Jesus was not the King that people thought they were looking for. The Gospel reading for today makes that clear: we hear Dismas, the repentant thief, accept Jesus’ paradoxical claim, beseeching, ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’, and being told, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 29:35-43).
But 33 years before that, it was hardly a typical royal arrival in Bethlehem.
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.
This is a verse from Richard Crashaw’s ‘In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord.’ He was an Anglican priest and academic, living from 1613-1649. He was ejected from Cambridge in 1643 by Oliver Cromwell, who famously did not approve of Christmas. Crashaw became a Catholic in exile, and died a canon of Loreto, Italy in August 1649.
It’s Mary’s feast today. She matters because she is the mother of Jesus. Let’s read the thoughts of a 19th Century Protestant Englishwoman.
Elizabeth Barrett published this suite of twelve verses in 1838, before she met Robert Browning. I say ‘suite of verses’ for each one can stand as a poem in its own right. In these first two verses Mary speaks tenderly to her Son, trying to establish what their relationship will become. Jesus new-born, sleeps on, exhausted. What will become of them both? We will publish a further selection of the verses over the next three days.
In the stained glass window Jesus is old enough to learn to read and be in Joseph’s workshop, with a rose bush and a palm tree outside.
THE VIRGIN MARY TO THE CHILD JESUS
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
But see the Virgin blest Hath laid her babe to rest. Milton's Hymn on the Nativity.
I. Sleep, sleep, mine Holy One! My flesh, my Lord!—what name? I do not know A name that seemeth not too high or low, Too far from me or heaven: My Jesus, that is best! that word being given By the majestic angel whose command Was softly as a man's beseeching said, When I and all the earth appeared to stand In the great overflow Of light celestial from his wings and head. Sleep, sleep, my saving One!
II. And art Thou come for saving, baby-browed And speechless Being—art Thou come for saving? The palm that grows beside our door is bowed By treadings of the low wind from the south, A restless shadow through the chamber waving: Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun, But Thou, with that close slumber on Thy mouth, Dost seem of wind and sun already weary. Art come for saving, O my weary One?
More from EBB tomorrow; the whole suite can be found on line.
It ought to be a firm principle rooted in us,
that this life is the most precious season in all Eternity,
because all Eternity dependeth on it.
Now we may do those actions
which hereafter we shall never have occasion to do.
And now we are to do them in another manner,
which in its place is the most acceptable in all worlds:
namely, by faith and hope,
in which God infinitely delighteth,
with difficulty and danger,
which God infinitely commiserates, and greatly esteems.
So piecing this life with the life of Heaven,
and seeing it as one with all Eternity,
a part of it,
a life within it:
Strangely and stupendously blessed
in its place and season.
‘This life is the most precious season in all Eternity, because all Eternity dependeth on it.’ I still find myself shaking my head at the piercing simplicity of this idea.
Lord, help me to see this life as a part of eternity,
strangely and stupendously blessed
in its place and season.
Knowing myself beloved
and so glorified of God Almighty in another world,
I ought to honour Him in this always, and to aspire to it.
At midnight will I rise to give thanks unto Thee
because of Thy righteous judgements.
Seven times a day will I praise Thee,
for Thy glorious mercy.
Early in the morning will I bless Thee,
I will triumph in Thy works,
I will delight in Thy law day and night;
at evening will I praise Thee.
I will ever be speaking of Thy marvellous acts,
I will tell of Thy greatness,
and talk of the glorious majesty of Thy excellent Kingdom;
these things ought ever to breathe in our souls.
“Knowing myself beloved” – how many of us would dare to start writing with such a bold statement? Knowing implies more than just holding an opinion, or feeling optimistic of getting to heaven to be glorified in that other world. It’s a knowledge that transcends how Traherne feels. He may be tired, hurt or ill, but he will praise God regardless of how he himself feels today. He may feel quite different tomorrow but that does not alter God’s greatness, nor his glory, nor his kindness to humans.
Traherne used the Psalms in composing this reflection. They form the basis of the Church’s seven prayers a day, which can be found free on-line at universalis.com for anyone wishing to pray them.
(Apologies that this reflection has fallen out of sequence. Sometimes a more topical piece turns up and things get moved around.)
At the annual gathering of the priests of the Diocese in October 2018 the speaker was Tom O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at Nottingham University. Tom gave the priests of the Diocese Six Simple Steps which could go some way to achieving Vatican II’s vision in our celebration of the Eucharist. Today we take a look at steps 5 and 6.
Step 5: Stand at the Table
“One of the obvious changes in the reformed liturgy was that ‘the priest no longer had his back to the people.’ Altars were ‘pulled out’ or a new one built behind which the president stood – and the change was understood in terms of visibility. But the change was really to draw out that the Eucharist takes place at a table, which can be interpreted as our altar. This is the Lord’s table around which we are bidden by the Lord and which anticipates the heavenly table.
Step 6: The Prayer of the Faithful
“The oldest debate in Christian liturgy relates to the tension between fixed formulae and spontaneous prayer. …” By the time of Vatican II (1962-65) many “had recognised the need for both familiar forms and for spontaneous expression, and so there is a place for this in the reformed rite: the Prayer [note the singular] of the Faithful. However, often in practice it has become a scripted set of intentions. … The Prayer of the Faithful is an expression of the priesthood of the baptised and their ability, in Christ, to stand in the presence of the Father and ask for their own needs and those of all the communities to which they belong.
. I shall know why, when time is over, And I have ceased to wonder why; Christ will explain each separate anguish In the fair schoolroom of the sky.
He will tell me what Peter promised, And I, for wonder at his woe, I shall forget the drop of anguish That scalds me now, that scalds me now.
XXXIX from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete, via KIndle
Peter, whose feast we celebrate today, famously went out and wept bitterly. His woe was put behind him by Christ’s forgiveness (John 21) which gave him the grace to preach the good news far from the Sea of Galilee, the grace to be Saint Peter. But that was after the Ascension, when the Good News was totally entrusted to Jesus’ followers.
Tomorrow and the next day we welcome back Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey, who opens up the disciples’ first taste of ministry and what they learned from Jesus’ reaction to their experience. Let us remember all those who will be ordained priest or deacon this Petertide.
“Audemus dicere ‘Pater Noster.”*—canon of the mass.
There is a bolder way, There is a wilder enterprise than this All-human iteration day by day. Courage, mankind! Restore Him what is His.
Out of His mouth were given These phrases. O replace them whence they came. He, only, knows our inconceivable “Heaven,” Our hidden “Father,” and the unspoken “Name”;
Our “trespasses,” our “bread,” The “will” inexorable yet implored; The miracle-words that are and are not said, Charged with the unknown purpose of their Lord.
“Forgive,” “give,” “lead us not”— Speak them by Him, O man the unaware, Speak by that dear tongue, though thou know not what, Shuddering through the paradox of prayer.
Alice Meynell, from A Father of Women and other poems, Burns & Oates, London, 1917
* We dare to say ‘Our Father’. The words would have been recited in Latin in 1917.
A warning against taking ourselves and our assumed virtues without a good pinch of salt. We only begin to see what the Lord’s Prayer means when we put the words back onto his tongue, avoiding our short-sighted, self-serving distortions.
Today’s post is from The Imitation of Christ, chapter LI. I thought we might look at a traditional work on the Christian life while developing the subject of ‘my vocation today’. Any of us who carry out even the most cursory examination of conscience know only too well that we must bear the burden of this daily life and suffer weariness and heaviness of heart. And there just is not the time or opportunity to give myself unceasingly to spiritual exercises and divine contemplation. Someone has to do the necessary tasks around the home or go out to work to be able to feed the family. It can get to be drudgery at times, but let’s get on with our humble, outward works, and Christ will come to us and give us peace among the cooking, gardening, washing and nappy-changing; and in the toils of work that is not always fun.
The Imitation imagines what we could hear from
THE VOICE OF CHRIST
MY CHILD, you cannot always continue in the more fervent desire of virtue, or remain in the higher stage of contemplation, but because of humanity’s sin you must sometimes descend to lower things and bear the burden of this corruptible life, albeit unwillingly and wearily.
As long as you wear a mortal body you will suffer weariness and heaviness of heart. You ought, therefore, to bewail in the flesh the burden of the flesh which keeps you from giving yourself unceasingly to spiritual exercises and divine contemplation.
In such condition, it is well for you to apply yourself to humble, outward works and to refresh yourself in good deeds, to await with unshaken confidence My heavenly visitation, patiently to bear your exile and dryness of mind until you are again visited by Me and freed of all anxieties. For I will cause you to forget your labours and to enjoy inward quiet. I will spread before you the open fields of the Scriptures, so that with an open heart you may begin to advance in the way of My commandments. And you will say: the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the future glory which shall be revealed to us.
I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.
On our last L’Arche pilgrimage, those of us at the back of the group were following, not a golden string but arrows chalked on the pavement by the children. Who would not jump at the chance to draw graffiti across a town without getting into trouble? Only in the woods did we need some imagination to read the arrows they had created from sticks and stones.
In Dover town I ended up walking with P, who was happy enough to be walking way behind everyone else. Carrying the banner helped him concentrate on moving along. But we had to stop along the riverbank to watch the Dover ducks, who were quacking loudly. So I quacked back, quietly and politely, and so did P.
But my stomach was rumbling, and that golden string was going to snap if we lost touch with everyone else.
Soon a search party came to chivvy us along, so that we got to Kearsney Abbey park before all the food was gone. That was important to both of us!
Who knows where their golden string will lead them, on the way to Heaven’s gate? Blake’s picture shows us a woman walking beneath the White Cliffs and looking up to where her string is leading her. He does not show how our personal strings ravel together. Those weavings, knots, stitches, embroidery and tangles are part of each of our life’s journey, part of our shared pilgrimage, helping each other to find the way; as P and I did, one morning in Dover.
From God’s presence with Samuel Johnson in a dreadful storm to his presence in a ‘dreadful place’. Jacob called it Beth-el, the House-of-God, after the dream of the ladder, or staircase, between Heaven and Earth. William Blake has shown Jacob with arms outstretched, feet crossed, head to one side, reminiscent of the Crucified One, his descendant. So the Cross, our daily cross, is the Gate of Heaven, as shown in the weather vane of the former Holy Cross Church in Canterbury (now the Guildhall). Certainly the hill of Calvary was a dreadful place, but the opening of the Tomb completed its work and opened the Gate of Heaven.
And when Jacob was come to a certain place, and would rest in it after sunset, he took of the stones that lay there, and putting under his head, slept in the same place.And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it; And the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed.And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth: thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and IN THEE and thy seed all the tribes of the earth SHALL BE BLESSED. And I will be thy keeper whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land: neither will I leave thee, till I shall have accomplished all that I have said.
And when Jacob awaked out of sleep, he said: Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. And trembling he said: How terrible is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven.
And Jacob, arising in the morning, took the stone, which he had laid under his head, and set it up for a title, pouring oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of the city Bethel, which before was called Luza. And he made a vow, saying: If God shall be with me, and shall keep me in the way by which I walk, and shall give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, And I shall return prosperously to my father’s house: the Lord shall be my God: And this stone, which I have set up for a title, shall be called the house of God: and of all things that thou shalt give to me, I will offer tithes to thee.