Fr Tom Herbst OFM, an early supporter and contributor to this blog, died on 8 November. Here is one of his Advent reflections, well worth reading again and appropriate for the Solstice. RIP, Fr Tom, and thank you!
Here, well up there in the Northern Hemisphere, the approach of the Church’s great winter feasts is met by ever shortening days, grayish sunsets subtly shaded with pastel colour, and the gathering shadows of storm-rattled darkness. Even now, as I look out from the giant bay window in my flat toward a slate gray sea, it feels like a slow motion dawn rather than what the clock prosaically states is high noon. And the Church, in her time-tested wisdom, has properly situated the purple cloaked season of waiting and hoping within a test mirrored by nature herself- will the Son of Man ever return; will I ever witness the eastern blaze of a 5:00 AM springtime dawn seen through the very same bay window now shrouded in a feeble mist? One can hope, but for now all I can do is walk my two bemused dogs in the bookended darkness of a seven o’clock dawn and four thirty afternoon sunset.
I have had critics of the Church, harboring grave suspicions of pagan flashbacks, point out the total lack of biblical witness for the date of Christ’s birth, the unlikely probability of shepherds out in the fields in the dead of winter and, far worse, the close congruence of the decadent Roman Saturnalia with the newly minted Feast of the Nativity. Shopping frenzy beginning at mid-November and a near-universal expansion of waistlines don’t help- as a kindly Jehovah’s Witness picture framer said once, utterly confident that I would agree. It seems, though, as if the whole point has been missed. It is the ritual celebration of Christ’s birth and the expectation of God’s promise fulfilled – born of an indestructible hope- that are being celebrated and the vast stage of nature herself hosts the drama. Yes, the shortening days followed by the magic threshold of the Solstice, when that longed for flicker of light begins to wax stronger, formed the reason for the Saturnalia but this has been embodied by the small child laid in a manger; the hope for Emmanuel realized at last.
What made me think of carol singing in the run-up to Christmas? Whatever it was, my thoughts turned to Ireland in 1968 when I was a student at the Missionaries of Africa’s Saint Augustine’s College in Blacklion, Co Cavan and we continued the tradition of walking the local lanes and the village streets, calling at every house, including the Protestant pastor’s down by the lake.
Away from the village, Blacklion had many small farms with big dogs; there were dark skies and hedges to darken the way further, but we went everywhere and no-one got bitten. We had a couple of good farm lanterns but others were candle ends in jars, slung at the tops of poles. It was a challenge to read the words on the sheets, but we knew all of them and often enough in four voices.
Patricia Hawkins de Medina was living in the village;
My father, Dr. William Hawkins, was medical officer for St. Augustine’s in Blacklion, all those years ago. I have fond memories of attending some of the Christmas pantomimes as a child way back then, and I can remember many of the Fathers. And the students carol-singing at Christmas in the village, and all coming into the hall of our house in Blacklion. So many memories.*
We were creating memories for ourselves as well as the villagers. We were bearing witness to the coming of the Lord, both to our neighbours and to ourselves, as a community of committed young men. But this witnessing brought us face to face with the local families, good, hard-working, struggling people as well as those who were better-off, like the Hawkins family. It is good to be told how special it was to have a male voice choir singing under Patricia’s roof well after bedtime.
Not quite a band of Angels, but we were proclaiming peace on Earth, a grace that certain people in Ireland turned their backs on for years, as they still do in so many parts of the world.
We enjoyed our carol singing, and so did our audience: feasts are given to us to enjoy. Let us not yield to cynicism this Christmas, but pray for peace in our land and peace within our homes and families. Amen.
Gilbert White introduced the Natural History of Selborne (1789) with a selection of his verses, including this description of one family’s harvest time. Their field would have been much smaller than this expanse of barley, ready for the combine harvester, but barley it might well have been, grown for the breweries of London and nearby Alton. Every year, White would have seen the harvest gathered in by hand as he records here. By the sweat of their brow this couple took their part in God’s creation.
Waked by the gentle gleamings of the morn, Soon clad, the reaper, provident of want, Hies cheerful-hearted to the ripen’d field: Nor hastes alone: attendant by his side His faithful wife, sole partner of his cares, Bears on her breast the sleeping babe; behind, With steps unequal, trips her infant train; Thrice happy pair, in love and labour join’d !
All day they ply their task; with mutual chat, Beguiling each the sultry, tedious hours. Around them falls in rows the sever’d corn, Or the shocks rise in regular array.
But when high noon invites to short repast, Beneath the shade of sheltering thorn they sit, Divide the simple meal, and drain the cask: The swinging cradle lulls the whimpering babe Meantime; while growling round, if at the tread Of hasty passenger alarm’d, as of their store Protective, stalks the cur with bristling back, To guard the scanty scrip and russet frock.
The second half of the teenagers’ reflections on things that changed their lives. I have avoided analysing their contributions or sermonising on them; I hope each reader can do so for themselves. I do remember that when I pinned up copies of these thoughts on the classroom display boards they were pleased, far more so than I had expected. Clearly these events DID change their lives.
Let us be aware in our dealings with young people, that we can change their lives for good or ill. For the most part, power lives with adults: let us pray for wisdom to use it well.
When my parents got a divorce and I was fostered for a year.
When I got my dog, because I have always wanted a dog.
My brother leaving home. I had to get used to being without him, and I don’ have anybody to help me with my homework.(This was written by a girl.)
Parents treating me differently as I got older, and getting more protective because I am a girl.
My mum getting married again because we had another person to tell us what to do and where to go and when to do it.
We looked at Ruth and Naomi yesterday: ordinary, decent women who encountered an ordinary, decent man in Boaz; and the rest is history. That story must have been going through the back of my mind, because my eyes were open to an embodiment of ordinary decency as I saw her pushing her walking aid up the hill towards her parish church.
Margaret stopped to chat to three different acquaintances within 200 metres, in my case just a quick greeting as she was already in conversation with someone else. On other occasions she will be walking Basil her Maltese terrier, or giving him a ride on the trolley; or else sitting outside her favourite cafe on the square with a long coffee and a short cigarette, chatting to any who pass by.
There is a ministry of friendliness which doesn’t exactly fit the Gospel accounts of the Works of Mercy, but has elements of several of them. I can imagine Margaret saying: Lord, when did I see thee and befriend thee?
And the Lord could play back a few scenes from her life and say to her: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. And upon such rocks I will build my Church.
Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee?Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee?
And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.
We should not pass over those all-but invisible, non-charismatic, ministers of the Good News who bring it to people without preaching; who can say ‘I love you, God loves you’ without those words coming anywhere near their lips. And by no means all of them have any church affiliation at all. Let us thank God for them.
If you are a pet owner, then you know how many plastic toys you go through. So, why not invest in some plastic-free ones? Also, having a ceramic bowl can be a better alternative to a flimsy plastic one.
George Borrow is walking through Wales in November 1854, and does not regard an umbrella as something expendable, to be thrown out when one or two struts have broken! No Bibles for sale this time, but he’s as full of himself as ever. Enjoy his bombast! But we could remind him of Psalm 17:8, ‘Keep me as the apple of thy eye. Protect me under the shadow of thy wings.’ Even when the rain is in your face, the Lord will protect you. If you allow him to.
Rain came on, but it was at my back, so I expanded my umbrella, flung it over my shoulder and laughed. O, how a man laughs who has a good umbrella when he has the rain at his back, aye and over his head too, and at all times when it rains except when the rain is in his face, when the umbrella is not of much service. O, what a good friend to a man is an umbrella in rain time, and likewise at many other times. What need he fear if a wild bull or a ferocious dog attacks him, provided he has a good umbrella? he unfurls the umbrella in the face of the bull or dog, and the brute turns round quite scared, and runs away. Or if a footpad asks him for his money, what need he care provided he has an umbrella? he threatens to dodge the ferrule into the ruffian’s eye, and the fellow starts back and says, “Lord, sir! I meant no harm. I never saw you before in all my life. I merely meant a little fun.” Moreover, who doubts that you are a respectable character provided you have an umbrella? you go into a public-house and call for a pot of beer, and the publican puts it down before you with one hand without holding out the other for the money, for he sees that you have an umbrella and consequently property. And what respectable man, when you overtake him on the way and speak to him, will refuse to hold conversation with you, provided you have an umbrella? No one. The respectable man sees you have an umbrella and concludes that you do not intend to rob him, and with justice, for robbers never carry umbrellas. O, a tent, a shield, a lance and a voucher for character is an umbrella. Amongst the very best friends of man must be reckoned an umbrella.
It’s about time we sat back to listen to Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey, who knows how to tell a story afresh, with help from Alfie the Collie.
Even the puppies eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table (Mt.15:27).
I think it would be wonderful to be irresistible to Jesus, to surprise him by getting something really right, make him do a double-take and ask, ‘Did she just say that?’ It rarely happens in the gospels, but there are a few instances of it. And one of them is recounted in Matthew 15:21-28.
Jesus and his disciples are travelling, on foot, as usual. They are in the region of Tyre and Sidon – a gentile area. A Canaanite woman, gentile therefore, turns up. And she starts shouting at the top of her lungs, calling to Jesus. At first, her talent seems to lie chiefly in making a pest of herself – at least as far as the disciples are concerned, for they urge Jesus to give her what she wants, ‘…because she keeps shouting after us.’ We know the type, and cringe. The woman is pushy–in the extreme: she’s noisy, her voice probably harsh and grating, she’s insistent, she won’t be brushed off. She shouts out two titles to grab Jesus’ attention (maybe one will work): ‘Lord! Son of David!’ Then ‘…take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’ Over and over, apparently.
And Jesus seems to be ignoring her. Even after reading this story many, many times over the years, I still feel a jolt at Jesus seeming to blank this woman. Why does he do it? I think Jesus himself answers that question when he says to the disciples, ‘But I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ To my mind, what Jesus is saying here is that he is not sure whether the woman would have the capacity to receive what he could give her. Her religious background was unknown; at least the lost sheep of the House of Israel would have the religious sensibility to understand Jesus’ message–or they would in theory, anyway. The gentiles would largely need a different approach. How much would this woman be able to grasp of Jesus’ teaching and his person? I think Jesus’ uncertainty is real. But he will soon have an answer to his question.
The woman overhears what Jesus says, and she has the pluck to come right up to him and show him what she is able to understand. First, she again appeals to his compassion: ‘Lord, help me.’ By this time, whenever I read the story, I am always on her side, pest or no pest, and I really don’t want Jesus to say what he says next, but there’s no help for it. He says: ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the puppies.’ Scholarly exegesis is always quick to point out that Jesus isn’t insulting her; not really. In that culture and at that time, the word for puppies or little dogs softens an expression which itself was a conventional one devoid of the sting we would read into it. It was standard for Jews to refer to gentiles as dogs, evidently. With all our sensitivities today, it is still hard for us not to be taken aback, but it’s possible to imagine Jesus with a kindly expression in his eyes as he refers to the ‘little dogs’ or ‘puppies.’ And, the fact is, the Canaanite woman doesn’t object to it. In fact, she revels in it. It is exactly the handle she needs to hoist herself up in Jesus’ estimation – by a mile. Her life is about to become a lot better.
She has come to Jesus with absolutely no claims and no pretensions. She does not try to be what she isn’t; she isn’t a child of Israel, and she expects to be called a little dog. At the same time, she knows what she knows about Jesus, and she is certain that Jesus has supernatural power capable of healing her daughter. She is determined to obtain her daughter’s healing from him. So she is ready for him. To Jesus’ comment about not wanting to throw the children’s food to the puppies, she makes the brilliant and faith-filled rejoinder: ‘Ah, yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.’
Suddenly this pest is transformed into a paragon of everything Jesus wants to see in us. She is loving. She is straightforward about herself. She is full of faith with regard to Jesus. She is brave, truthful, frank, plucky and, as a bonus, ingeniously witty. This combination is irresistible to him. She understands all right, probably a lot better than some of the lost sheep of Israel do, and is fully able to receive the gift that Jesus is able to give. ‘Woman, you have great faith!’ he exclaims. ‘Let your desire be granted!’ And surely, this was said with an amazed smile and even a laugh on Jesus’ part. She must have filled Jesus with such joy, even as she herself was filled with joy by Jesus.
I said at the beginning that I’d like to be irresistible to Jesus, surprising him by the strength of my faith. This story makes me question some attitudes I have. Would I be as plucky as the Canaanite woman? She knew that as a gentile, she was not entitled to Jesus’ gift, but she was willing to receive any scrap from him that she could scavenge, and knew that such a scrap would be filled with his mighty power. How do I measure up against her willingness and faith? Against her perseverance in prayer? Don’t I tend to grow discouraged? Don’t I bring a subtle attitude of entitlement to prayer? I am not entitled to Jesus’ gift of friendship, healing and eternal salvation any more that she was. When Jesus seems to ignore my prayer, when he seems silent, don’t I feel just a bit put out? A little bit of entitlement is not much better than a lot of it. Perhaps by meditating on this Canaanite woman I may learn from her the attitudes that Jesus finds irresistible, and then find that we are cooperating in joy.
T wished Greta a good evening and went to round up the parrot hunters. Before he knew it he was face-to-face with a rather overweight police sergeant who was walking sedately through the park. T saw the official look descend over the lawman’s face and felt sure the doglets were being a nuisance to some poor creature. He recognised the sergeant, a former pupil of his friend Will Turnstone, so seized the initiative.
‘Callum, good to see you. How’s life in the force? Am I allowed to stand and chat with you?’‘
Callum had heard that conversational gambit more than a few times. ‘Come on Mr T, you should have those creatures under control. That woman in the red coat says they were chasing squirrels.’
‘And did they ever catch one? They just keep the squirrel population in training.’‘ Well, she can see I’ve had a word with you, but call them in, please.’
T called the boys in English and flashed his urgent call in Ossyrian telepathy. ‘If you don’t want to end up in the stray dogs’ home, you’d best get over here.’ They came.
‘Thanks Mr T,’ said the sergeant. ‘Beware of little old ladies who bring peanuts for the squirrels. She knows she shouldn’t do it but there’s no arguing with her. Good bye and enjoy your walk!’
They watched him plod on. ‘If you two are having fun, can you not keep half an eye out for trouble?’ T complained.
‘We minded your bag while you were in the pool. You should keep watch for us when we are chasing squirrels.’
T felt there was something lacking in Ajax’s logic, but the exhilaration in their bearing suggested that they had gained as much from their noisy run around as he had from his quiet swim. Such joys were available virtually in Ossyria, but he had to admit that the earthly cool water and warm air were the real thing, the home version of total immersion now seemed somewhat lacking. True, Superstud Doggynutz were a poor substitute for the crunchy squirrel thighs the chihuahuas craved, but who has everything? Ossyrians were so sure that they did, but they could learn from crazy generous humans any day.
Downstairs in a pandemonium of claws then out into the spring sunshine. T had hardly noticed the weather, being absorbed in collating a report on Random Acts of Kindness between Earthly Species. The chihuahuas had contributed to the field-work, or rather park-work, that lay behind this thesis. They maintained, from a canine perspective, that when a dog looked at a human eye-to-eye, with tongue at half-mast in what some people called a smile, it was the dog initiating the exchange of kindness, not the human who scratched the dog between the ears or under the chin.
It was well drilled into the chihuahuas that they did not enter Peter’s Fish Factory. ‘After all’, said T, ‘You never went near the kitchen in Ossyria.’ ‘As if anyone ever would!’ retorted Alfie. ‘I never knew where they were, and I never wanted to.’ He broke off as T entered the shop, then turned to Ajax. ‘Well done, getting him out of the apartment. He’s spent too long on that report that will never be read. Even if it gets back to Ossyria, it will be suppressed. Random Acts of Kindness would upset the whole system. What’s the point of them in the best of all possible worlds?’
‘Best of all possible worlds? I don’t quite believe that any more.’ Ajax would have said more, but T had come out of Peter’s carrying a big paper bag with a blue fish printed on the side. ‘Beach steps or Winter Gardens?’ asked T. ‘Gardens’, came the reply. Aggressive, hungry gulls were intimidating to lowly chihuahuas, and there was more cover in the gardens. If necessary, a dog could hide under a bench, though not too close to another dog who might fancy the same morsel, or receive a larger whitebait.