Thursday, 31 December 2015

Forty Joyful Days

St Luke tells us about three significant forty-day periods in the life of our Lord. These are:
  • the time between the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22)
  • the time that Jesus spent in the desert after His baptism (Luke 4:1-2)
  • the time between the Passion and the Ascension of our Lord (Acts 1:3)
It would seem to be the case that the period in the wilderness was a necessary final preparation before the Messiah began His mission and that the period after the resurrection was a necessary final preparation before the Apostles undertook their mission, to proclaim the Good News to the world. I would argue that the first period constituted a necessary preparation for Mary before she undertook her mission as the Mother of God present in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.

The forty-days had an explicitly Marian dimension in that they constituted the time required for Mary to purify herself, according to the Law of Moses, after the birth of a son. Of course strictly speaking she could have dispensed with the requirement (as her Son could have done with circumcision on the eighth day) because the Law was only the shadow of things to come (Colossians 2:16-17) and the reality had now come in the form of the infant Christ. However since He was born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4) it was seemly that the provisions of the Law should be adhered to until our Lord completed His mission on the cross at Calvary.

These days, though, were much more than the formal keeping of an outward legal prescription. They were a time of great and never to be repeated joy for the Blessed Virgin. Mary had a life full of sorrow and trouble. From the Annunciation to the first Christmas she had all the anxieties of any pregnancy plus the peculiar difficulties attendant on being the unique virgin mother-to-be of the Son of God. She also had the pain of inflicting pain upon St Joseph by her silence about the conception until an angel enlightened him about it. Furthermore she undertook three long journeys during this time, those to and from St Elizabeth and finally the trip to Bethlehem while nine-months pregnant which ended in the worry about finding somewhere to stay while she give birth.

During the Presentation Simeon prophesied that she would have her soul pierced by a sword (Luke 2:34-25) although there is no doubt that she was more concerned that he also foresaw that her Son would be a sign of contradiction and thus experience in Himself a turbulent life. The shadow which descended upon her at these words would never afterwards depart from her until all was fulfilled. And then, shortly afterwards, she and St Joseph had to escape form the Holy Land altogether and seek refuge in far-off and alien Egypt.

Mary, though, was blessed with these forty tranquil, trouble-free, joyous days with her Son and the holy patriarch. It was a time to bond with Him. To gaze her fill upon Him with the eyes of a mother and of a daughter of God. He was blood of her blood and flesh of her flesh and nourished wholly by the milk of her own body. There were no clouds in the sky. She could reflect with gladness and hope on the words of the archangel Gabriel "He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:32-33) And on those of the angel to the shepherds "I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people" (Luke 2:10)

The relationship between our Lord and our Lady that was so close and that endured so much had begun in her womb and continued long after these days but this period was special. For the first time they could see each other and Mary could express her love through the simple, practical actions of the body which are so human and so necessary. To kiss her child, to hold Him in her arms, to see Him sleep, to lie still and hear Him breathe, to feed Him and bathe Him, to smile at Him, perhaps to shed tears of pure happiness over Him. These were the things that transformed Mary into the woman who would be able to do and suffer all that she would subsequently be called upon to endure for the cause of the Redemption wrought for us all by her Jesus.

Luke repeatedly tells us that Mary treasures the things of Jesus in her heart and ponders upon them. This is of twofold importance for these forty-days. Firstly, during that time she could call into her heart the love and mercy of God towards her, her people Israel and all the world and link it to the child whom she was just beginning to know. Secondly, in the long, dark and troubled years to follow she could summon up the spirit of these days to console and strengthen her. This would be no nostalgia for better times but an actual making present within herself of the incarnated love which having been begun in the world and in her inmost being would never pass out of them though they would sometimes be hidden. And this is what makes these days important for us too. We can not only rejoice with Mary's rejoicing but we can imitate her. In our moments of trial we, by contemplating the life of our Lord and recalling our personal moments of grace can bring them to life because they are moments of eternity which have intersected with time. In prayer and thankfulness we, like our Lady, can find the key that lets light into our darkness because we too can adore her Son any time we want to.

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The paintings are The Holy Family-the workshop of Raphael and The Holy Family- Joos van Cleve

Friday, 25 December 2015

On the Feast of Stephen

Giorgio Vasari Martyrdom of St Stephen.jpg
The birthday of the Christ child was an event of joy for each person involved in it, as it has been for Christians ever since. Yet it was a joy hedged about with anxieties. The Magi may have had to resort to people smugglers to escape from Palestine. The Holy Family were forced to seek asylum in Egypt. The infants of Bethlehem were massacred by the security services of a paranoid Middle-Eastern despot. It is no accident, then, that Holy Church has twinned the celebration of Christmas on the 25th with that of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, on the 26th of December.

You do not have to be religious, of course, to appreciate the fragility of human happiness. In these days we are remembering the centenary of the First World War. There were many thousands of births in Cowley or Cologne, Dublin or Delhi, where unfeigned rejoicing was tempered by fear that the fathers of the babies would never live to see them. Weddings too were celebrated in the shadow of barbed wire and poison gas.

We are powerfully tempted to use magic to banish painful memories and anticipations from our thoughts. Not just the magic of spells and charms but that of money or power or alcohol or chocolate. Anything indeed that can keep an illusion of permanent happiness present within us. Since we know deep down, however, that none of this magic really works we are forever engaged in a restless search for new charms or more supercharged versions of current ones.

The genius of Christianity is not that it enables us to escape suffering (which is the false promise of magic) but that it brings hope into the midst of even the worst of our torments. St Stephen on trial for his life was transfigured not by fear but by the Holy Spirit “All those who sat in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel.(Acts 6:15) As he met his violent death he could say “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56)

This is not a compulsory and artificial cheerfulness, many Christians suffer from the effects of depression or anxiety. It is not the least of the fruits of the Incarnation that God Himself is our companion both in our times of greatest rejoicing and those of our greatest suffering because they are no more alien to Him than they are to us. The gift of a living faith is that we possess the knowledge that we are never alone (except when we sin.) That knowledge born into the world on the first Christmas morning accompanied St Stephen as the murderous fury of a mob vented itself upon Him.

The martyred Saint, like the child born on Christmas day, was an innocent victim of unjust persecution. Being a Christian in the world can bring down more suffering upon us than if we were not Christians. In many places today this is suffering of a kind which Jesus and St Stephen could readily recognise. In the West such persecution is, for the time being at least, not experienced and there is little more than ridicule, insult and exclusion to fear. Even so why should we take this extra cross upon ourselves? Pope St John Paul II once said “Christianity is not an opinion nor does it consist of empty words. Christianity is Christ!” (World Youth Day 2003.) We have no reason to celebrate the coming of the Christ child into the world if we do not also welcome Him into our hearts. His presence there is that knowledge which enables us to more than endure the sufferings we cannot escape. It is also the sign of contradiction which challenges not only our own faith in magic but that of others. We cannot escape our own illusions without also offending those who cling to theirs. The boy born that first Christmas would one day say “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.” (John 15:18)

If, however, you do bear Christ within you then you carry a love that cries out to be shared. You can share it by your words and by your actions and these can persuade friends. To persuade enemies you need something stronger yet. The Church Father Tertullian said  "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." Living in a country where you are not likely to die for your faith does not deny you the opportunity to make the same witness. In 1914 and 1915, no doubt, there were many people who joined the armed forces because they feared the shame of being called a coward more than they feared the trenches of Flanders or the cold waters of the Atlantic. In a sense conscientious objectors showed at least as much courage by standing against the mentality of the day as those who signed up for fear of ridicule (which is not to denigrate the courage of the many who joined up fully conscious of the risks.) For us the challenge is to say ‘Yes, we really do believe “all that stuff” however absurd it makes us appear to you and that is why we are willing to welcome refugees, to visit prisoners, to speak kindly of enemies, to reject the magic of power and money.’ And that is why, like St Stephen, we too can hope to see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

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(the painting is the Martyrdom of St Stephen by Vasari)

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Rabbi Koala & the Christ Child-A Christmas Fable

My life, now drawing towards its end, has been long and full of incident. I had intended to leave a record outlining all the extraordinary events which have led me to become the only koala bear in the Holy Land and a Rabbi in the Synagogue of the Creatures. Writing books, as you know, is a difficult task for animals and it took much effort and planning to obtain all the materials needed to write my account. I had only just succeeded in gathering them all together when incredibly, wonderfully, miraculously I encountered the long awaited child of promise. Laying aside then, with some regret, all my plans I will instead tell you about this, the single most important thing which has ever happened to me.

Because of my unusual history (which, alas, I will never now record) I have particular responsibility for providing pastoral care to migrant animals in what the Romans call Palestine. Most of these are congregated in the capital city, Jerusalem, so I am based there but every year I make a visit to the outlying districts. During the course of this I meet established immigrant communities and newcomers and find out what spiritual and material needs they may have. Last winter in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem I met two young pangolins, Harum and Scarum, who told me a fantastic story about a donkey, a manger and a baby (see Adoration of the Pangolins: A Christmas Fable.) Well, you know what pangolins are like; they have terrible eyesight and vivid imaginations so I didn’t set much store by this.

Clearly though something unusual had recently happened in the area. Although the local sheep were not part of my flock, as it were, being ‘indigenous’ I got to chatting with them as I went on my way. They excitedly told me about a vision of angels* who had appeared in the night sky singing about the glory of God and the coming of that child who will unite heaven and earth. If true this was news indeed since creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of this child of God.* I still wasn’t going to get worked up about it though. In my long life I’ve heard more false rumours than you can shake a stick at and I have learnt to discount about 90% of what excited creatures say.

Since I had finished my circuit of the region I was getting myself ready to return to Jerusalem when a raven dropped by and told me about a caravan from the East which had arrived in Bethlehem. News like this always interests me because I was born in India (something I would have been able to explain if I had stayed with Plan A.) Very often travellers from the Orient have news about my cousin Krishnan Koala who is something of a celebrity on the Indian subcontinent.

Being very keen to speak to the caravan animals I decided to make my way into town that evening. As the only koala for at least a thousand miles in any direction I have to be extremely cautious in the vicinity of humans since they are forever trying to capture me and put me in a circus. I waited then until the town was asleep and warily made my way in. The camels turned out to be quite chatty but terribly ignorant. Not only had they never heard of my cousin, they were from Persia not India, but they didn't even know why they had come to Bethlehem. One of the parrots, Leila, was woken up by our chatter.
“I know why we’re here” he said sleepily, “the child has been born and is in that house.”
I looked at him with wild surmise as he casually waved his left wing towards the nearest human dwelling.
“You don’t mean the One who is to unite earth with heaven and reconcile them?” I stammered.
“That is just what I mean” Leila insisted “and what's more I have seen Him. You only have to cast your eyes over Him for a moment and you will know that He is what He is.”

Now, at last, I was excited. To be within a few feet of the child of promise; an old Rabbi could ask for nothing higher.
“I will see for myself” I said and stealthily made my way into the house.

I found the Lady sitting under a single lamp in a large room. She was looking into a crib, her large, gentle eyes wholly absorbed in what they saw there. Koala’s are creatures of restricted stature and, unlike parrots, do not possess wings. I moved around in the shadows looking for something to climb so that I could get up high enough to see the baby. In doing this I must have made a noise, at any rate the Lady suddenly became aware of me. She looked up, smiled and stretched out a welcoming hand.
“Come,” she said “be not afraid,  The wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them. They shall not hurt, nor shall they kill in all my holy mountain*”
She radiated peace and kindness as she spoke and without hesitation I left the shadows and ran into her arms. The Lady lifted me up saying
All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord*
And then I saw Him. Leila was right, as soon as I saw I knew. He was the source of love and it flowed from Him like a stream of living water. Most humans of course would be too dull to perceive it but we animals can see it. I realised too that this flowed from Him to the Lady and had then, through her, reached me drawing me in to adore Him.

Tears flowed from my old eyes “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation*” I managed to whisper. After I had filled my eyes and my heart with the Christ child the Lady tenderly set me down on the ground again. She looked into the shadows.
“They have no light” she said. So I set off to spread the good news.

(*The scriptures quoted in the story are- Luke 2:10-14, Romans 8:19-22, Isaiah 11:5-9, Daniel 3:81, Luke 2:29-30)


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