide and free; 
Safeguard for us the heavenward road. 
And bar the way to death’s abode.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright! 
Pour on our souls thy healing light; 
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom, 
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations! 
show Thy kingly reign on earth below;
Thou Corner-stone, uniting all.
Restore the ruin of our fall.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.