Sunday, 25 December 2016

Word made Bread

The Word was made flesh on Christmas Day. Our Lady gave birth to a boy, not a book. From now on, the Law of God would be written not on slabs of stone, not on sacred scrolls, but in a human heart. Truly we believe, in Christ that day God Himself came to dwell among us: the prophesied Emmanuel, “God with us.” And though he only stayed a spell, living that Law of love through to death on a Cross and Resurrection on Easter Day, if we thought that He were with us no longer, we would be in error. Much has happened this year and happens every year to tempt us to think that He is not with us at all. But Christ is not just for Christmas. He is with us still. He is with us in the Spirit, He is with us in each other, but here, now, at this and every mass, He has left us His presence in a most particular way. It was no accident that Our Lord was born in a little town called “Bethlehem:” or in Hebrew, Beth Lechem, “the House of Bread.” You see, He who was made flesh in the House of Bread is made bread for us today, the Mass not something incidental to the Christian life, not something the Church has made up, but from the beginning, the way Our Lord has chosen to dwell among us always.

“All the earth was made glad, for Mary’s womb brought forth wheat, and the birds of heaven made their nests in her. From this, humankind is nourished.” So sang the mystic Hildegaard de Bingen. If it sounds far-fetched, just remember that philosophers, artists, kings and statesmen never really doubted it until about 500 years ago, with a collective failure of the imagination which began around the Reformation and culminated with the “Enlightenment,” in reality a dark age of the human soul. Our mediaeval and more ancient forebears in the faith thought with hearts and minds aligned, rarely sundering the two and living the atrophied intellectual half-life of heartless logic which passes for human reason today. As Christ is Word and Flesh, 100% God and human united in one person, so we have to learn to think with heart and mind 100% united. If we want to understand Christ’s incarnation, we have to burst free from the prosaic thought-patterns brainwashed into us today into the realm of poetry and the deeper truths which hide in the spaces between mere human words, in image, and in allegory.

So let us open our eyes to the Mass today: starting with the bread, the basic stuff which all this liturgy and glory, all the song and robes and incense surround. Think, beyond the handy supermarket loaf, about everything that goes into making our daily bread. Think of the wheat seeds scattered on the fields, assailed by birds and insects, inclement weather or stony ground, yet growing despite all this, lifted high on its stem - like Christ on His Cross, opened up - like the lance in His side, cut down, threshed - like His scourging, cooked by fire - like the baptism He prophesied: and all this for bread, to nourish us and give us life. Think of the salt, not as a health hazard, but for ancient people without fridges, the best way of preserving food, and so a sign of the longevity of God’s presence with us, and of the flavour we are called to give to the life of the world. Think of the olive oil, made from that famed fruit of the Greeks, who stand for us gentiles grafted by Christ to the Jewish root of Jesse through Our Lord’s Davidic kingly line; think of its use in lanterns to light our way like that of the wise virgins, as Christ is Himself our light; think of Gethsemane, meaning “olive press,” or the Mount of Olives, where Our Lord was arrested and taken to be pressed, his blood flowing to cleanse the cosmos. Think of the water needed to make the dough, to make the grains hold together, just as the water of life, the Holy Spirit given in Baptism, holds us Christians together as one body in our one Lord. Think of the leaven, making the dough rise as Christ rose from the grave. Think of the baking, the work of human hands, for Christ shared in our humanity so that we humans might share in his Divine work. Those who have ears to hear, eyes of the hearts awakened, should see that “having a bun in the oven” was for Mary more than just a metaphor.

Let’s open our eyes also to what we do with this bread, take our noses out of the words of the service sheet and observing the actions of the Mass. See how we sing the song of the angels at Christ’s birth, “Glory to God in the highest,” worshipping in this House of Bread as they worshipped in Bethlehem. See how it is brought up and offered by the people - in ancient days, the people baked it themselves and brought it to the altar, for in making it, their hands did Christ’s work. Sometimes we sing “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” from the ancient liturgy of St James, but in the old days, it was done in real silence, echoing the silence of the virgin’s empty womb, the silence of the empty tomb, the silence of the nothingness before creation. See how the angels join us again in the song Isaiah heard them sing in his vision of heaven, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord.” See how the incense and candlelight echoes that same vision bringing the biblical vision of heaven’s temple here to our temple on earth. See how my hands descend like the wings of a dove over the bread as the Holy Spirit descended on Christ’s human body at His Baptism; how I lift Him up in bread as His body was lifted on the Cross; how I cover His blood as He was covered in the tomb; how I break Him as his body was pierced by nails; how finally I unite the broken pieces and hold Him back together to proclaim Him the sacrificed Lamb of God, just as we are held together through His Sacrifice like the grains once scattered on the hillside.

The Word was made Flesh. Now the Word is made Bread to dwell in you always. He invites you to receive Him: not just with your mouth, not just with your mind, but with heart and mind aligned in the dream that has sustained artists, thinkers, nations and empires, the dream of the purpose for which we were made: that His Kingdom come.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A commonly held thesis

Let us test a thesis.
Once upon a time, almost all of the great thinkers, artists, scientists, princes and statesmen believed with the majority of humankind in some supernatural agency, whether God or gods or Buddha. The philosophies and aesthetics of nations and globe-spanning civilisations were underpinned by these beliefs, and there is no way of understanding history or literature without understanding the religious ideas behind them. Only seldom did intelligent people ever question such ideas, so deeply engrained were they, and even more rarely did they reject them outright, rather arguing over matters of detail. Religious beliefs continue to be held by the majority of people to this day.
However, a small minority who predominantly hail from one traditionally affluent and powerful part of the globe have established beyond all doubt that these people, both ancient and modern, have been entirely wrong, and that the leaders and thinkers of the past were ultimately no more enlightened than theocratic thugs and fundamentalists. What is more, this is so self-evident that one does not even need to study ancient thought to dismiss is entirely: there is so obviously no God that twenty minutes on Wikipedia will do.
Does this thesis sound reasonable?

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Prayer for Advent

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

This Collect for Advent Sunday is set for daily use throughout Advent in the Book of Common Prayer. The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon writes:

“This beautiful and moving prayer was written specifically for The Book of the Common Prayer (1549) by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Its structure, style and contents reveal just how perfectly he had mastered in English the grammatical structure of the traditional Latin Collects. It is a most appropriate prayer with which to begin the Christian Year for it is addressed to the Father, “Almighty God,” is centred upon the Lord Jesus Christ, “thy Son,” and looks for the direct help in daily living of the Spirit of the Father and the Son (the Holy Ghost). And it takes specific guidance and inspiration from the Epistle to the Romans.

“As baptized believers, living in a world darkened by evil and sin, but given Light by Jesus Christ who is the Light of the world, we ask for the personal help of the Father, through the Holy Ghost, in order to live not as children of darkness but rather as children of light. Indeed, we pray to be protected by the armour of light (see Romans 13:12). When Christ Jesus returns to earth in his Second Coming he will dispel all shadows and darkness, clear up all doubts, chase away all sorrows and cause the new dawn of the new day of the new age to appear. Then we shall cast off our sleeping apparel and put on the shining dress of the kingdom of God, as we are raised to the life immortal.”

I would encourage readers to make it a part of your daily Advent devotions.