Friday, 19 December 2014

An Advent meditation - the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Mystery of the ordinary

This coming Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Advent, our Advent pilgrimage begins to draw to a close.

As we have lit the successive candles on our Advent wreath ...

We have shared in a dramatic saga.

Abraham and Sarah, called to be the father and mother of a great nation.

Prophets, confronting kings and empires.

John the Baptist's calling us into the wilderness.

Now, we turn to the fourth candle, representing Mary.

What an odd way for our Advent pilgrimage to close.

After the dramatic episodes of the first three candles ...

We turn to something so very normal, so very everyday.

Our fourth candle represents a pregnant young woman.

And this pregnant young woman is not from one of the aristocratic families in Rome or Jerusalem ...

No, she is of ordinary stock, from Nazareth of Galilee, an entirely unexceptional village and region.

John Collier's painting of the Annunciation reminds just how ordinary, just how unexceptional it all is.

Mary is the suburban, mid-teens schoolgirl.

Perhaps we detect a slight awkwardness about her - a normal characteristic of many in their mid-teens.

We see her sneakers, the normal footwear of teens, and she stands in an average suburban neighbourhood.

It's all so very ordinary.

But not just ordinary.

There is the angel - reverently bowing, as if participating in the liturgy.

And so we begin to discern Mystery in this very ordinary scene.

All is not as it seems.

This mid-teens schoolgirl, those sneakers, that suburban door ...

There is more to this than just the ordinary.

As we look at Collier's painting, we hear the words of Luke's Gospel:

"Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you'."

The scene which looks so very ordinary is actually holding - literally holding - God.

When the Church proclaims "born of the Virgin Mary" ...

This is not to somehow preserve God from being involved in the messy business of conception, gestation and child-birth.

It's precisely the opposite.

We are declaring that God was to be encountered - felt, touched, held - right there ...

In the swollen belly of Mary.

It means that this young woman is, in the word the early Church used to describe Mary, theotokos - Godbearer.

Right there, in the very ordinary, there is God.

What appears to be merely routine is full of Mystery.

What seems to be ordinary is pregnant with God.

Our Advent journey draws to a close then, with a startling proclamation.

Where is God to be encountered?

In the stuff of the ordinary, of the everyday.

We look at this young woman ... and we believe her to be the Godbearer.

In a few days, we will look at an Infant in a manger ... and we will confess Him to be "God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God".

In a few months, during Holy Week, we will look at a Victim of state torture, bleeding as He dies a criminal's death ... and we will declare that this is the Redeemer of the world.

The stuff of the ordinary, of the everyday, is taken up into the very life of God and becomes the means for us to encounter God.

Here is the foundation for the whole of the Christian life.

We read everyday words from ancient texts ...

And we say "This is the word of the Lord".

We see bread and wine sitting on the Altar ...

And we are told that they are filled with God: "this is my body ... this is my blood".

Then we turn to see our neighbour ...

The annoying colleague, who incessantly provokes us with the collected thoughts of Richard Dawkins;

The neighbour who wears a hijab;

The neighbour who is a recent arrival from Poland;

The neighbour who relies on the local foodbank.

Here too the ordinary is filled with Mystery:

"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

In the words of C.S. Lewis:

"Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses".

The ordinary, the everyday, is pregnant with God ...

Charged with the Mystery of God's grace, light, and glory.

In the darkness of midwinter, Advent opens our eyes to this wonder and beauty ...

That we might be a people who welcome the God who comes to us in the ordinary, the everyday -

In the belly of Mary ...

The wood of Manger and Cross ...

The bread and wine of the Eucharist ...

The neighbour and stranger.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Treasures of darkness in the secular age

One of the disappointments of Advent this year is that Advent III fell on 14th December, the feast of John of the Cross.  As a result, there was no opportunity to liturgically commemorate and reflect on his witness.

In a previous Advent, catholicity and covenant has pointed to this Advent saint as embodying the tensions of the hope of this season - as John of the Cross states in his Stanzas of the Soul:

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.


The Advent antiphons come to mind when reading these words.  The Antiphons' deep sense of yearning and desire is the fruit of exile - that of Israel and of the Church - of present failures, pains and brokeness.  Here, to quote Isaiah 45:3, are "the treasures of darkness".

Malcolm Guite beautifully captures this treasure of Advent darkness in his new sonnet for John of the Cross:

Deep in the dark your brothers locked you up
But not so deep as your dear Love could dive,
There at the end of colour, sense and shape,
The dark dead end that tells us we’re alive,
You sang aloud and found your absent lover,
As light’s true end comes with the end of light.
In the rich midnight came the lovely other,
You saw him plain although it was the night.

"Light's true end comes with the end of light."  What might this mean for the mission of the Church amidst the darkness of the secular age?  Amidst the disintegrating forces which disfigure the culture and public square in postmodernity?

We know some of the responses - nostalgia and culture wars, the desire to recover past social dynamics which seemed less hostile to (and more respectful of) the Church, the temptation recently described by Cardinal Schonborn, "to dream of a powerful Church".  Advent, however, calls us into the darkness, there to discover treasure, where "night is more lovely than the dawn", for "light's true end comes with the end of light".


As the Dean of Southwark stated in a recent blog post, "God is always in the midst of the secular".  This is the Advent hope for the Church in the secular age.  We pray the Advent Antiphons amidst the Church's cultural exile, not dreaming of a powerful Church, but as a Church joyful and expectant in the darkness, knowing that the secular age is but a veil manufactured by a confused culture.  The Antiphons gently, partially, pull back that veil and, as with Moses at the burning bush, our imaginations can be grasped by what we glimpse: "the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed". And it is the darkness that enables to see this glory more clearly.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings ... and sacraments

Reviewing the newly-released Ridley Scott film Exodus, the Orthodox blog Departing Horeb reminds us that, for the Church, the Exodus account is, above all, typology:

the God of 'Exodus' inspires no devotion or doxology. Yet it is not without value, for the ever increasingly modern and secular treatments of the story may give us pause to ask important questions that we have previously neglected in blissful ignorance. For example, we might ask why God takes notice of the plight of the Hebrews only after 400 years of slavery. Why did he not save them sooner or else prevent them from being subjugated in the first place? Such questions resonate with our own experiences in life as well, and bring the realization that the Exodus story is not just a Sunday School Bible story but a narrative that contains in its typology the struggle of every person against the powers of sin, the miraculous salvation that God sends through a Deliverer, and the lingering doubts and questions in our minds as we struggle to know this deus absconditus, the hidden God, who does not always act in ways that satisfy human reasoning.

In the words of Leo the Great, concerning the Hebrew Scriptures, "they had a hidden meaning which proclaimed ... reality".  What, then, is the Exodus account really about?  It's not about empire and rebellion, class and ethnic conflict in the Ancient Near East.  Nor is it a mere historical record of Yahweh's actions, some of which are - to say the least - morally questionable.  Rather, the "reality" lies in its "hidden meaning".  For the Church, the Exodus narrative is primarily about our sacramental participation in the Paschal Mystery.  As Augustine stated to his catechumens, regarding the Exodus account:

What does up to the Red Sea mean?  Up to the font, consecrated by the cross and blood of Christ ... Baptism is signified by the sign of the cross, that is, by the water in which you are immersed and through which you pass, as it were, in the Red Sea ... that font is red, it reddens [the water].

William Harmless notes that "the 'red water' of the font - red presumably because it was lined with red mosaic tiles - suggested both the Red Sea and the blood of Christ".

This typology has been given expression in Anglican liturgy:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who of thy great mercy ... didst safely lead the children of Israel thy people through the Red Sea, figuring thereby thy holy Baptism.

(BCP 1662, The Ministration of the Publick Baptism of Infants.)

Of course, Ridley Scott was never going to make a film about the Exodus actually being about the Christian sacrament of Baptism.  But it does explain why "the God of Exodus inspires no devotion or doxology".  Why should it be otherwie?  This is an ancient myth, with little apparent relevance to the consumers and citizens in the Market and City of postmodernity - unless it reinforces our sense that the Middle East has always been a strange, awkward place.  Or, indeed, that religion is downright nasty - Yahweh killing innocent children?

But, if the Exodus narrative is a type of God's saving actions in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of the Word, saving actions which I encounter and participate in through the Sacraments, then it becomes a narrative with enduring relevance, a narrative which invites my participation.  A reading of Exodus which does not discern the "hidden meaning" is almost inevitably either flat and banal, or repulsive - either way, incapable of inspiring "devotion or doxology".  Rescued from such flattened, 'un-sacramental' readings, Exodus becomes much more compelling, much more likely to engage our imaginations.  It becomes our story, our liberation, the story poured over me, the liberation which I feel and touch.

What does up to the Red Sea mean? Up to the font ...

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Praying the Antiphons

Depending on the calendar used - today (Sarum/1662) or tomorrow (contemporary Anglican and Roman rites) - the Church begins to pray the Advent Antiphons. I was recently asked for resources which could help in entering more deeply into the prayer of the Advent Antiphons.  My suggestions are as follows:

1. Common Worship Times and Seasons: Advent provides a lectionary for use at Evening Prayer on the days of the Antiphons.  The Psalms and lections provided enable us to reflect on the rich, scriptural imagery which shapes these ancient prayers.

Consideration might also be given to using the Old Testament reading for lectio on the respective day.  The manner in which the Antiphons gather up into prayer the yearning of the Old Covenant, making this the Church's prayer, invites - if not demands - us to immerse ourselves in this yearning of patriarchs and prophets, priests and kings.

2. In his Sounding the Seasons, priest-poet Malcom Guite offers a sonnet for each of the Antiphons.  These unfailingly draw us deeply into the yearning expressed by the Antiphons, leading us into prayer of desire - of the discerning of our need - for the fulfilment of Advent hope.

We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root ...
For now is winter, now is withering,
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.

(From Malcolm Guite's sonnet 'O Radix'.)

Particularly when saying the Office alone or in smaller groups, the sonnets - read, perhaps, in place of the office hymn - provide a wonderful poetry of prayer for reflection on the Antiphon of the day. (Sounding the Seasons has an appendix offering an excellet suggestion for their liturgical use in larger settings.)

3. In Advent last year, Clerk of Oxford blogged on a series of Anglo-Saxon poems based on the Antiphons, providing translations of the poems.  As Clerk of Oxford states, "they are exquisite poetic meditations on the rich imagery of the antiphons, responding to them in subtle and creative ways".  Not all have survived the centuries since their composition - the meditations on the first three Antiphons are missing - but those which have survived offer profoundly beautiful insights.  (The poems begin with O Clavis David.) There is something profoundly characteristic of the spirituality of Advent in joining with an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet in his reflections on the Antiphons.  For all that has happened in the intervening centuries, the hope Advent remains - and we might wonder if the darkness is any different, the uncertainty any less.

On the days of the Antiphons these Anglo-Saxon poetic meditations could be appropriately used as an introduction to Compline.

4. Arvo Part's setting to the Antiphons is dark, contemplative and deep.  He more than captures the yearning of the Antiphons - he brings us to experience this, to make their yearning ours, with an aching beauty.  Perhaps it takes a composer who is himself Orthodox, drawing on the deep riches of Russian Orthodoxy and its experience of the darkness of the 20th century, to bring Western Christians to more fully experience the Antiphons. It is this darkness, so evident in Part's setting, which intensifies the yearning of the Antiphons.

Rather than listening to each Antiphon individually, the entirety of Part's setting (just over 13 minutes) can be used as an aid to meditation throughout the days of the Antiphons.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Strange, haunting whiffs of transcendence

Reflecting for Slate on the future of religion, James K. A. Smith builds on Charles Taylor's critique of 'excarnation', "disembodying worship and religion, turning it into a 'heady' affair that could be boiled down to the message and grasped with the mind".  This, Smith says, has resulted in "spirituality cut to the measure of thinking things who inhabit a disenchanted cosmos".  He continues:

Why does this matter for the future of Christianity? Because now that the whole world has been disenchanted and we have been encased in a flattened “nature,” I expect it will be forms of re-enchanted Christianity that will actually have a future. Protestant excarnation has basically ceded its business to others: if you are looking for a message, an inspirational idea, some top-up fuel for your intellectual receptacle—well, there are entire cultural industries happy to provide that ...

But what might stop people short—what might truly haunt them—will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heaven. It will be “traditional” Christian communities—drawing on the wells of historic, “incarnate” Christian worship, with its smells and bells in all its Gothic strangeness—who embody a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing. I make no claims that such communities will be large or popular mass movements. But they will grow precisely because their ancient incarnational practice is an answer to the diminishing returns of “excarnate” spirituality.

(The illustration is from the The Sub-Dean's Stall, referring to Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut.)

Friday, 12 December 2014

An Advent meditation - John the Baptist and the wilderness

This coming Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, we light the third candle of the Advent wreath ...

The candle representing John the Baptist.

"The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness", says Luke's Gospel.

"In the wilderness."

More than half-way through the season of Advent, with Christmas ever closer ...

The Church first brings us not into a winter wonderland, but into the wilderness.

Into a harsh, desolate, foreboding landscape.

We have only to look at how John the Baptist has been portrayed in Christian art across the centuries, to realise just how foreboding the wilderness is.

Take this example from a 13th century Serbian Orthodox monastery.

There is a wildness to his demeanour and appearance.

The unkempt hair and beard, those eyes - not distracted by us but looking afar off - that face, weathered, determined ...

Yes, this certainly looks like a man who lives in the wilderness.

When Luke introduces John, you can almost hear him enjoying the irony ...

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness".

Luke lists off the powerful and the mighty, those with authority and majesty.

Those who commanded the legions ... controlled the trade routes ... presided in the Temple.

But where is the word from God to be heard?

Not in Rome, amidst all its pride and glory.

Nor in Jerusalem, with its Temple and Sanhedrin.

No, the word from God is to be heard in the wilderness ...

In that harsh, desolate, foreboding landscape.

The Anglican biblical scholar Paula Gooder says:

"John is disruptive, exploding into the story, disturbing and unsettling people".

What is more disruptive, disturbing and unsettling than being called out into the wilderness ...

Away from the certainties offered by Rome or by Jerusalem ...

Away from the very tangible realities of power and authority offered by both these places?

Exchanging these for the wilderness ...

Dry, barren, inhospitable.

And yet ... for those with ears to hear, the wilderness echoes throughout the story of the Scriptures.

Israel was in the wilderness for forty long years, fed by the manna from heaven.

The prophet Isaiah had called the Israelites to leave the comfort of exile in Babylon, to journey through the wilderness, back to the land of promise.

As the Gospels unfold, Jesus feeds the multitude through the miracles of loaves and fishes, in the wilderness.

The wilderness, then, is where God is encountered.

Why the wilderness?

In that harsh, desolate, foreboding landscape, our boasts and claims and achievements mean very little.

Our pretensions, the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves and our standing and abilities ...

These are stripped away in the wilderness.

We stand there utterly dependent before the face of God.

We come there to understand and experience that our beginnings and our ends ...

Our creation and our redemption ...

These are not of our making, they are not our boasts ...

They are pure gift from God.

So what does this mean for our own personal wilderness experiences?

Failure. Illness. Disappointment.

Broken relationships.  The frailty that comes with the passing of the years.

Shame. Anxiety. Grief.

These are harsh, desolate, foreboding experiences.

Disruptive, disturbing, unsettling.

But the message of Advent is that God is there - in the very midst of our wilderness experiences.

It doesn't stop being the wilderness ...

But it is the wilderness in which God is present and active ...

Bringing us to renewed discipleship, deeper prayer, more profound love.

It is in Advent, during the darkest days of of the year, when the cold is sharpest ...

That we, the Church, prepare to again encounter the Light who has come into the world.

In the depths of midwinter, not the height of summer.

For it is in the wilderness, the dark days, the cold times, that we encounter God ...

And are called to be renewed as those loved, sustained, kept by God.

(The illustration is a detail of a 13th century fresco of St John the Baptist in the Serbian Orthodox monastery at Granacia, Kosovo.)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Fulfilment and subversion: Advent, Christmas and humanism

In his foreword to the new Theos report by Angus Ritchie and Nick Spencer, The Case for Christian Humanism, +Rowan addresses two contemporary misconceptions about Christian faith.  One he sees inside the Church - that humanism is an enemy to be opposed on all fronts.  The second outside the Church - that faith is akin to a mental disorder.  Of course, the first can also be a common view outside the Church, that Christian talk of, for example, sin and salvation is 'anti-human', a reactionary response to human joy and fulfilment. 

Which again brings us to the liturgies of Advent and Christmas - the proclamation of eschaton and Incarnation.  In Advent we reflect on the hope of the beatific vision, of humanity sharing fully in the divine nature.  In Christmas we celebrated the incomparable dignity bestowed upon human nature as the Eternal Word assumes flesh.  To what extent does our celebration of these liturgies undermine the two narratives outlined by +Rowan, proclaiming Advent and Christmas as both fulfilment of what it is to be human and subversion of those practices and ideologies which deny human dignity?

There are those on the one side who argue fiercely that concessions to a ‘humanist’ mindset weaken the radical challenge of the gospel to all human arrogance and self-sufficiency. Surely faith begins when human confidence bows before the alien majesty of God and recognises that all its achievement is valueless without the summons and gift of grace? And on the other side of the argument are those who would like to see religion classified as a clinical mental disorder and who cannot see any role at all for belief in an adult and rational universe.

To the first camp, it needs to be said that the sovereign power of grace is not in competition with human well-being and even proper human confidence. If we need grace and have to recognise ourselves as deeply estranged from God’s purpose, this is because we have become estranged from the dignity that is meant to be ours; we need to be restored to ourselves not transformed into some inhuman purity. 

To the second – apart perhaps from a reminder of what sort of human regimes in the modern age have categorised dissenters or minorities as mentally disordered – it must be said that the resourcefulness of faith in feeding human imagination and motivating resistance to various political claims to absolute power has to be acknowledged as something that has served a ‘humanist’ end, whatever you may think of the truth of faith’s assertion.