Fourth Sunday of Advent

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.

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5 Responses to Fourth Sunday of Advent

  1. Denis Jackson says:

    The secular Christmas bores the pants off me.
    I have got used to a splendid isolation over the months and have been transported to a heavenly bliss a lot of the time . No more distractions of going to a church building has helped . Doubt whether I want to go back to the old religion …

  2. Stephen K says:

    I rather dig what I glean is the sentiment behind Denis’ post. I found the phrase “the distraction of going to a church building” thought-provoking. I can certainly agree with the sense of it, even though, perhaps more as a result of deep-ingrained habits of childhood and earlier programming than of contemporary intellectual acceptance of darker symbolisms, I would say that were I to find myself alone in a building I knew was a church I would begin to connect mentally and emotionally with ideas and or moods bespeaking of a higher world.

    But I have come to a place where I think physical churches are a springboard from which one often leaps into a pool of spiritualized consciousness, a water in which one’s normal mode of moving and being is different as it must be if we are not to drown. So I can pay recognition to my religious origins but, the moment of perception having come that a church’s erection represents or reflects a straitjacket programme of exoteric conformity, I find it is impossible to recover the full innocence of the feeling of safe-haven such buildings, such “sacred spaces”, once evoked. Perhaps only the experience of a humble, servant priest – real servant to all who enter – of the foot-washing, shirt-divesting, food-sharing kind – at silent office-prayer or quiet, Mass-murmuring at the altar, can dispel the feelings of betrayal and emptiness….for a while.

    Father Anthony, what I have just said I think rather affirms your solitary Christmas liturgies for they seem to me to be of the kind that gives most meaning to the place of the external religious building and action in tension with the desire I believe Jesus recognized of freedom and liberty and non-slavery. If someone attends to share your mass with you, then you might well feel confident that it is an act of that person’s religious love and a true sharing. There is no place, and I say no value, in compulsory attendance.

    One of the ideas I gleaned from Dr Geoffrey Hull’s “The Banished Heart” was that, if I may express it in my own words, the High Mass was the essential liturgical form and the Low Mass was a degraded form. I have now come to think that, though such an idea may be true schematically and historically for the “sophisticated” Church, it surely represents an idea that assumes an hieratic Church of power, and not one of ultimacenarian agape.

    What I’ve tried to express is very difficult to do adequately. But figure this: I read that at least a couple of local bishops have sent missives throughout their dioceses reminding people of the mortal obligation to attend Mass physically. Incredible. Does anyone really believe that not going to Mass on Sundays is a mortal sin, damning for all eternity? Corporate episcopal potentates are not only often ridiculous but inimical to the spiritual quest.

    Denis suggests he doubts whether he wants to go back to the old religion; I know I don’t.

    • I wonder if the old religion would want to go back to us. That might sound frivolous. I am giving a lot of thought to expanding my posting on Liminality, which is a very ambiguous term and needs to be replaced by another, a little like Romanticism, which is also ambiguous and banalised.

      I wonder about the long-term effect of the pandemic, long after people get their shots and attempt to resume their ways of 2019 and before.

      I lay in bed last night reading Alan Watts’ autobiography, and raised an eyebrow when he saw Buddhism under the aspect of abolishing the human person and making us cogs in a collective machine. That’s what the Chinese did through their Cultural Revolution. For it to work, it had to have an indigenous cultural basis. I suspect his thought consists of criticising and toppling any kind of certitude. Some people are like that! However, I agree that everything has to be challenged to verify its validity outside shallow social conformity.

      Only very few people are made for individuality and “liminality”. Most are made for the rat race, the nuclear family, fitting in and being a cog in the machine. I do believe that the lockdowns, masks and packing people into trains is a lesson that will teach us many things.

  3. Stephen K says:

    The season of Advent ceases about now (vesperal time) in my part of the world, and I would like to wish you, Father Anthony, and to all your readers, a very happy Christmas.

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