I am still nervously exhausted and will not be recording anything. The only thing I can do presently to bring anything good to others is by writing. Like Lent, this is a holy season that brings us the joy of the third Sunday, yet with our awareness that not all is well in ourselves in the face of God.
Like at other times in history, we suffer adversity through the pandemic, either by directly catching the disease and sufferings its symptoms – or by our life being curtailed by lockdowns and curfews, the fear of being vaccinated with something completely new. We are in an increasingly noisy world with conflicting “truths” and ideologies, between conservatism and “woke” and many others. We are far from the silence of the Stille Nacht and the effect that snow has of absorbing sound. I spent Christmas 1985 in the Swiss mountains with the young man who introduced me to the Dean of the theological faculty at Fribourg University and helped me get accepted. Those few days in one of the highest villages in Europe taught me the meaning of silence.
In the Office of the Mass according to the Use of Sarum, we find:
Remember us, O Lord, according to the favour that thou bearest unto thy people ; O visit us with thy salvation ; that we may see the felicity of thy chosen ; and rejoice in the gladness of thy people, and give thanks with thine inheritance. Ps. We have sinned with our fathers, we have done amiss, and dealt wickedly.
Rorate was said last Ember Wednesday, to the surprise of those used to the Roman rite. This piece reflects the patience of the People of Israel, the chosen people as they hoped for the coming of the Saviour, who is not far away now. The language is that of the Prophets, and we Christians look forward in the same way to the coming of the Sacramental Mystery of Christ in the liturgy of Christmas. We also look to the Parousia, in the form of our own death to this world and the resurrection of the body in whatever form that might take.
The Epistle resumes the Gaudete Office of last Sunday “Brethren, rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice…” “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord” precedes the blessing given at the end of Mass in the Prayer Book. This Sunday is most certainly in a changed tone from the eschatological themes of the first two Sundays and the prophecies of St John the Baptist, which continue this day.
We do well to refresh our knowledge of the enigmatic John the Baptist who met his violent death at the hands of Herod. The Wikipedia article is very full, and I will not attempt to resume it. The writings in the Gospels are enigmatic, as they are in the Nag Hammadi Scriptures. John is described as sent by God, but that he was not the light, but “came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that through him everyone might believe“. John neither confirms nor denies being the Christ or Elijah or ‘the prophet’, but described himself as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness”. This biblical figure is highly mysterious, and I will not try to speculate here.
An important aspect of prophecy is the miracle, the sick being healed, the deaf being made able to hear, sight given to the blind. All these things happened during the ministry of Jesus. These signs gave credibility to the message he taught.
The Communion verse says: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. These words come from Isaiah vii.14 and are repeated in Matthew i.23. ιδου η παρθενος εν γαστρι εξει και τεξεται υιον και καλεσουσιν το ονομα αυτου εμμανουηλ ο εστιν μεθερμηνευομενον μεθ ημων ο θεος – Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
Again, the meanings of words need study. One such is the word translated into virgin. The Hebrew would tend to mean young woman (Jungfrau in German), but the Greek of the Septuagint gives παρθένος, unambiguously meaning virgin. Some biblical scholars have referred to this words meaning an ancient title for the Holy Spirit rather than a human person, perhaps connected with the Άγια Σοφία, the Holy Wisdom of God. There is an apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews in which Christ refers to the Holy Spirit as his mother. The Virgin Birth is a vital point of Christian orthodoxy, but the controversy needs to be studied with a critical mind.
Why Emmanuel as a name for one who is usually called Jesus or Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ)? I recommend reading Immanuel. It seems to be a name of symbolic value, more than our own Christian names we are given at our Baptism.
I would also like to emphasise contemplating the great O antiphons (from page 38). I have linked to the English version, but the Latin version is found here (from page 36). These are beautiful prophetic texts to begin and end the singing of the Magnificat at Vespers. They will take us to the 23rd December with the singing of O Virgo Virginum, which is why Sarum gives O Sapientia on the 16th and not on the 17th as in the Roman Breviary.
From a point of view of personal feelings, Advent has always brought melancholy, and this year is no exception (apart from the things going on in my life), but also a longing for God through the gloom of the coming Solstice. When I was in York, I frequently attended Evensong in York Minster and absorbed the organ music, the service settings and anthems, the solemn prayers from the Prayer Book. It was the stuff of my Anglican roots, but yet a perpetually unsettled mind and yearning for something I would never find by my own strength. This is Advent, the Sehnsucht of God’s people and each of us.
Modern secular Christmas devastates me, and I pray that the restrictions on Christmas gatherings will bring some to stop and think what Christmas really is other than consumerism, overeating, getting drunk and bringing up old family feuds and disputes. I have done the Christmas tree, and Sophie and I have bought the necessary foodstuffs for the Christmas dinner. I am likely to be alone (apart from the celestial beings) at Midnight Mass and the Mass of the Day. Indeed, those to whom the liturgy means nothing do better to stay away. Over the years, Christmas and Easter have been times of intense suffering, and I hope this will soon change. My hope and prayer is that God’s grace will renew my vocation as a priest and give it new meaning.
This coming week will bring us into Christmas. My prayers will be with those who are alone and who cannot even get to church, for the homeless and destitute. We will find joy insofar as we have grasped something of the real Christian meaning of this feast. In the gloom and the silence, may we find the Light shining from the Ungrund.