Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Joy and Hope for every Year

2005 has been called by some a year of natural disasters and indeed, it has seemed that way... such events as the great Asian Tsunami disaster and the earthquake in Pakistan have raised many questions in the hearts of people. There have also been tragedies brought on my human strife and evil... such as the on-going violence in Iraq and other places and the 7/7 bombs in London. And we have all on a personal level known sadness, grief and pain in this year, not least in the death of Pope John Paul the Great.

But the Cross of suffering which all creation bears is not overshadowed by all that is good, true and beautiful, as the life of the late Holy Father witnessed to so eloquently! For in 2005, we have witnessed an out-pouring of love, generosity and good-will in response to every disaster and the launch of the Make Poverty History campaign. Indeed, I know that the amount of good news to recount in 2005 is simply too numerous to even begin! The little miracles of love, kindness, self-denial which we experience daily are too often over-looked in favour of more sensational headlines. Truly the Holy Spirit is active in these ways; healing, restoring and renewing and He gives us much to be thankful for.

40 years ago, the Second Vatican Council ended but it gave the Church and the world a vision to live by for generations to come. In its final document, Gaudium et spes, the Church spoke then as it does today of the human condition, of life, and declared: "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ." Clearly then, joy and sorrow are part of humanity and of every year. But in every situation, the Church is and has been present, suffering alongside, offering hope and counsel, bringing the presence of Christ.

It is natural that disasters and being faced with the mystery of sin and evil should raise questions in us. This witnesses to the fact that we are naturally inclined towards good, life and truth. When these appear to be imperiled, we are rightly disturbed. Thus, the Council Fathers went on to say: "Nevertheless, in the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions of recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it? What follows this earthly life?

The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time."

Thus, just as Pope Benedict XVI repeated to the youth gathered around him in Cologne, Christ is the answer to our longings, our fears, our hopes, our desire, our needs. On 18 August 2005, he said: "To all of you I appeal: Open wide your hearts to God! Let yourselves be surprised by Christ! Let him have “the right of free speech” during these days! Open the doors of your freedom to his merciful love! Share your joys and pains with Christ, and let him enlighten your minds with his light and touch your hearts with his grace. In these days blessed with sharing and joy, may you have a liberating experience of the Church as the place where God’s merciful love reaches out to all people. In the Church and through the Church you will meet Christ, who is waiting for you." It is worth asking if our Christian communities have been truly open to others, loving places where others may meet Christ.

We will all know people who are seeking answers to a myriad of questions, people who are confused or frustrated, angry with life or just drifting along indifferently. So the Pope said: "Dear friends, when questions like these appear on the horizon of life, we must be able to make the necessary choices. It is like finding ourselves at a crossroads: which direction do we take? The one prompted by the passions or the one indicated by the star which shines in your conscience?" But people can only make the choices for that which is good, true and beautiful if they listen to their conscience, finding Jesus in the goodness that lies in every human heart. People's goodness is aroused when they see goodness in those around them. As such, our Christian witness of love can reach out to Christ in others and reveal His light. As I have said before, I believe the key to this is Christian joy, happiness.

Returning again to the Holy Father's message: "Dear young people, the happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth, hidden in the Eucharist. Only he gives the fullness of life to humanity!... Be completely convinced of this: Christ takes from you nothing that is beautiful and great, but brings everything to perfection for the glory of God, the happiness of men and women, and the salvation of the world."

And so, with thanksgiving in my heart for 2005, and joyful hope in God's promises, it is not altogether cliched for me to wish all and sundry a HAPPY NEW YEAR!

The image above is of Christ who suffers with us, by Sr Mary Grace Thul, OP.

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Seedbed of Salvation

In the Holy Family of Nazareth, we see the Child Jesus, who is actually the incarnate Word of God in person. We see Mary the Mother who is Ever-Virgin and Joseph, the father who will care for and shelter the Child but who is not the true father of Him...

As such, Von Balthasar ponders:
"A strange family: none of them is actually what he or she outwardly seems. The family is like a united outer skin covering an inner secret so that it can come to fruition undisturbed... A strange family indeed, not fashioned and held together by bonds of human sexuality but by the bonds of a divine mission and plan of salvation. But perhaps these are the stronger bonds, able to weld the most disparate individuals into a unity of a higher order and of greater promise.

At this point, in spite of and because of its uniqueness, the Holy Family constitutes an urgent challenge to all Christian communities and all human communities whatsoever... [the Holy Family] shows people as profoundly diverse as Jesus, his Mother and his adoptive father united in a community of life under God's loving will. Only if men learn to look beyond their narrow interests (often legitimate at a natural level but distorted by egoism) and embrace the good of the whole does mankind have a chance of survival.

As we look back at the year that has gone, we can and ought to wonder how far we ourselves have progressed along this ascending path that brings salvation. We should ask ourselves to what extent we have seriously subordinated our own interests to those we share with others, to interests that are universal and seek the good of all. Only when all men succeed in subordinating the all-pervasive egoism can that peace the angels sang of at Christmas come upon the earth. It is the highest gift heaven has in store for earth, and in principle it has actually been given in Jesus Christ."

- from 'You Crown the Year with Your Goodness', p295ff.

"O blessed light of heaven's fold
And highest hope that mortals hold,
With love, God's household greets your birth
And smiles on you, now come on earth!

O Mary, ever full of grace,
None else there is can take your place
And cherish Jesus on chaste breast,
With milk, bestowing kisses blest.

O Virgin's loved defender true,
Of patriarchal line are you;
The Child divine, now born in time,
You "Father" calls, a name sublime.

From Jesse's noble stock, your birth
To save all nations, come on earth!
We beg you, hear us all today,
Who at your altars come to pray.

That grace which in your home took root,
In every virtue bore great fruit;
May that same grace in all abound
And in each family be found.

O Jesus, who, to parents mild,
Were ever true, obedient child;
With Father high and Spirit be,
All glory yours eternally. Amen."

-The Office hymn, O lux beata caelitum.

Above, the 'Holy Family' by Michelangelo

Thursday, December 29, 2005

An Apologia for St Thomas of Canterbury

It was not surprising that one of Henry VIII's first acts of revolution against the Church in 1538 was to proclaim St Thomas of Canterbury as a "rebel and a traitor" and then to dismantle, rob (26 cartloads of treasures were taken by the king) and destroy the glorious shrine of St Thomas in Christchurch Cathedral, Canterbury, for this saint stood and stands for the freedom of the Church from state interference. For centuries the Norman kings of England had gradually considered the church land and its revenue to be their own. Moreover, they sought control over the clergy over and above the Pope and the right to appoint bishops without Rome's consent, ultimately preferring the nascent English law over the sophisticated (and pan-European) Canon Law of the Church. These propositions were effectively defeated when Thomas Becket was murdered by four of King Henry II's knights in his own cathedral during Vespers on 29 December 1170. As Edwin Jones says: "Becket's victory, achieved through martyrdom, meant that Henry II's attempt, by the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164), to encroach on Church rights had failed." (The English Nation, p150).

Becket's victory is of crucial importance for the unity of the Church and for keeping England within the folds of the Church, at least until her tragic break with Rome in the 16th century. Thus Z. N. Brooke says that for Thomas Becket "the freedom of the English Church, he repeats again and again, means the freedom to obey the Pope, to be under papal government as the rest of the Church was; he is fighting not only the battle of the English Church, but of the whole Church and the Pope" (The English Church and the Papacy, p209). Therefore, St Thomas ought to stand as a beacon for all Catholic Christians... One thinks of the Catholics of China who still suffer from the tyranny of the State and who are still not free. Were it not for Thomas Becket, English Catholics in the 12th century would have fallen prey to the ambitions of king Henry II.

However, as we know: "the assassination of a metropolitan in his own cathedral while acting with the authority of the pope was a deed of sacrilege that produced universal horror both in England and on the Continent... the public revulsion demanded a public penance of the most severe kind, and this [the king] performed - first at Avranches in May 1172 when he received absolution from the papal legates, and then at Canterbury in July 1174, eighteen months after the solemn canonization of Thomas as a martyr by Pope Alexander III" (Butler's Life of the Saints - December, p.228).

Nothing now remains of the Shrine or the saint's relics; the Corona at Canterbury Cathedral, the highest site in the great church where the Shrine stood, is now incongruously vacant. Chaucer's famous 'Canterbury Tales' added lustre to the cult of Thomas Becket, reminding us that this was once the most popular place of pilgrimage in England and almost certainly placed England on the ecclesiastical pilgrimage map!

In 1935, T. S. Eliot immortalised the story of St Thomas' martyrdom in his riveting play: 'Murder in the Cathedral' and this great saint, an icon of the trials of the Church in England, remains a powerful figure in the popular imagination and he is still patron of the English diocesan clergy.

Sadly, those who champion Henry VIII's cause, those who believe that the Church should be subject in every way to the State, those who have a secular agenda and see the Pope (and thus the Vatican) as a "meddling priest" who interferes in affairs of State and politics, unsurprisingly despise St Thomas of Canterbury and all he stands for. Like Henry VIII, they seek to denigrate and destroy the cult of St Thomas, labelling him as a traitor and a rebel. But history has shown such attempts are in vain. Indeed, Thomas' murder only established his cult and even king Henry's attempts were unsuccessful - people still flock to Canterbury, if only to gaze at the empty space and the site of his death, above which hangs a menacing and jagged swordlike sculpture (on left).

On 27 December 2005, the newspapers announced a list of Britain's top ten villians and we were aghast to discover that St Thomas Becket was singled out as one of them! John Hudson, Professor of Legal History at St Andrew's University nominated the saint as "the worst character that the 12th century could offer" because he "divided England" and "was a founder of gesture politics. He was also greedy." The ignoble professor then said that Thomas' martyrdom, which involved the crown of his head being sliced off, was "a fitting grisly end." At least the professor admits that he and his ilk harbour a "prejudice" against St Thomas and it is clear that his prejudice has jaundiced his point of view and any sense of academic integrity.

One has to ask how St Thomas, if he had indeed so grievously divided England became such a popular saint within 4 years of his death. There is clear evidence of a cult of the saint and his Shrine remained as popular as ever until destroyed by another egoistic and power-hungry king. As Edwin Jones notes: "At the time of the Reformation, Thomas Becket had been for more than three centuries one of the most popular of English saints and thousands of pilgrims from home and abroad had visited his shrine at Canterbury" (op. cit., p151).

Moreover, one ought to consider the nature of the opponent St Thomas was facing. Roy Strong, notes in 'Coronation - a history of kingship and the British monarchy' that King Henry II was unprecedented in the powers and titles he arrogated to the Crown. Thus: "the struggle between [Thomas] and the king was to produce the most extreme claims for theocratic kingship, ones which based the royal control of the Church on the anointment of the king with chrism" (p46). As such, the power-hungry king, the first of the Plantagenet line, was trumped up in this astonishing way: "... he is not called a layman, since he is the anointed of the Lord [Christus Domini] and through grace he is God. He is the supreme-ruler, the chief shepherd, master, defender and instructor of the Holy Church, lord over his brethren and worthy to be 'adored' by all, since he is chief and supreme prelate" (Tract 24a, quoted by Roy Strong, ibid, p48). Hence, we have here a king who had clearly overstepped his historical, theological and natural boundaries and it was left to St Thomas to resist his ambition and greed. It is a bitter irony that professor Hudson should accuse St Thomas of greed when it is evident that the lust for power, wealth and control pervaded Henry II's mindset.

In addition, the English and those who may be inclined to side with Henry II ought to take into account the fact that for the Plantagenet kings, England was merely a part of a larger empire, to be used and abused for the selfish purposes of the Crown. In the year of Thomas' martyrdom, 1170, the king spent 38 weeks in various parts of France and only 14 weeks in England. This pattern was to continue throughout the Plantagenet rule, clear evidence of divided loyalties and interests. As such, to suggest that St Thomas "divided England" in 1170 is disingenuous and ridiculous! There was no England, as we know it, to divide - she was merely part of a larger realm - called "the greatest continental empire in Western Europe since Charlemagne" by Roy Strong - to be milked at the (Francophile) king's pleasure! The true Frenchness of the king is revealed in the fact that he is buried in Fontverault in France. As Norman Davies says: "The idea that these people were English is a later fiction. There is no evidence that any of them could speak a word of the English language" (The Isles, p339).

So why Professor Hudson makes so much of a king who treated England as a French colony is a mystery to me. Rather he ought to exult in the fame and glory that St Thomas of Canterbury and his cult brought to England!

The 12th century also saw the reign of King Richard the Lion-Heart and the coronation of King John of Robin Hood fame. Duped by propaganda, Hudson does not see fit to name either of these as villains of the 12th century. Granted that John was only crowned in 1199, the fact remains that Richard I was a disasterous king of England, neglecting the realm and draining the coffers. He was king for 10 years but spent less than six months in his kingdom; he requisitioned the entire wool-crop of the Cistercians to pay for his ransom and taxed his subjects mercilessly. For laying such needless burdens on the people, often for his Crusader bloodlust, and abandoning his duty - to say nothing of his solemn oath - as king, Richard I must surely rank as a villain. By comparison, the sainted Thomas was described by the historian John Lingard as "a martyr to what he deemed to be his duty" and Butler's (in a fair assessment) says: "Thomas had not lived like a saint, but he died like one. A man of many parts, he sought glory; in the end, by courage and self-denial, he found it." Therefore, in his assessment, I fear John Hudson is sorely mistaken and firmly in error.

In the final assessment, perhaps the best understanding of the martyrdom of St Thomas belongs to T. S. Eliot:

"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... 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 man. 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 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."

Surely this is why St Thomas of Canterbury is still beloved and venerated by Catholics the world over: he is a true martyr, a saint who ultimately fought to the death for the rights of the Church - and thus the ordinary Christian - over the tyranny of the State, politics and ideology. This great saint did not shun his duty but embraced the Cross, telling his monks of Canterbury: "Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors! [for] The Church shall protect her own, in her own way..." And truly the Church did so by glorifying St Thomas with the martyr's palm.

May his dying words be his perennial prayer for us and especially for all persecuted Christians, be they in China, Zimbabwe, Israel or other less obvious nations:

"Now to Almighty God, to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to the blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to the blessed martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the Church." Amen!

The images above are of a mosaic of St Thomas' martyrdom from Westminster Cathedral, a stained glass image of the saint from our parish church in Cambridge and the site of his murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Suffer the little children...

The Feast of the Holy Innocents or 'Childermas' takes on a special significance and poignancy in our age when so many unborn children are killed. Since the 5th century, this feast remembers those children who were massacred by Herod in his vain attempt to eradicate the Christ-child as a claimant to his throne. As such, they are venerated as martyrs who gave their lives for Christ. As the Second Reading in the Office of Readings, a sermon by St Quodvultdeus says: "Though they know it not, these children die for Christ and their parents are mourning the death of martyrs. The Christ-child has made babies, who are unable to talk, fitting witnesses to himself...They could not speak yet they confessed Christ. Helpless to enter the battle, they carried off the palm of victory." How tragic still are the deaths of those innocent babes whose parents don't mourn and infact, in many cases, actively will! The Byzantine liturgy says fourteen thousand were killed while the Syrian texts speak of sixty-four thousand. But these number pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of babies who are killed in the womb in our day. In other Western rites, this feast commemorates "the holy babes and sucklings" or simply "the infants". It is fitting then that today, of all days in the year, and in such proximity to the liturgical Feast of the Christ-child, we can remember the innocent victims who have been killed in their infancy.

There is a beautiful carol, with a haunting folk melody that was part of a play called 'The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors' in 15th century Coventry. The lullaby was sung by the mothers of Bethlehem to their children, just before King Herod’s soldiers entered the scene (for the slaughter):

"Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay.
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay."

We do well to pray not only for their souls and their parents but perhaps we should also ask the Holy Innocents to pray for us and for all victims of abortion, including the mothers... for in such matters, all are victims of the Evil One who is the Deceiver and our Accuser.

Thus Pope John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae: "The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behaviour and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception" (para 58) and then "I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life" (para 99).

Finally, as we reflect in this Christmastide on the massacre of the innocents, both in Bethlehem and in our day, let us look to Our Lady for encouragement and aid. In the words of Pope John Paul II: 'Mary thus helps the Church to realize that life is always at the centre of a great struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. The dragon wishes to devour "the child brought forth' (cf. Rev 12:4), a figure of Christ, whom Mary brought forth 'in the fullness of time' (Gal 4:4) and whom the Church must unceasingly offer to people in every age. But in a way that child is also a figure of every person, every child, especially every helpless baby whose life is threatened, because-as the Council reminds us-'by his Incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every person'... Mary is a living word of comfort for the Church in her struggle against death. Showing us the Son, the Church assures us that in him the forces of death have already been defeated: 'Death with life contended: combat strangely ended! Life's own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign'..." (Evangelium Vitae, 104, 105).

At the end, Prudentius' vision of the Holy Innocents at play around the altar of God in heaven shall become a reality for all:

"All hail, sweet flowers of martyrdom,
Cut down in life's bright dawning hour,
And shattered by the foe of Christ,
As rosebuds in a whirling storm...

First victim of Christ,
Tender flock of the immolated
Simple at the altar's foot,
simple souls, simple children,
You play with the palm and the crowns,
With your palm and your crowns.

Amidst the streams of blood that flowed
From tender babes of equal age,
Alone, the Virgin's Son escaped
The sword that pierced the mothers' hearts."

The image above is called 'Our Lady of Guadalupe defending the children'. May she intercede for all the unborn and protect them from harm, loving them as a true Mother.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Beloved Disciple

St John, the beloved disciple, who was closest to the Lord and reclined his head upon Christ's breast during the Last Supper, is found in close proximity to the Lord liturgically. His feast is celebrated within the Octave of Christmas and the first and only apostle to be so honoured, perhaps as a mark of the special love of Christ for him. "Hence he is called the grace of God, because to the Lord he was graced", says Jacobus de Voragine.

The eagle - representing the fourth of the living creatures about the throne of God (Rev 4:6-8) - is one of the symbols of St John and it is often said that this represents the soaring thought of John's Prologue to his Gospel and the high theology found in John's Gospel. This may have some basis in the following story about St John that is found in the 'Golden Legend':

"Someone gave a live partridge to the blessed John (as Cassian tells us in his 'Conferences'), and he gently held and stroked the bird. Seeing this, a boy laughed and called to his companions: 'Come and watch this old man playing with a little bird like a child!' The saint, knowing by the Spirit what was going on called him and asked what it was that the youngster held in his hand. The boy said that it was a bow, and John asked what he did with it. The answer was: ' We shoot birds and animals!' Then the lad stretched his bow and held it taut in his hand, but when the apostle said nothing, he loosened it. John asked him why he loosened the bowstring, and he replied: 'Because if you keep it stretched too long, it gets to weak to shoot the arrows.' So John told him: 'That's how it is with human fragility: we would have less strength for contemplation if we never relaxed and refused to give in now and then to our own weakness. So too the eagle, which flies higher than any other bird and looks straight into the sun, yet by its nature must come down again; and the human spirit, after it rests awhile from contemplation, is refreshed and returns more ardently to heavenly thoughts.'"

The story is remarkable because John's description of the eagle is also used to describe his theology, which soars to the heights of Divinity and penetrates to the mystical depths of the Son; hence the attribution of the eagle as the symbol of his Gospel. However, there is also the humane and sound spiritual advice that St John gives to the child. In these days after the busy-ness of Christmas and the liturgical heights of the Feast, we would do well to relax a little from the rigours of our life; here in Blackfriars, we have a reduced schedule of choral Offices until the New Year. The reference to hunting in the story is also co-incidental but timely because on Boxing day (yesterday), the Hunting season begins in the United Kingdom.

Among other local customs, it is said that in Germany and Austria, it is customary to bring a quantity of wine to church to be blessed by the priest. This Johannissegen is then taken away and drunk at home and it is said to have curative and protective properties! In the 16th and 17th-centuries, there was a great drinking of wine on St John's day, often to excess... This association with wine may be due to the legend that St John drank a chalice of poisoned wine but was not overcome by it.

St John is said to have worked with St Peter and then settled in Ephesus (hence the tradition that the house of Our Lady, whom the Lord placed in John's care, is in Ephesus) where he died in the reign of Trajan (98 - 117). He is thought to have died peacefully in about the third year of Trajan, being then about ninety-four years old. He seems to have outlived all the other apostles, and he is the only one of whom it is certain that he did not die a martyr.

St Jerome recounts a tradition that, when age and weakness made it impossible for John to preach to the people, he would have himself carried down to the assembly of the faithful and would say only: "My little children, love one another." When they asked him why he always used the same words, he said, "Because it is the word of the Lord, and if you keep it, you do enough." The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI's first Encyclical, "Deus caritas est", 'God is Love', was signed on Christmas day and will be published in the new year. It is reportedly a meditation on this simple message of St John which we find in his first letter: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God... God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them" (1 Jn 4:7, 16b). We do well to keep St John's words in our hearts and let us especially ponder this mystery as we celebrate the Incarnation of Love, Jesus Christ.

The image of St John the Evangelist above is from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Protomartyr

Already the Cross which we glimpsed only last night as we lay the Child in his Crib is now fully in view. The Octave of Christmas begins with the feast of St Stephen, protomartyr, the first to witness to the Gospel of Christ with his life; and so, the bloodshed continues as the week unfolds! Perhaps the festive crimson which is such a dominant colour at Christmastime is indeed and infact the blood of the martyrs spilt for Christ, the King of Martyrs.

Meditating upon this, the poet Patrick Carey, a Benedictine monk (d.1651), gives us a very different image of Christ in the Cradle from the cosy Nativity scenes we see and it has been set to music by Kenneth Leighton, a Yorkshire-born composer in his cantata, 'Crucifixus pro nobis, op.38':

"Look, how he shakes for cold!
How pale his lips are grown!
Wherein his limbs to fold
Yet mantle has he none.
His pretty feet and hand
(Of late more pure and white
Than is the snow
That pains them so)
Have lost their candour quite.
His lips are blue
(Where roses grew).
He’s frozen everywhere:
All th’heat he has
Joseph, alas,
Gives in a groan; or Mary in a tear."

In like manner then, the Liturgy turns our eyes away from the joyous carols and light festivities that rightly accompany the celebration of our redemption, to look upon the Cross which accomplished our salvation. The Liturgy does this by holding out St Stephen as model and witness; he who shed his blood, in imitation of Christ, for the salvation of others by preaching the Gospel of truth. As such, Von Balthasar says that "the level adopted by God in his Incarnation [is] the level of poverty, crib, flight; of Nazareth, the wilderness, nomadic existence; of the Cross and the grave" (You Crown the Year, p293) and it is this level that we too must come down to and share with God, Emmanuel. St Stephen, the first of Christian martyrs, led the way of total self-giving for and to Christ which we are called to follow.

Below is a hymn I partially composed in 2002 for my parish of St Stephen's in Skipton, North Yorkshire. It is based on an older hymn by C. Meyer, SJ which I re-modelled and adapted. It was intended to be sung to the tune 'Blaenwern' (87.87.D):

"Holy Stephen, Christ’s dear martyr,
First to shed your blood for him.

What bright glory now surrounds you,

Glory which no time can dim!

O that we could share that glory;

Serving him with life and blood!
Let us praise your noble story,
Told with life’s own crimson flood.

Stephen, full of grace and power,
Preaching the Good News abroad
And enlivened by the Spirit,
You gave witness to the Word.
Called to serve and feed God’s people,
Faithful, though opposed by Saul.

This is Christ’s own Way you teach us -

Active love for one and all.

Noble witness you did render

To the Passion of your Lord:
Bearing, with a love courageous,

Blows of stones more keen than sword.

Mindful of our loving Saviour

Showing mercy from the Cross,

You raised up your eyes to heaven

Praying mercy on your foes.

Glory be to God the Father,

And to Christ his only Son,

Who at God’s right, with the Spirit,

Reigns while endless ages run.

Grant O Lord, that like Saint Stephen,
We too may receive the grace,

To see heaven’s gates thrown open
And at last behold your face."

The photo above of a stained-glass window of St Stephen is from his church in Skipton. I wish their parish priest, Rev Fr Peter Dawber and the parishioners a blessed and happy Feast day!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

O Tannenbaum!

I do so cringe at photos of myself - I much prefer to take be on the other end of the camera! But I thought some of you who read this blog may be interested in these photos, so I do this for your sake! Honestly!!

Here are two photos taken recently with our two community Christmas trees, which Br Paul Mills and I decorated together with Fr Aidan Nichols, OP on Christmas Eve. It's been a number of years since I had the pleasure of decorating a tree and it reminded me of my childhood, of family and the candles we used to place on our trees in Germany as we sang "O Tannenbaum..." In a way, dressing the Christmas trees here made me realize that this community is my family and we are having a family Christmas.

Below, I am wearing a tunicle which was the vestment given me to wear for the Vigil and Night Mass of Christmas. This was on account of the fact that I sang the Christmas Praeconium and acted as Cross-Bearer in the Liturgy. The Liturgy was truly beautiful, the music and ceremonial making for a solemn but joyous celebration of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

And yet even tonight, the Cross was in view. As we contemplated the Child who became vulnerable as One-with-us, a needy and helpless baby, and as we blessed the Christmas Crib, placing a figurine of this Holy Child into a manger, the prayers of blessing said this:

"May [the Crib] remind us of the love your Son showed us being wrapped in swaddling clothes and being laid in a manger; by being fastened to the wood of the Cross; by being wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb.

May it inspire us to come to his aid when we see him hungry and homeless.

May it recall to our minds the devotion of our blessed Lady. Like her, may we treasure in our hearts the strange things that happened, and be ready to learn their meaning.

May we imitate, too, the faith of St Joseph, the eagerness of the shepherds, the generosity of the Magi, the joy of the angels.

May the Creator Spirit who overshadowed Mary overshadow us too, that Christ the eternal Wisdom may be brought to birth in us. So may we be counted worthy to share his new birth from the tomb..."

A Sequence for Christmas

The Third Mass of Christmas in the Dominican Missal is adorned with a Sequence hymn long attributed to St Bernard of Clairvaux but possibly of an earlier provenance, according to Dom Gueranger. It may still be used on this day in the sacred liturgy. Following on from the flurry of excitement and activity that accompanies this great feast - and as we relax and digest our Christmas feasts - perhaps we can meditate upon the words of this hymn and marvel with the Virgin Mother at this truly great mystery of the Incarnation:

Exsultet fidelis chorus.


Regem regum
Intactae profudit thorus:
Res miranda.

Angelus Consilii

Natus es de Virgine:
Sol de stella.

Sol occasum nesciens,
Stella semper rutilans,

Semper clara.

Sicut sidus radium,
Profert Virgo Filium,

Pari forma.
Neque sidus radio,

Neque mater Filio,

Fit corrupta.

Cedrus alta Libani
Conformatur hyssopo,

Valle nostra;

Verbum ens Altissimi

Corporari passum est,

Carne sumpta.

Isaias cecinit,
Synagoga meminit,

Nunquam tamen desinit

Esse caeca.

Si non suis Vatibus,

Credat vel gentilibus:

Sibylinis versibus

Haec predicta.

Infelix, propera,

Crede vel vetera:
Cur damnaberis,
Gens misera?

Quem docet littera,

Natum considera;
Ipsum genuit puerpera.


'Let the faithful choir
Joyfully rejoice,

The womb of the undefiled one

Hath brought forth the King of kings:
A thing of wonder.

The Angel of the counsel

Is born of the Virgin:
The Sun of the Star.
The Sun that knows no setting,
The Star that is ever shining,
Ever bright.

As the star its ray,
In like manner
The Virgin brings forth her Son.

Neither the star by its ray,

Nor the mother by her Son,

Becomes defiled.

The lofty cedar of Lebanon
Is conformed to the hyssop
In our valley.
The Word, the Being of the Most High,

Has deigned to become incarnate,
Having assumed flesh.

Isaiah foretold it,
The Synagogue remembers it,

Yet never does she cease to be blind.

If not her own prophets,

Let her at least believe the Gentiles;

In the Sibylline verses
These things are predicted.

O unhappy one, hasten;

At least believe the ancient things.

O wretched race,

Why will you be condemned?

Behold the Child of whom

The Scripture teaches:

The mother hath brought him forth.


By way of commentary on this hymn, it may be helpful for me to explain some of the images used and the rich Biblical allusions contained within it.

In the first verse, the chorus of the faithful are set up in opposition to the those mentioned later in the hymn who are incredulous in the face of this great marvel of Christ's birth. Christ is refered to as King of kings (cf 1 Tim 6:15) and the "thing of wonder" referred to is of course, the Virgin Birth.

In the second verse, Christ is called the Angel of the great counsel because he is the Messenger (Angelus) sent to make known to the human race the New Law (Magnum consilium) of love in all its fullness. The frequent reference to Christ as the Sun has foundation in two prophecies, Zechariah 3:8 and Malachi 4:2. The reference to Mary as the Star is based on the prophecy: "A Star shall rise out of Jacob" (Num 24:17) and St Bernard thus uses it. Since the lineage of Joseph and Mary was believed to have been the same, Mary is rightly called the Star of Jacob. In this verse, Christ is the light that never fails (cf Ecclesiasticus 24:6) whose glory falls upon Our Lady who is the Star. Mary's glory is always the reflected glory of her divine Son.

The third stanza gives the beautiful explanation of the Virgin Birth which St Bernard uses again in the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary: "The light of the star takes nothing away from the star itself, and the birth of her Child took nothing away from the virginity of Mary." We should note here that the metaphor is used differently from the verse above. In this verse, the Star itself gives off rays of light and this is used as an image of giving birth, whereas the previous verse alludes to the Star as a reflection of the eternal splendour of the Sun.

The fourth verse portrays the condescension of the Incarnation. Christ is the cedar of Lebanon, to whom is usually applied the words "I will take the marrow of the high cedar" (Ezekiel 17:22). In the psalms a comparison with the cedar of Lebanon represents a Jewish conception of that which is highest, noblest, best. Mary is the hyssop; the common hyssop is a small shrub. As such, we are to understand the sublime humility of a mighty cedar descending to the level of a lowly shrub; God becoming man. The valley referred to in this stanza merely emphasises the lowliness of our state and has echoes of the "vale of tears" in the Salve Regina, which is the state of the human condition.

In the fifth verse, there is a plea to the Jewish people to accept their own or the pagan prophecies. Isaiah is the prophet of the Nativity of Christ, par excellence and his prediction of the Virgin Birth (cf Isa 7:14) is read during Advent and in the Office of the season. The Synagogue refers to the group of leaders who were the recognized spiritual guides of the people of Israel. As such, it represents the Jewish nation. In Matt 15:14, Christ calls these leaders "the blind guides of the blind", hence the allusion to blindness here. The Sibylline verses are collections of supposed prophecies emanating from pagan seers or Sibyls. They are most famously portrayed on the roof of the Sistine chapel. These verses were widely circulated in the Middle Ages and regarded as true prophecies albeit from pagan seers.

The final verse speaks of punishment for all who reject Christ (cf Deut 28:62-68; Dan 9:26-27; Hosea 3:4) or refuse to believe in Him; as such it is a plea for all to turn to Him and be saved. These words of the Sequence hymn must be put into context, written as they were in the 12th century or even earlier, and we ought to recall the declaration of the Second Vatican Council: "As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle. In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve him shoulder to shoulder"." (Nostra Aetate, 4)

Today, as we celebrate the appearing of our Saviour, when angels and archangels rejoice and the righteous exult with joy crying out "Glory to God in the highest!" (cf Magnificat antiphon, Second Vespers), let us pray for greater unity in our world, peace among nations and an increase in love, as we find the fulfillment of every human longing and desire in Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, God's eternal Word made Flesh. May the Lord, the Angel of Great Counsel open the eyes of us all to see just how great and wonderful is the salvation He holds out to us.

The image above of the Virgin and Child is taken from a 19th century hand-illuminated book in the archives of Ushaw College.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Christmas Praeconium

Drawing once more from Fr Geoffrey Preston, OP, I would like to share with you his account of the Christmas Praeconium from the Roman Martyrology which will be sung by yours truly tonight at the Vigil of Christmas...

"On Christmas Eve in the old liturgy there took place a solemn chapter, which all the brethren were strictly bound to attend. The chapter room, says our Dominican Caeremoniale, is fittingly adorned with hangings and lights. The lectren is surrounded by flowers and richly veiled. The brethren stand for the reading of the Martyrology, the book which each day tells you the feasts which are being celebrated that day in all the different churches of the world - in theory, at least. Today, instead of monotoning the Martyrology, the cantor sings it. When he reaches the key section of it he raises his voice a full fifth and sings the crucial words, the good news of Christmas, 'solemniter ac morosius', solemnly and with dignity. When he tells how the eternal Son of the eternal Father was made man, all the brethren prostrate themselves and pray in silence for a while. Then they sit down and listen to the rest of the Martyrology, to the account of the lives and deaths of those Christians who were born into heaven on the day in which Christ was born on earth. After the Martyrology, according to the tradition of the English Province, the youngest novice preaches a Latin sermon, asking a blessing beforehand for his efforts, and making the 'venia', or ritual kissing of the scapular and prostration, when he has finished, in recognition of his temerity in speaking before the grave fathers. Then the prior is supposed to say a few words inviting the brethren to the celebration of so great a solemnity. The chapter closes with a general absolution so that nothing may hinder the joy of the feast.

Nowadays, this traditional chapter business has been spread around the day, so that the general absolution and the sermon (Latin or otherwise) comes during the Mass of Christmas Eve, and the Martyrology itself is read in the Vigil that ends with the Mass of Christmas Night. 'O come, o come, Emmanuel', we sing at the beginning of the Vigil, for the last calling out from our Advent. And in answer to our call we hear the words of the Martyrology telling us how he did come and save us."

The Christmas Praeconium

On the twenty fifth day of December, the twenty sixth of the moon;
In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year since the creation of the world,
when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;
In the two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seventh year since the flood;
In the two thousand and fifteenth year since the birth of Abraham;
In the one thousand five hundred and tenth year since the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt under Moses;
In the one thousand and thirty second year since the anointing of David as King;
In the sixty fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
In the seven hundred and fifty-second year after the foundation of the city of Rome;
In the forty-second year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus,
when the whole world was at peace, in the sixth age of the world,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
longing to hallow the world by his most gracious coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months after his conception was born
in Bethlehem of Judah as man from the Virgin Mary.
The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

The illustration above by someone called 'Mary Jane' is found on a card which is kept in our liturgy storeroom. Some have commented on how the foremost figure looks like me! Thus, I thought it a fitting illustration of me singing the Christmas Praeconium later tonight, and as such, may it be my virtual 'greeting card' to who read and visit this Blog. May I wish you all a BLESSED AND HOLY CHRISTMAS!

Tomorrow shall be my Dancing Day

"Today you shall know that the Lord shall come and tomorrow you shall see His glory" (The Invitatory antiphon at Matins).

Today is the Vigil of Christmas, that day which stands on the cusp of Advent and Christmas. Although it will be a busy day for us - preparing the chapel for the solemn liturgies and decorating the Priory to celebrate the Lord's birth, and others will have last minute Christmas details to attend to - it is a shame not to pause and reflect on this day and its significance.

Following is a beautiful carol for a beautiful day - the Eve of our Lord's Nativity. The setting of these words by John Gardner is wonderful and fun to sing... probably one of my favourites. It's well worth mulling over, to consider that the Lord deigned to become man, for our sakes. We are His "true love", but are we true to Him in our celebration of Christmas and in our lives? Do we truly love Him and make His love known to all people?

As Pope Benedict XVI said recently: "As we prepare to celebrate the Saviour's birth let us keep our Christian traditions to the fore. Let the lights of our streets and the candles of our churches remind us that God is with us, born in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary; he is the light of our lives and of the world!"

"Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man's nature
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard from above,
To call my true love to my dance." Chorus

- from William Sandy's Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern.

The painting above is Botticelli's 'Mystical Nativity' which features dancing angels. It is believed that the Dominican friar, Fra Savonarola may have inspired the artist in this highly unconventional work.

Friday, December 23, 2005

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 our judge, the One whom the peoples await and their Saviour: come and save us, Lord our God.'

"For days and days now we have put ourselves with those patriarchs and prophets who for long centuries desired to see and hear what was neither seen nor heard until that night in the cave at Bethlehem, that night in which the hopes and fears of all the years were gathered together in royal David's city. We sat with them in darkness and in the shadow of death, in the recognition of our common humanity. We like they are formed from the dust of the earth, and we shall return to dust exactly as they have. We have remembered as they remembered how the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law of Sinai. And now, taught to hope by Isaiah, we pray to the one whom he prophesied, calling out in the words of the antiphon, O Emmanuel.

The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel, God-with-us. If we are really going to be saved, it can be by none other than God himself. The patriarchs and prophets had always known that, even though they never guessed that God himself would become altogether one of us and never imagined that he would be 'with us' in such an astonishing and paradoxical fashion. Yet how could the Saviour God not be Emmanuel when the first time that Israel had been saved it had been the Lord himself that had done it? Year by year, as the story of the Exodus from Egypt was recounted at Passover they would come to the verse: 'And the Lord brought us out of Egypt'. On this text the gloss ran: 'Not by any intermediary, not by any seraph, not by any messenger, but God himself in his glory, the Holy One, blessed be he'. The second deliverance could not be any less marvellous than the first, that exodus from Egypt's land. So they prayed for Emmanuel to come, even though it was not a man they longed to see, nor human accents they longed to hear.

When we pray for Emmanuel to come, we pray as people who know how God is with us so much that he is one of us. We pray knowing the wonder of it all, knowing that he has already come in such a way that there is no going back on that coming. He has become a man so as never more to be unmanned. So much of the prophesy is already fulfilled. The Virgin Israel in the person of the Virgin Mary has brought forth her Son. She will never bring him forth in that way again. History is irreversible. There can be no question of Jesus being born a second time in the way he was born in Bethlehem, just as there can be no question of his being killed a second time as he was killed on Calvary. From now on for all eternity there is a man on the throne of God, a man nearest to the Father's heart. The incarnation is not reversible by any eventuality. And so his coming to be Emmanuel is not something that we can pray for now; we can pray to him as Emmanuel, but not pray for him to become Emmanuel. The fact that he is Emmanuel is not something to pray for but to rejoice in. Above all we rejoice in it in the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament. In the Mass we plead Christ's death before the Father, acknowledging his resurrection and awaiting his return. But for centuries in the Church there has been the custom of reserving the Blessed Sacrament outside of the Mass, not simply for the purpose of giving communion to the sick and dying but for its own sake. The Blessed Sacrament is there so that we can rejoice in the presence of the Lord amongst us for its own sake. He is glad to be amongst us, eternal Wisdom delighting to dwell with the sons of men, the Word that was made flesh and tabernacled amongst us. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament should be primarily the prayer of rejoicing, of saying how good it is for us to be there. His presence is the summing up of all the mighty works of God for us and for our salvation. In the sacred mysteries of his body and blood is the memorial of all the great acts of God in the past. We can sing psalms of thanksgiving for them as we sing in delight of the eucharistic presence. 'He gives bread to all living things', wrote the psalmist, 'great is his love, love without end.' Little did the sweet singer of Israel guess what that bread would be, and how he would give the true and living Bread, the body of eternal Wisdom, the Sun of Righteousness, Emmanuel. But we, knowing what that Bread is, can rejoice in the real presence of all his mighty works summed up in the most mighty work of his love, the incarnation of his Word. And then, when we have rejoiced, we can surely pray for all the needs of the world to the God and Father of us all... asking him to complete his work for us men and for our salvation. Or, to put it another way, we can pray to Emmanuel to come and answer all our longings.

We pray to Emmanuel who is our King, the King who makes us kings. But the antiphons get more intimate and more insistent, as befits our praying to someone who is one of ourselves. 'Our king and our judge... come and save us!' There is a paradox in this, because the way our King will us is by coming and giving us more of his law as our Judge. St Thomas puts the question as to the identity of this new law of Christ. And he replies that it can only be the grace of the Spirit himself. What the Lord demands of us he gives us. The love of God, the ove which God has for us, has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given us. We will know what the love Jesus commands at the Last Supper is like when we learn how to let the Lord love in us. We shall find that out when we abandon our attempts to force ourselves to love other people and instead let the Lord love them through us by pouring the Holy Spirit, the law of the New Testament into our hearts. Emmanuel as man, as our King has more to teach us than he did when he was on Sinai's height. Nothing is good unless it is first prudent, but prudence takes wings when the way of prudence is taught us no longer by Eternal Wisdom in some distant heaven but Eternal Wisdom now made man, Emmanuel. Prudence becomes very different when it is taken over by the Holy Spirit himself... many considerations would not occur to us without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom and understanding, counsel and fortitude, knowledge and devotion and fear of the Lord, these are the gifts poured out by the Spirit, though in different measure, upon all Christians. Those gifts, so much more important than the charisms about which we hear so much nowadays, are said to be necessary for our salvation. The righteousness of the scribes and pharisees, the behaviour of the ordinary decent man and the ordinary decent churchgoer will not suffice to save us, but only the Holy Spirit in his gifts. To come to God requires some degree of passivity, of opening the sails to let the mighty, rushing wind which us the Holy Spirit, blow us where it will.

'O Emmanuel, come and save us.' We ourselves as we really are now. Not where we were a while ago, at our baptism, at our first communion, or during the fervour of our novitiate or when we took solemn vows. Be Emmanuel just where we are. Not where we will be when we have rid ourselves of that terrible bad habit we cannot shake off, nor where we will be when we have managed to love this dreadfully bothersome brother a little bit more, nor where we will be at the moment of our death, surrounded and fortified by the rites of Holy Church. Be where we are now. And here what we need to do, in the last analysis, is not to pray that he will be where we are, but to understand that he already is where we are. When we really grasp that he has found us, that he is where we are, then we can go and seek him. He is the Glory of God who sat with the exiles by the waters of Babylon and wept with them in the night. Where we sit now is a good enough place for Emmanuel to come and to enlighten us."

- Geoffrey Preston, OP, 'Hallowing the Time'

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Christmas Meme

I spotted this quick and fun Christmas meme over at Happy Catholic and thought I'd give it a go...

Hot Chocolate or apple cider? Hot chocolate... but preferably mulled wine!

Turkey or Ham? Turkey this Christmas at the Priory... although I'd go for duck or salmon if I had a say!!

Do you get a Fake or Real you cut it yourself Christmas tree? Real of course! At my mum's house, the tree has to be decorated with real candles too, in the German style!

Decorations on the outside of your house? No thanks, we're English!

Snowball fights or sledding? Snowball fights... although sledding ala Calvin & Hobbes looks fun too.

Do you enjoy going downtown shopping? Nope. And for the first time in years, I did none of that. One of the great things about a vow of poverty!

Favorite Christmas song? Well, I suppose this would not include motets and chant, so I'll go for 'The Christmas Song'! Ugh! How predictable!!

How do you feel about Christmas movies? I'm quite sentimental I guess, so I love these soppy, family, fell-good movies. The Polar Express was nice... although for a more Christian movie, I'd go for 'The Miracle Maker'. Fantastic!

When is it too early to start listening to Christmas music? Before Christmas Eve! During Advent, I listen to Advent carols and motets, although something like Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker' ballet is permissible... Christmas carols and music should only be enjoyed in Christmastide, which in some cases can continue until 2 February!

Stockings before or after presents? Well, I don't actually hang any up! But I do put out my shoe/boot on St Nicholas' eve.

Carollers, do you or do you not watch and listen to them? Being an ex-caroller myself, I would definitely listen and maybe even join in! Alas, this is one occasion when I break my 'no-carols-before-Christmas' rule!!

Go to someone else's house or they come to you? We're having one guest at the Priory this year, so they come to us.

Do you read the Christmas Story? If you mean the Gospels, then yes, of course!

What do you do after presents and dinner? Typically, use the present in some way, or clear up, watch TV and sleep!

What is your favorite holiday smell? Mulled wine again.

Ice skating or walking around the mall? I've fallen on ice a number of times (oh, mum, if you're reading this, I can just hear you laughing!!) so it'll have to be malling (as the Filipinos call it) but I'd like to just stay in front of a log fire at home and sip my mulled wine!

Do you open a present or presents on Christmas Eve, or wait until Christmas day? Depends on the local custom. When I was in Germany then on Christmas Eve, but otherwise on the Day.

Favorite Christmas memory? Walking an hour each way in the snow to Mass in Germany (on my own, mind you) when I was a teenager - gosh, I was such a committed Catholic kid then!! But seriously, just Christmas with my family, especially when I was a child. Oh... and Christmas in the Philippines - a unique experience! (Photos to right and above, in 2004)

Favorite part about winter? Crunchy grass (know what I mean?!) and crisp, cold winter mornings when the sun reflects a bluish-white off the snow-drifted or frosty ground.

Ever been kissed under mistletoe? No... and probably never will, Deo gratias!

Want to join in? Any takers out there who don't have enough Christmas preparations to undertake?!! Please?!

O Rex Gentium

"O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti."

'O King of the gentiles, whom all the peoples so desire, you are the cornerstone which makes all one: come, and save men whom you made from clay.'

"King whom all the people desire! It was not only patriarchs and prophets who were waiting in the land of shades. It was not only to prophets and patriarchs, to the men of Israel, that the Light went when it went down into hell... that hell was the place of all the dead, where all men are in the same condition. It was the place where the most significant division in the world - between Israel, the one people that was chosen, and the very many peoples who were not - was no longer of any significance... He was and is desired not only by his first love, the chosen people, but by the peoples who were not elected but who, for all that, are not outside his love.

We are not praying for a fuhrer, but for the king who makes his people a nation of kings. If we pray him to come, then we must be ready to share his kingship. Those who, according to the Apocalypse of St John, will sit with him on his throne are those who have conquered as he has conquered; they are those whom he has freed from their sins by his blood, and made a kingdom, priests to his God and Father. Christ is King, surely, but he is not a king whose royalty is diminished by sharing it with other people. Again and again, we tend to think that if God shares things with us, he will be lessened by it, but that is not so. Christ is none the less a priest but all the more a priest in that he makes all of us priests too. God is none the less holy but the more holy in that he makes us really holy as well. God is all the more God, all the more other, in that he makes us sharers in his very nature as God, as Peter in his second epistle and the Church Fathers insist. So when we pray for him to come as King... we are praying for a king who will restore us to our rightful position as kings in the world he has made, for, as the Roman Liturgy puts it, we are 'set over the whole world to serve him, our Creator, and to rule over all creatures'.

The King of the gentiles makes us kings in turn; we whom he formed 'de limo', out of the dust and slime of the earth... We are reminded of that every year at the start of that other purple season of Lent, when the Church says to us on Ash Wednesday; 'Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return.' Remember the reality of the situation... Not only in Lent but throughout the entire year and perhaps especially today as we repeat this antiphon, we stand, each one of us, under the sign of the ashes, the dust of the earth. That is the sign of our solidarity in human nature and fallen nature. It is also the sign of our solidarity in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the risen Lord, the King who is to come and whom the gentiles so desire.

He, we say, is the Cornerstone that makes both peoples one, forging a unity out of Jew and gentile. According to Paul, this is the heart of the mystery that was hidden from before all ages but has now been revealed. The mystery of the Church as the sign and instrument of unity between men. The mystery of the gospel that is spoken to men who do not speak each other's languages so that they may with one heart and one mouth confess the faith of Christ. The whole object of the exercise of Christ's coming is that he should gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. Therefore, we must always have something of his concern for unity, in mankind and, most particularly, in the Church."

- Geoffrey Preston, OP, 'Hallowing the Time'

The image above is 'The Adoration of the Trinity' by Albrecht Durer (1511)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

O Oriens

"O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis."

'O Rising Sun, you are the splendour of eternal light and the sun of justice: come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow
of death.'

"Our darkness is a prison: yesterday we asked the Key of David to come and open the prison doors. Today we say that we are imprisoned in darkness: so we ask the Dayspring, the brightness of eternal light, the sun of righteousness, to come and shine on us... The trouble with darkness is that nothing appears for what it really is. Everything gets out of proportion. We lose our sense of direction and our feeling for whether things are near or distant, and indeed our capacity to judge what a thing is... The dark may give us ersatz emotions and disproportionate reactions to sounds, so that we are falsely frightened or falsely relieved. It is appropriate that the theatre of illusion should normally require its audience to sit in darkness, so that they can be transported into an unreal world where they forget one another and look only at the unreality of what is presented from outside. And so we pray for light: 'O Oriens!' If light is a well-nigh universal symbol for divinity, the element proper to God or the gods, what is proper to Christ our Lord is the new light, the dawn, the light of the east, the light of the sun at its rising.

Before it was know that 'Jesus' would be the name of the Christ it was known that the Messiah would be the Dawn, the Orient, the Rising Day, for he would be newness and novelty. 'Behold I will bring my Servant, the Orient, the Dawn,' God says through the prophet Zechariah; 'Behold the man whose name is the Orient, the Rising Day, for he shall raise up in his place, and he will build the temple of the Lord.' And when the immediate forerunner of Jesus was born, another Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied saying: 'Through the loving kindness of our God, the Dayspring shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.'

Day by day, dawn by dawn, we take up those words of the father of John the Baptist and we sing them with him in the canticle of Lauds, the Benedictus. It is a canticle with a strange and intricate structure of words and phrases, weaving in and out with the pattern of a dance. The message of this chant is not openly declared in the words themselves, for it lies hidden also in the way the words are used, in their positioning. This is all of a piece with how St Luke, in whose Gospel the Benedictus appears, sees human history, not as just a succession of events but, rather, a meaningful pattern which he invites us to enter. In St Luke's pattern our present situation is the fulfilment of the promises of the past but in its turn it carries the promise of the future. The promises of the Old Testament have been fulfilled in us who live in the time of Christ. Therefore we trust that the promises of our own time will be fulfilled in their turn in the time of Christ's Advent, when the Kingdom of God finally comes in power. We are shepherds and guardians of the future as well as recepients of the fulfilled promises of the past. All that is figured in the Benedictus. Each morning we are invited to see the sun that is rising over our world that day as a pledge of the reality of the Sun that rose the first Easter morning, rose after he had set in blood, after he had been down in the depths of the earth. This day which is just beginning is a day when the resurrection of Jesus can be lived out in our lives. But the rising day is itself the pledge, promise and prophecy of the Dawn that will rise over the world on the day of the great and general resurrection, the Dawn of that Day that will never end. Today we can live risen lives that will be pledges of the life we shall lead in that first Day which will be an eternal Day. We should live our lives quite consciously between this past and this future, and in the light of this Day which is rising to give light to those who have been sitting in darkness. And that means to all those who find life obscure, who cannot get things into proportion.

If we are ever to move towards that future which we are promised, the best way of moving from the place where we are now is to open our sails and let the wind of the Holy Spirit come and blow us some place else. If the way Christian righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and pharisees were by there being more things for us to do and to avoid, that would not be very much a gospel, a good news. But before Jesus is a lawgiver he is, as we say, the Sun of righteousness itself. He is the one whom Malachi prophesied: 'Unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings'. Wings, because the sun seems to fly through the heavens like a great bird; wings, as the sun-disk is winged in Egyptian monuments. The light that the rising sun of the day of Adonai brings is a light that heals, opening the eyes of the blind. He brings healing just because he is the very justice of God. God's justice is not God conforming himself to some eternal standard of justice but a reality that God creates by adjusting us to himself and to each other. Our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees only in that we accept such 'justification', the way God has done things for us and for other people."

- Geoffrey Preston, OP, 'Hallowing the Time'.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Br Romero's Simple Profession

Today at noon, Br Romero Radix, O.P., a novice from Grenada was Professed as a friar of the English Province. We were joined by brothers and sisters of the Order and laity at Blackfriars Cambridge who witnessed Br Romero vow obedience to the Master of the Order, for three years, through the Prior Provincial, Fr Allan White, O.P.

The Mass was solemn and simple. The Missa de angelis was sung along with the Advent prose Rorate coeli, the hymn to the Holy Spirit, Veni creator, in the Dominican chant tune and the O spem miram, an antiphon to St Dominic. It was followed by a celebratory reception after which Br Romero packed his bags in the boot of a hired car and was taken to his new assignation in Blackfriars Oxford where he will begin his studies as a student brother in the new year.

Brother Romero signs the Admissions Book as the Novice Master looks on

Brother Romero, O.P. with Fr Paul & Br Michael from Grenada

Br Paul Mills with Sr Jacinta and Fr John Orme Mills

Well... you know us!

Farewell to Br Romero from the Prior

At his Profession, Br Romero expressed his desire to follow in the Saviour's footsteps by practising "community of life with one heart and soul, [to be] faithful in the Evangelical counsels, fervent in prayer, assiduous in study, constant in preaching and persevering in regular observance to God's glory, and for [his] salvation and that of others."

Please keep him and all our friars in your prayers!

O Clavis 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, and sceptre of the house of Israel, you open and no man can shut, you shut and no man can open: come and bring bound out of the dungeon him who is sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.'

"Like Job complaining about God and to God we pray, 'Come to deliver us and set us free!' This passion for freedom is the hallmark of the Jewish-Christian tradition: freedom from Egypt and from the iron furnace, freedom from the tyranny of that most cruel Pharaoh, the Devil, freedom from sin, from death and from hell.

But this passion for freedom presupposes a sense of not being free at the moment. We would not pray so insistently to the Root of David to come to set us free unless we knew that we were held bound in some sort of prison. We are free in faith surely, but not yet sure that we have given ourselves so completely to God that we are free with the freedom which, in principle, he has given us. We still have a sense of frustration, of not being able to do what we want to do. But real freedom never consists in an unlimited exercise of free choice. Real freedom means, rather, being able to do exactly what we want to do, because we want all that God wants and only what God wants. It is because we are frustrated even in our good ambitions that we pray the Lord to come and lead us out of the prison-house where we are limited and circumscribed against our will. The Latin text of the antiphon seems to imply, interestingly enough, that God can lead us out from where we are sitting in darkness precisely by leading us out bound, bound now to him. Paradoxically, our liberation takes the form of slavery where we find ourselves enthralled, spell-bound, captivated by his presence.

This prison-house from which we seek to be delivered is not, of course, the body, flesh and blood that Jesus now shares with us forever. It is not the material world, which we seek not to be delivered from but to see transfigured... This world saps our integrity and eats up our whole personality, giving us not freedom to do what we really want to do but a whole set of false wants and artificial and quite unnecessary 'needs'... From this system of false wants and falsely conceived needs we pray the Key of David to come and deliver us.

But the prison-house which ultimately holds people bound is the house of death itself, that realm which takes hold of us while we are still alive and which we begin to experience in all the frustration that we experience now. Hell, the kingdom of death, is but the logic of our present situation insofar as that situation is unredeemed. Hell does not strictly await a man, but is created by his arrival. So it is not so much the due punishment of our present as our present unredeemed being taken to its logical conclusion and seen in its pure form, if the word 'pure' may be allowed here. To this hell, as we affirm in the Creed, Christ himself goes. We do not just pray to him to take us out of problematic situations and particular places where we find ourselves unfree. We ask him to set us free from the ultimate possibilities of our unfreedom, from death itself. Here we pray in fellowship with the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, with all those kings who desired to see what we have seen but never saw it, and to hear what we have heard but never heard it... We pray to the Key of David to come, therefore, and to lead out the one man who is the human race, who is all of us bound together in one bundle of life... 'Come and deliver us from hell,' we say, from the pointlessness and meaninglessness of it all, the logic that holds us trapped. If we can pray, then we can hope. If we can pray, then we are in the hell of the patriarchs that was full of hope, not Dante's hell which was full of despair.

'Come, O Key of David.' The conqueror is the Christ who was dead, but look, he is alive forevermore. He is the key that opens the door onto a new creation and a new age. He opens the future to us, releasing us from the gloom of our own logic through the power of the keys. It is within this sort of perspective that we can see the significance of that sacrament that we usually associate with the keys, confession, the sacrament of post-baptismal repentance. We are always more or less liable to get ourselves stuck in our past, We tend not to let the record play on but to get it caught, so that the same trivial bit of the tune goes on repeating itself again and again. It's all so dull. That dullness is one of the worst features of sin, the typical dreariness of the shadow of death. The keys are there to lead us out from that prison-house of our own past, out of our habitual ways of thinking and feeling, away from all that dreariness into new possibilities where our feet are set at large... In confession we pray to the Key of David to come and lead us out from all this, to bind us with his love and loose us from other loves.

'Come, Key of David', we sing on 20 December. In the Middle Ages they used to sing this antiphon at other times as well. In particular, they used to sing it when a recluse entered his cell or anchorhold, built alongside the parish church, perhaps, or by some monastery wall. As the recluse was walled up the bishop would lead the people in invoking the Key of David, praying that Christ might shut the door on the recluse in such a way that no man would be able to open it, but also to open doors before him so wide that man would be able to shut them. The recluse was cloistered in the strictest possible sense so that he might walk at liberty before God. He entered, in as symbolically literal a way as possible, into the experience of the Lord on Holy Saturday, going down alive into Hell, free amongst the dead, so as to help Christ harrow hell. His life was hidden with Christ in God, making visible in the walls of his anchorhold the hiddenness in God of every life that is lived with Christ. A life that is Holy Saturday is a very active life, a life engaged in the warfare against the demons.

Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, it is not just problems on the sociological level, about timetables and inter-personal relationships. Our wrestling is 'against the spiritual hosts of wickedness', against demons whose very existence we have had never suspected until we entered some sort of enclosure of our bodies so that our minds might be free to serve him. Certainly, any kind of religious life worth the name must have some element of Holy Saturday about it. What have we to give to God except ourselves? And how do we give anything at all to God except by letting him give what he wants to us? And what does he wish to give us except that freedom for which Christ has set us free, the freedom which we taste in battling with him against the demons of our life-long cloister. The demand that makes on us, in terms of poverty and simplification of life, is that we should have no armour, no defence, save the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God."

-Geoffrey Preston, OP, 'Hallowing the Time'

The fresco above of Christ harrowing Hell is by the Dominican beatus, Fra Angelico.