The scene is a middle eastern religious party, boisterous, they are celebrating something, but it’s too early for anyone to be drunk. Then this woman gets up and smashes a 8 oz. bottle of a fantastically expensive French perfume – it’s like $6,000 an oz. – and she lets it spill over the head of the man she loves. Sounds like a bad movie. But it happened about 2,000 year ago in a village known by some as “Bethany.” The woman was thought to be named Mary and she poured this perfume on the head of Jesus. It’s the Gospel reading for the Monday before Easter since time immemorial. The scent is potent. They’ll smell it in the house for months… The man will reek of it for weeks. WASTE, calls out one man jumping to his feet, extravagant waste! Others angrily, loudly join in attacking her, such waste! The man Jesus stands up and cries out, SHUT UP! LEAVE HER ALONE! There is silence. And the FRAGRANCE. And the MAN with oil dripping down his beard. Gently he says, She has anointed me for my funeral. The woman is sobbing quietly. The party is almost dead. The first angry man storms out; his name is Judas. Six days later Jesus is dead. Three days after that the same woman is weeping at his tomb. She smells a familiar scent; she hear her name gently spoken, MARY.
Today is the Solemn Feast of the Annunciation of Jesus Christ’s Nativity. It is actually a very ancient feast. For a couple of millennia, it has been associated with late Lent – and I read somewhere that in the ancient Syrian Church this feast occurred on the Thursday of Holy Week – in the morning. It marked the beginning of all the things Christians were about to celebrate. Rather mercifully in modern times, Holy Thursday is not also the day of this feast! In the first chapter of Luke we read about an angel, Gabriel, being sent to Mary of Nazareth. There is now a modern church in that town and in the crypt a little Chapel which commemorates the event. Don’t ask me how they know exactly where it happened – but it did happen in “this” place. On the tiny altar in that crypt chapel certain Latin words are engraved:
‘verbum caro hic factum est’
That could be freely translated: ‘Word enfleshed HERE it was’
The “Word” is God, according to St John. So, it’s that little word “hic” – that is not in St John. This little word ‘hic’ is like a thunder bolt and it could thrill us or shock us, or both. HERE. Not “once upon a time” but HERE. I want to mull that over, do you?
While joy is never out of season, even in Lent, it can seem at least ‘high risk’ these days. Fear seems to be the most infectious disease around. Covid-19 or The Virus seems the engine that drives our lives, even our Churches and other places of worship. It is becoming obsessive. Don’t you agree?
That said, we must never lose focus on the good or the ‘blessing’ hidden in all of life. In life itself! Accepting LIFE as a gift or a blessing is what transforms our daily slog. To see the hidden wholeness in life is transformative. There is a Jewish tradition of prayer that says we should give thanks for at least 100 things each day – a minimum number, that. This takes the form of a prayer of blessing, a barakah. “Blessed be Thou Lord of the Universe….” that I was able to get out of bed this morning… that I am healthy, or I am ill, but You LORD are with me in this.” Nothing is too small to evoke an expression of gratitude or a barakah prayer. The prayer ought to be EXPRESSED too, not just a vague thought. Of course, an Orthodox Jew probably has a written prayer for almost any occasion – but as Gentiles, we could be forgiven for composing our own little humble versions. Now – as for the “100” – it is obvious that if we aim only at that minimum, we will be spending a LOT of time offering barakah/blessings!! I am working on it. It’s harder than you think! It could become INFECTIOUS.
Lent again! Recently I thought this is like a season when a ship pulls into a convenient port for needed repairs and overhauls. Yet it is so much more than that, of course. I ran across something written by the English priest George Congreve, SSJE many years ago; because he was a great soul, his thoughts are worth sharing, even if this proves a longer read than usual. He wrote this at a time when Lent was taken seriously by the society in general. Nevertheless, I find it helpful. Maybe you will too. Here goes:
“Lent is no mere ceremonial regulation, like the Lord Chamberlain’s order for Court mourning for so many days. As if the Church should announce that on Ash Wednesday immemorial custom and ecclesiastical propriety demand that we begin to live sadly for forty days, put aside every encouraging consideration, and dwell upon past sin and the consequences of eternal sin. ….joy is out of season for six weeks. On the contrary, George Herbert writes, ‘Welcome, dear feast of Lent’; and the meaning of Lent is the spring of the soul and of the Church. It symbolizes not the despair or indifference of the dead in sin, the winter of the soul, but the spring, the stirring of mysteries hidden in the depths of our nature, the silent awaking of a desire to love God, which is new and wonderful–of a capacity of growing in likeness to Christ…” He continues:
“The soul is setting herself in a quiet time to remember the highest and deepest thoughts she ever had, and deliberately to choose afresh the highest aim she ever caught sight of. All who intend to obey the Church, and keep Lent, mean that by the grace of God they intend to grow through these forty days in the knowledge and love of God.”
Congreve reflects on the ancient saints, how Lent was for them “a school of Christ.” It should be a ‘school’ for us too – a school that awakens spiritual HOPE in us. This is not the sort of ‘hope’ the world can offer but the theological virtue of that name. But that for another time!
This gentle feast closes the traditional Christmas “cycle.” Because it falls on a Sunday this year perhaps more people will notice it. If you like mystical feasts, this one is for you. It is like a jewel – it has so many dimensions.
The young mother brings her infant Son to his House, and the Lord comes suddenly to His Temple. It is a feast of the Mother who became the “bush which Moses saw unconsumed” as it burned – and in that image the Church acknowledges the preservation of her “glorious virginity.” It is a feast of faith: old Simeon, the devout, takes this Child in his arms and sings of “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” From this image comes the old antiphon: “The ancient carried the Infant, but the Infant governed the ancient…” The old man holds the Ancient of Days, the Holy One who governs all life and time. Elderly Anna the Prophet is there also giving her witness – loudly probably!
Is all this impossible? To our pragmatic world, Yes, and yet it is a sweet mysterious meeting of Faith – an arrival at the intersection of the old Covenant of Mount Sinai and the new Covenant of Mount Calvary. The world’s universal shipwreck is destined to be healed by this Child – when He returns to this same Temple in about 30 years.
(If you wish, look up Malachi 3: 1-4 and Luke 2: 22-40)
With a computer crash plus lots of other stuff, yes time has flown. As the old joke goes, “One frog said to the other, “Time sure is fun when you are having flies!”
Now we need to back up to Christmastide! On a more serious level here is something from retired Pope Benedict XVI on the subject of the praise of God at the Nativity:
‘Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song… And so from that moment, the angels’ song of praise has never gone silent… it resounds ever anew at the celebration of Jesus’ birth.’
A prayer from ancient Eastern Orthodoxy at Christmas Vespers:
‘What shall we offer you O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds their wonder; the earth, it’s cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer you a virgin mother.’
From the modern Western tradition we have the Christina Rossetti poem which takes it further: there she ponders that only the Virgin Mother can offer Him a kiss. Of our own, what can we possibly offer? ‘My heart.’ Dare we fail our part?
A thought from a saint – “The year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn have brought their utmost, but they are over and the end is come. All is past and gone, all has failed…and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future…and does it rejoice that there are new heavens and a new earth to come. These are feelings of holy men waiting earnestly for the Advent of Christ.”
The holy man John Henry Newman penned these words. Winter is indeed “ungrateful to the body” yet let us not fear to be cast forward and dare to wait – with holy ones who will walk with us into the Light.
“Almighty God, give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility….” (from the old Episcopal prayer for First Sunday of Advent)
The wise householder, the good Book says, pulls out treasures both old and new. For this blessed Feast, here is an old treasure from the Anglican trove:
“O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son, Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee: through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Modern spell check rejects “unfeignedly” – poor dear, well, it means in an “unfeigned” manner, no pretense, – just the real deal. What a rich image, being “knit together” like fractured bones! There is hope in that one fellowship and one mysterious Body. Love is the ticket.
This Sunday morning (13 October) the brilliant yet modest priest, John Henry Newman will become – what he always was – a SAINT. Which is to say that the Bishop of Rome, Francis, will officially “raise” Blessed Cardinal Newman “to the Altar.” Newman profoundly shook the English Church world by his conversion to the Roman Church in 1845. There are some wonderful pieces (short and long) available at the You Tube channel of Bishop Robert Barron which help explain the importance of this holy man. https://www.youtube.com/user/wordonfirevideo/videos
Here is the Jesus Prayer attributed to Newman:
“Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance wherever I go. Flood my soul with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that my life may only be a radiance of Yours. / Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus! / Stay with me and then I will begin to shine as You shine, so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine. It will be You, shining on others through me. / Let me praise You in the way which You love best, by shining on those around me. Let me preach you without preaching, not by words but by example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears for You. Amen.”
While hardly brief, this prayer radiates a holiness we should aspire to. With that hanging participle, we leave you to look up the Newman link we shared above !
Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, 2nd October
“Angel of God my guardian dear, To whom God’s love commits me here, Ever this day be at my side, To light, to guard, to rule, to guide. Amen.”
St Basil the Great (+378) taught that every member of the faithful has an Angel Guard for life. St Bernard of Clairvaux (+1153) promoted this devotion in medieval times. In the book of Exodus (23:20) we read that the LORD raises up an Angel guard for his people – a fearsome Angel not to be taken lightly. In old and modern times there are Jewish teachings regarding angel guards. I tend to believe that all living things have some sort of “angel” but only humans have THIS sort of Angel along the lines mentioned in Exodus or in Psalm 91. We mostly keep our angel very busy in the course of life; also I believe that our personal angel is there at our mortal ending to escort us along that last mysterious journey to bring us “to the place prepared.” Probably (this is just me thinking) that even if we have a purifying journey (call it what you will) our Angel guard will not leave us. When the journey is FINALLY over, we two can whoop it up. The Vatican does not teach this! Just my hunch about it all. TODAY is your Hard Working Angel Appreciation Day!