Monday, 30 November 2015

The Advent Procession: treasures of darkness in an age of light

A fouler vision yet; an age of light,
Light without love, glares on the aching sight.

(Keble, 'Advent Sunday' in The Christian Year.)

It is the darkness of the Advent Procession that is striking.  We are an age of light - near permanent light.  Recently, a children's health specialist warned of the health impacts in terms of lost sleep created by the brightness of hand-held devices.  Entertainment, communications, shopping.  Each now seeks to deny darkness, each "glares on the aching sight" through the hours that were once hours of darkness.

Darkness, after all, is an obstacle to the workings of the Market.  Darkness seeks to order and restrain the Autonomous Self. 

There is a rationale to this cultural antipathy towards darkness.   Darkness is a time when wonder can easily emerge, as we gaze on the stars of night.  When our desire for communion with friends, family or spouse is particularly evident and enjoyed.  And when, as day ends, quietness is most likely to be received as gift, without the distractions of the light of day.

Wonder, communion, reflection - these are not virtues or practices that "an age of light/Light without love" cherishes.

Perhaps here, then, we can detect something of the renewed popularity of the Advent Procession.  Amidst the busyness of a commercial season which epitomises the rejection of the gift of the dark, the Advent Procession redeems the darkness as a means of encounter - speaking to our primordial desire for the wonder, communion, and reflection which the darkness nurtures.

For the Church, there should be no surprise here.  Darkness is the place of encounter and revelation.  "Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was."  The darkness of the Maiden's womb, that "strange heaven" (Donne).  The darkness of Garden and Cross. The darkness of the Tomb.  And John tells us that the Magdalene's journey to the Tomb occurred "early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark".

The darkness of the Advent Procession reflects the darkness surrounding some of the Church's most sacred celebrations - the Midnight Mass of Christmas, the Evening Mass and the Watch of Maundy Thursday, and the Easter Vigil.

In "an age of light/Light without love", the Church leads us into the darkness, the means of rich, grace-filled encounter.  For it is in the darkness that we are brought to wonder, to seek communion, to reflect - that we can more clearly discern the Light which does not 'glare on the aching sight', but which invites, enchants, heals.

I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Eve of Advent - the season as sacrament

From Thomas Merton's Seasons of Celebration, his reflection on Bernard's understanding of Advent as sacramentum:

Advent is the "sacrament" of the presence of God in His world, in the Mystery of Christ at work in History through His Church, preparing in a hidden, obscure way for the final manifestation of His Kingdom ...

Behind this expression of St Bernard's we find something of the profound eschatology of St Paul.

The sacramentum which St Bernard finds in Advent is the sacramentum, the mysterium of which St Paul writes to the Ephesians.  It is the 'sacrament' (or 'mystery') of the divine will, according to the design which it pleased Him to form in Christ, to be realized in the fulness of time, to unite all thing sin Christ.  This mystery is the revelation of God Himself in His Incarnate Son.  But it is not merely a manifestation of the Divine Perfections, it is the concrete plan of God for the salvation of men and the restoration of the whole world in Christ.

This plan is envisaged not as a future prospect but as a present fact.  The "last things" are already present and realized in a hidden manner.  The Kingdom of God is thus already "in the midst of us."  But, the mystery can only be known by those who enter into it, who find their place in the Mystical Christ, and therefore find the mystery of Christ realized and fulfilled in themselves. For these, the Kingom of God is mysteriously present.  They not only enter the Church, or enter Christ, but Christ becomes their life.

Friday, 27 November 2015

"Glorious majesty": transfiguring hope

At the Holy Eucharist on the Friday of the last week before Advent.

First in a series of reflections on the traditional collects of Advent [1].

On Sunday, the solemn words of the Advent collect will be heard in parish churches, abbeys and cathedrals across these islands.

Amidst the flickering light of the first candle of the Advent wreath, and the darkness that accompanies the Advent procession ...

We will pray ...

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal ...

The Advent collect calls us to receive afresh the hope proclaimed in the Creed of our Baptism:

"He will come again to judge the living and the dead".

For our forebears in the faith, this hope was the natural fulfilment of the Christian story and pilgrimage ...

In collects and hymns, in wall paintings and sermons, they reflected upon this hope.

For the contemporary church, however, the Advent hope is often a cause of embarrassment, for perhaps two reasons.

Firstly, we see how the Advent hope is distorted through ridiculous readings of the Book of Revelation, lurid speculation about the End Times, and associated theories which owe more to political agendas and prejudices than to the teaching of Scripture.

Secondly, there is the story told by our culture about Progress - of how enlightened human beings do not need a story about a final judgement and a renewal of all things, because we have it within our power to continually improve, to move towards lasting peace and prosperity.

The Advent collect challenges both of these approaches.

"Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness" - and the works of darkness haunt ideas of Progress. 

Profound injustices and inequalities, ancient hatreds and prejudices, conflict and terror - the persistence of these "works of darkness" exposes the myth of Progress.

As for those End Times fantasies that certain expressions of Christianity indulge in, contrast them with the matter-of-fact, stolid tone of the Advent collect:

"that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead".

And it is that phrase - "when he shall come again in his glorious majesty" - which lies at the heart of the Advent hope.

During the first millennium of the Church's life, churches and basilicas were usually dominated by a fresco, or wall-painting, above the altar, of Christ in glory.

It was a powerful visual representation of the Advent hope - in glorious, vivid colour, the imagination of worshippers was caught by the One whose glory and majesty will make all things new.

"When he shall come again in his glorious majesty".

This is the hope of the manifestation, at the end of the ages, of the glory and majesty of the Resurrection, then touching, gathering up and transfiguring all parts of the cosmos, all aspects of our existence.

And this, of course, is in itself an act of judgement - removing the disfiguring, distorting presence of injustice, death, darkness, sin from the creation, from us ...

Restoring the created order as a reflection of the glory of God, bringing humanity to participate in the glory of the divine nature.

In the words of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey:

"The end is a new creation, forged from out for the broken pieces of a fallen creation, filled with glory" [2].

The Advent message should not be a cause of embarrassment.

It is the hope the Church brings to the dark places of the world, the shadowed parts of our lives.

The works of darkness, the shadow of death, these - while they furiously rage - are not our destiny.

All things will be made new, caught up in the glorious majesty of the Incarnate, Crucified, Risen and Ascended One.


[1] The traditional Advent collects, drawing on 1549,  are found in the Order One provision of the Church of Ireland BCP 2004.  The contemporary language collects for Advent 1 and 3 are faithful renderings of the traditional collects.  The new composition for Advent 2, however, is significantly inferior to the traditional provision, while that for Advent 4 would be more appropriate on the feast of the Conception of the BVM.

[2] Ramsey in his The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ - an extract provides the reading for the Friday of the last week before Advent in Celebrating the Seasons.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Romanesque - a "rich spirituality of space"

From a 2012 post by Michael Sadgrove, entitled 'Why I love Romanesque':

... because it of its rich spirituality of space. Romanesque churches, even intimate ones, have a wonderful ability to suggest that space means something by pointing beyond itself to the ultimate Mystery of God. You walk up the nave at Durham and the alternating rhythms of decorated drum piers and compound pillars to right and left tell you that this is journey with a purpose, a pilgrimage if you like. Or you stand in the marvellous, too little known, crypt chapel of Durham Castle and are surrounded by a forest of columns as if that numinous underground place in the bowels of a fortress you are protected and don't need to be afraid. The subtle way light and dark play across Romanesque spaces - chiaroscuro - is to me one of its glories: richer and more complex than the brilliant light-filled spaces of high Gothic. Life is light-dark, joy and woe. I love buildings in which I can inhabit this world's complexity and my own, and begin to 'read' it as God does.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Pater Noster - gift, practices, encounter

One (perhaps unintended?) consequence of the CofE's Lord's Prayer ad may be to make the Church reflect on the place of the Lord's Prayer in our life.

Some suggestions come to mind.

For those who do not pray the Office, we might consider the Didache's instruction - "Thrice in the day thus pray". It's a simple act and commitment, something of a 'Little Office' after the example of medieval provision for the laity.  (Those who pray the Office, of course, do likewise - one of the advantages of Anglican formats of Compline including the Lord's Prayer, alongside Matins and Evensong).

Prayer, of course, is more than words.  It is (or should be) an embodied experience.  Michael Sadgrove, former Dean of Durham, has reflected on how the Lord's Prayer is prayed in many parts of Catholic Europe:

When my wife and I started worshipping regularly in France, we found that in our local church, they sing the Lord’s Prayer, something we now do here on normal Sundays. The value of singing is that it slows you down, stops you from rushing through profound words we should be reflecting on as we pray them. ‘Whoever sings to the Lord prays twice’ said Augustine. As I have meditated on the Lord’s Prayer, I have found extraordinary depths in these simple, well-loved lines. The other thing we came across in France, indeed across catholic Europe, is that most of the congregation extend their hands as they sing it. It’s a beautiful gesture. Some have their palms upward, as if to be open to the gifts God wants to give. Some stretch their hands towards the sky, as if longing for the coming of God’s kingdom, for that is the central theme of the Lord’s Prayer, thy kingdom come! And for some it’s a symbol of visible unity for this is the prayer all Christians have in common as God’s people in every part of the world.

We might also give consideration to a redundant rubric in the 1662 eucharistic rite, concerning the post-communion Lord's Prayer:

Then shall the Priest say the Lord's Prayer, the people repeating after him every petition.

It might be somewhat cumbersome, but at a said Eucharist it again slows down our praying of the Lord's Prayer.  And it also allows the celebrant to create a pause between each petition.

Finally, there are profound riches within the Tradition reflecting on the gift of the Lord's Prayer.  Rowan Williams, in his Being Christian, says of Origen's teaching on the Lord's Prayer, "we discover a great treasury of profound insight".  We might also point to Gregory of Nyssa's sermons on the Lord's Prayer, in which, concerning the petition "on earth as it is in heaven", he employs Origen's controversial, condemned but provocative and suggestive term apokatastasis (The Lord's Prayer, Sermon 4).

Such practices and teaching could aid in a re-receiving of the Pater Noster as gift to be enjoyed and delighted in by the Church, a frequent means of entering into the communion of the Triune God, greatly enriching an aspect of the Church's life of prayer that all too easily can become a matter of routine for many of us.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Prayer, place, narrative amidst a strange secularism

Three examples of how we might evangelise in a culture of "strange secularism". 

Firstly, that ad - yes, the CofE ad for the Lord's Prayer.  It's not an explanation of prayer.  It's not an attempted 'summary' of the gospel.  It's an invitation to prayer - to taste and see.  Survey after survey show less and less people describing themselves as Christian.  This, however, is not a victory for the scientism of the New Atheists, for the same surveys show a significant openness to spirituality, to prayer, to wonder about the universe.  The simple invitation to pray the Lord's Prayer, then, becomes a means of connecting with this spirituality, of bringing it into contact with the riches of the Christian tradition of prayer.

Secondly, St Thomas', Salisbury, has recently replaced its early 20th century porch and doors with a , allowing those passing to view the interior of the historic church, including its vivid medieval doom painting.  It is, in other words, a window onto the sacred.  In the words of the vicar, "I see the church building as our biggest asset for mission".  With thoughtful communication and generous welcome, the place of churches in our physical landscape could be  a reflection of their place in the cultural and spiritual landscape of our society.
glass vestibule

Thirdly, in a superb reflection on a personal journey of faith, Preaching from the Rood Screen suggests the significance of approaching Scripture as literature:

As long as the characters of the Bible were sterile, saintly characters, I had no real use for them. But when I began to read the Bible as literature, it came alive for me. As a person who had immersed myself in story in both reading and creating my own through tabletop role playing games, I could relate to real, mixed-motive characters ... The Bible became a way to expand my imagination, rather than shut it down. It was now possible to think about Christian religion in a new way - as a story with incredible power.

None of this requires extravagant programmes to 're-envision' the Church.  Rather, it takes what we as the Church have inherited - prayer, place, narrative - and uses them as they should be used, to enchant, to capture the cultural imagination of a "strange secularism".

Monday, 23 November 2015

"A native efficacy": Tallis and the Anglican tradition of liturgical music

On this date in 1585, Thomas Tallis died.

Words from Richard Hooker remind us of why a distinctive tradition of liturgical music - for which Tallis' work was the foundation - emerged and flourished in the reformed ecclesia anglicana: 

The very harmony of sounds being framed in due sort and carried from the ear to the spiritual faculties of our souls is by a native puissance and efficacy greatly available to bring to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled, apt as well to quicken the spirits as to allay that which is too eager, sovereign against melancholy and despair, forcible to draw forth tears of devotion if the mind be such as can yield them, able both to move and to moderate all affections ... In which considerations the Church of Christ does likewise at this present day retain it as an ornament to God's service, and an help to our own devotion (LEP V.38.1-2).