Sunday, January 25, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, freedom of expression and a thought from GK Chesterton

In the context of Charlie Hebdo, a very interesting article by George Weigel on Europe and Nihilism ( has prompted me to reflect upon freedom of speech in light of the conundrum Weigel sets out: that of trying to stand for something when your basic position is to be against everything.

I’ve never been a subscriber to Charlie Hebdo and I’ve never held a copy in my hands, but I have seen plenty of its cartoons and I have read interviews with its journalists and it seems to me that the magazine delights in desecrating that which people hold sacred, and not always for the aim of exposing some truth that points out a flaw or some hypocrisy in the thing held sacred. Rather too often the point just seems to be to create offence for no other good purpose. I get what Private Eye is trying to do, its cartoons and sketches try to shed the veil, somehow get beneath the major headlines and increase our understanding through humour. Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, often seems to seek to portray the story in the most crass and offensive way possible. The main purpose seems to be to shock; they don’t seem to shock for the sake of something. Elsewhere you can find cogent arguments for why we might be under an obligation to mock religions, but although I disagree with the general thrust of the argument, it’s at least mocking for the sake of some higher principle

Perhaps though the retort of the Charlie Hebdo writers and fans to my argument thus far would be: “No,  we are for something; we are for freedom of speech.” Well, that too is empty, unless it’s for the sake of something. I would ask “freedom of speech, for what . . . for the sake of expressing some truth . . . inspiring others to some good . . . exposing hypocrisy?” These all seem to me justifiable reasons for causing offence, but offence should not be the end, only ever the means. In addition, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that in making a broader point we should seek to limit the offence we cause, and when can a pornographic cartoon be the only way of making your point? However, if your most cherished value finds its standard form of expression in the deliberate mocking and causing of offence to others, not in the service of some more fundamental truth, because in fact you don’t believe in any fundamental truths, then ultimately what’s the point?

Related to this I was very sad to read the following from Charlie Hebdo after the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris pealed out its bells in memory and in solidarity with the victims of the deplorable terrorist slaughter:

“What made us laugh the most is that the bells of Notre Dame rang in our honour,” the editorial stated. “We would like to send a message to Pope Francis, who, too, was ‘Charlie’ this week: we only accept the bells of Notre Dame ringing in our honour when it is Femen who make them tinkle.”

If an expression of solidarity and compassion with fellow human beings after a tragic event at a time of national mourning can only be responded to with mockery and scorn, then what hope is there of any genuine fraternity being established? In fact fraternity seems to be forgotten value of liberty, equality and fraternity in the French Republic. Whilst there has been a huge march expressing solidarity for the victims and marking, quite properly, a strong stance against terrorism, what there has not really been is any reflection on why mockery of Mohamed is not congruent with fraternity. The grotesque cartoons (I have personally been disgusted by those aimed at Catholics and sympathetic to Muslim sensibilities at gross depictions of Mohamed) take a liberty at the expense of fraternity, and those most likely to be offended are often those least likely to feel any sense of equality in the society in which they live. Muslims are, in the main, in the lower socio-economic groups in France and the editors of Charlie Hebdo represent the white and wealthy establishment. What to one group is an exercise of freedom of speech can quite easily be perceived as bullying by another. You’re poor, you’re under-represented, and then somebody is deliberately offensive about that which you hold most dear. The reaction from those violent and senseless terrorists was grossly disproportionate, utterly inexcusable and rightly roundly condemned, but the fact that there has been a reaction to this continual baiting in the magazine should not really come as a surprise. I am no apologist for Islamism and I believe there is an urgent necessity for full and frank critique of radical expressions of Islam and their relation to Islam in general, but this is going to require engagement with Muslims and the actions of Charlie Hebdo are likely to alienate even the moderates. Freedom of expression needs to be used to start a conversation whereas right now it is just being used to hurl insults, and those insulted don’t really even have the for a right of reply in the public forum and thus frustrations get vented in ever more desperate ways. This does not excuse gratuitous violence; it is merely to acknowledge the reality of how these things play out.

We need then to examine on what basis there be a genuine solidarity between all humanity. Certainly, one sure way to diminish fraternity is to deliberately upset and antagonise people, particularly those who are the poorest. I shall go on to look at some answers below which seem to be discernible to us by use of reason alone, but I want first to look at the exercise of freedom of expression a little further.
Whenever we have a right we normally have a responsibility too, and our free speech is no exception: it needs to be used responsibly.

Protests outside the Danish Embassy in London after a cartoon of Mohamed is published in Denmark

Those associated with Charlie Hebdo fail to do this, in my opinion. They in no way merited or can in anyway have any culpability for the crazed actions of those who killed them, but they did know that there were risks in publishing what they did. There was a certain bravery or  foolhardiness, depending on your view point, in the magazine's continually taking cheap shots at Muslims (and not just Christians as most Western publications tend to), when they knew the likelihood of violent reactions - at least one member of staff already had required police protection – and would have been fully aware of the violent protests against the Danish cartoons of Mohamed back in 2006 which are estimated to have resulted in around 200 deaths in numerous different parts of the world.

Thus after the most recent terrorist slaughter in the name of Islam, with palpable tension between Muslims and other communities in France, and with Christians being blamed in some parts of the Islamic world (where there is naive assumption that all non-Muslims in the West are Christians), there was obviously going to be a huge amount of focus on the next front cover. Yes, it was good that the magazine was uncowed by violence and its threat, but with their enormous police protection and surveillance, they had a comparative safety which others did not have when they published a further inflammatory  depiction of Mohamed. The all too predictable (whilst still utterly unjustifiable) violence ensued with, in Niger alone, at least 10 dead and  45 churches torched in revenge attacks ( The writers of Charlie Hebdo are not responsible for these atrocities, but I don’t think it can be said that they have used their freedom of speech responsibly in this instance. If you from a distance knowingly send my neighbour into a rage, knowing that he’ll likely lash out at me, I have a right to feel aggrieved. I suspect that the families of those killed in Niger are wishing a little restraint had been shown and that somebody had thought of their freedom to live.  The triumphal exercise of free speech probably rings a little hollow with those families. Whatever problems there are with certain interpretations of Islam it appears that Charlie Hebdo is exacerbating the problem, not contributing to a solution.

Burnt out remains of a Church in Niger after protests over last week's depiction of Mohamed in Charlie Hebdo

Turning then to what might hold us together, I don’t think that we can form any sort of social cohesion around freedom of speech as the ultimate value. The right to insult one another in as offensive a way as we wish will not build up fraternity. Freedom of speech as a good thing must rest on something else, it is not axiomatic. At this moment in time, in pluralistic Western societies, the need to work out what that something else is has never been more urgent.

We seem, though, to acknowledge implicitly at least a part of what that something more might be in the law which bans “the incitement to ethnic or racial hatred”. Why do we permit this incursion on freedom of speech, the right which we hear spoken of in such privileged terms so often?

I think it’s at least in part because we recognise that to make decisions about the way we treat people entirely on the basis of their race or ethnicity is in fact entirely wrong. So we might conclude that certain truths are so fundamental to society that their perversion should be avoided even at the cost of free speech. Thus it seems that truth is one of those things that we hold as a higher value than freedom of speech. Again, this seems implicit in laws we see elsewhere, such as the criminalisation of holocaust denial in parts of Europe.

The other thing that is being protected by the ban on hate speech is the common good. We rightly consider that hate speech encouraging one race to rise up against another is not a good thing for anyone, neither for those attacked, nor for the perpetrators falsely set against their fellow human beings.

So it seems that at a bare minimum truth and goodness are two things that we consider more important than the exercise of freedom of speech. They seem to me a pretty good start for a civil society. It seems proper that there should be a responsibility on all of us whenever we speak to ensure that we do not corrupt the truth or the common good. Every right that we enjoy brings with it a corresponding duty to use it responsibly. Not out of some child-like fear that otherwise we won’t be allowed to enjoy the right any more but because it goes toward our dignity as human beings to use the exercise of our freedoms with thought and consideration, otherwise we’re not really free, just unthinking. It would be good if some journalists kept this a little closer to heart; there are after all some things more important than circulation figures and the exercise of a right for the sake of it, things like truth, goodness and beauty.

The real value of freedom of speech lies in having something worth saying and not being suppressed in our attempt to say it. Two of the most worthwhile things that there are to be expressed are the truth and love, in fact one should never really be without the other. Truth should always be expressed in love and love always requires that we be truthful.

As a Dominican I belong to an Order which has Veritas – truth – as its motto, and the truth we wish to proclaim is truly beautiful: that God is love and that he so loves the world that he sent his only Son, who, in an ultimate act of love, would lay down his life for us so that we might be freed from the chains of death and sin and share eternal life with him. This is a truth which countless martyrs throughout the years, but never in greater numbers than in the 20th century, have thought worth dying for. It’s a truth that Christians continue to die for and a truth that continues to be illegal or impossible to express in many parts of the world. Millions marched in Paris in support of the right to continue to be able to insult each other, fewer march in solidarity with those who have lost their lives for refusing to change their beliefs. That’s a sad truth which needs to be expressed. But here’s the paradox that lies at heart of the good news of the Christian message: the truth is never more powerful than when it is held by those who are weak; never more triumphant that when its expression is found in self-sacrifice; and never finds its expression in violence.

GK Chesterton, paper in hand

One salutary last remark. If he is ever canonised, then I am sure GK Chesterton would be made the patron saint of journalists and one quote of his might be particularly for apt for us all, but journalists especially, to bear in mind:“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Aquinas Lecture 2015: Fr Thomas Joseph White OP


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Friday, January 16, 2015

Keep Watch! - Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP on the Consecrated Life

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Taize in Prague - New Year 2015

Along with 30,000 other young people, I spent this New Year at the Taizé European Meeting in Prague.

Many readers will be familiar with the prayerful music of Taizé – normally Biblical texts set to short and simple chant melodies, with harmonies, and repeated several times as a meditative prayer. But the European Meetings may be less familiar. Every year, thousands of young people gather in a European city over the New Year, to pray together, to meet other Christians, and to receive the warm hospitality of the local people and church communities. As an ecumencial gathering, Taizé meetings are a simple and beautiful way of praying with Christians of all traditions.

This was my first European Meeting. I had only previously known the distinctive style of Taizé prayer from a small group at university, and from a single afternoon spent at the International Meeting in Manila when I was living there as a Dominican Volunteer. These meetings strike a good balance between the large and small, between the awe-inspiring and the intimate. In the mornings, we were assigned to local churches for morning prayer and small discussion groups where we could talk freely about the Gospel, how to work for peace, and how to build solidarity in our societies. Evening prayer was then held together in enormous snow-laden hangars on the outskirts of the city, which had been converted into a prayerful space by the presence of the Taizé cross and icon, in a forest of candlelight, as well as religious art by the Bohemian poet and designer, Bohuslav Reynek.

On the evening of New Year's Day, we joined the ecumenical Taizé service in St Vitus' Cathedral, with prayers by Christian leaders from different denominations, including the Cardinal, Dominic Duka, a Dominican friar who in the Communist period had shared a prison cell with Vaclav Havel.

In the afternoons, workshops gave us the opportunity to learn about aspects of the Christian life, the Church and society. I attended a talk on the Bohemian reformer, Jan Hus, condemned to death at the Council of Constance in 1415 for his Wycliffite preaching, thus sparking the Hussite wars, the beginning of several painful chapters in Czech history. I heard how the commemoration of Hus's sixth centenary in 2015 might not be a source of further division among Christians but an opportunity to seek the truth and reconciliation. I also attended a talk by a Dominican friar from Istanbul on how to promote mutual understanding between believers of different religions. We heard testimonies from two Czech Muslims; very timely, given the current anxieties about the danger from radical Islamists and the precarious situation of the tiny Muslim minority in the Czech Republic.

2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé community in France, the 75th anniversary of the community's founding, and the 10th anniversary of Brother Roger's death. Brother Alois, the current leader of the community, had made several 'proposals' for young people to reflect on as they work 'towards a new solidarity'. At Prague, these proposals included: sharing with those around us a zest for life, committing ourselves to reconcilation, working for peace, and taking care of our earth.

It was perhaps the discussion on peace that I found most helpful. In our small group, we agreed with Brother Alois' proposal that peace is not just the absence of conflict. To take a fictional example: in Star Wars, the evil Emperor Palpatine establishes an uneasy and oppressive stability by subduing all his political rivals: 'Once more the Sith will rule the galaxy, and we shall have peace.' But peace cannot come at the price of freedom and truth. Think of the close connection between our English words 'peaceful' and 'harmonious'. Harmony, in the musical sense, reveals motion together for a common purpose, which is a beautiful interrelation of different voices. Likewise, peace must be a common project that does not remain static but builds up a community with justice for the common good.

We noted that our European societies are increasingly operating on an inadequate notion of peace, identifying it with non-confrontation, the assertion of individual human rights, and a fear of causing offence. But peace must be built on truth, as was recognised by the Truth and Reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa. A concern for the truth prevents us from excluding minorities, who always have something to teach us, and yet it also ensures that we do not encourage or accept a mere fragmentation of society and the loss of true values.

When the Risen Jesus met his disciples he said three times, 'Peace be with you' (Jn 20). He gave them the Holy Spirit to empower them to bring the Good News to the whole world, and to be peacemakers in all kinds of hostile situation. In spreading the truth of the Gospel, the apostles were truly blessed peacemakers, for God had reconciled the world to himself and was calling all people to share in his truth, his justice, and his peace. And he calls all of us in the Church today to do the same.

The next Taizé European Meeting will be held in Valencia.

Wall painting of St Dominic in the Minor Basilica of St Peter and St Paul, Vysehrad, Prague

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Saturday, January 03, 2015

Dominican Priories: Cracow

Dominican Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Cracow

The Tomb of St Hyacinth
Just as Cracow is a really important place on the map of Poland so too the Dominican priory is a vital part of the map of Cracow. The Blackfriars arrived in this city in 1223, only a few years after the Order of Friars Preachers was established. The founder of the Cracow Priory was St Hyacinth, who had received the religious habit from St Dominic in 1221. To this day there exists a lively veneration of St Hyacinth. He is the patron of the Polish Dominican Province and of Cracow as well. Every day many people make a pilgrimage to his tomb and also the brothers of St Hyacinth go in procession to the Founder of their Province just after the evening prayers.

The Dominican priory in Cracow is one of the biggest in the Dominican Order. Currently, there are eighty-seven brothers living there. Exactly forty of them are priests with pastoral and academic activities. There are around ten chaplaincies for the youth, students and families. It is worth noting that in this year, the Dominican academic chaplaincy Beczka (The Barrel) celebrates its fiftieth jubilee. Beczka is the oldest chaplaincy for students in Cracow and at present there are over two hundred people involved. But the most important of the Blackfriars' activities is certainly preaching and celebrating the Liturgy. Every Sunday approximately four thousand people attend Mass, and many of them go to Mass during a week as well. In particular the liturgy of the Holy Triduum enjoys popularity among not only among Cracow's inhabitants but also people from the whole of southern Poland.

Easter Vigil in the Dominican Basilica

Dominican friars during a recreation

The Dominican priory in Cracow is also the House of Formation and Studies for Polish Dominicans. There is the Philosophy and Theology College where forty and seven Dominican friars and six Benedictine monks are studying in preparation for the priesthood and life as Religious. Teachers in the Dominican College are both Dominicans, and lecturers from the Jagiellonian University, the Catholic University of Lublin as well as the Pontifical University of John Paul II. In this studentscommunity live together not only Polish friars but also brothers from Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus and Slovakia.

Vespers in the Basilica

Apart from daily preaching and celebrating the Liturgy, Dominican friars are involved in many intellectual and cultural projects. Blackfriars organise theological conferences as well as debates about religion, spiritual life and modern social problems. The Dominican Liturgical Centre attached to Cracow priory thrives, gathering lots of people interested in promoting the beauty of liturgy and enhancing the quality of liturgical music in Poland. Also the Provincial Archives and the Dominican Historical Institute are placed in Cracow. There, many experts cooperate with Dominican historians who publish relevant books about Middle Ages and the history of the Dominican Order. Finally, for five years there has been the Dominican Studium of Philosophy and Theology which offers a four-year programme of studies for everyone who wants to know the theological basics or wishes simply to broaden their knowledge of God.

All of these activities are aimed at accomplishing the Dominican charism: to preach to all, everywhere and every possible means.

Dominican Ordinations to the Priesthood with English subtitles

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Nativity of the Lord

The Nativity of The Lord, which we celebrate today, is perhaps the most beguiling event one can conceive. It is not only children whose imaginations are captivated by the Christmas story, but the minds of all that seek God, all who seek truth. Awestruck at this singular event in human history, we naturally ask questions such as “why?”; “how?”; and, "what should I do in response?"

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”.  These evocative words we have just heard from the prologue of St. John’s Gospel are familiar and yet mystifying. The English rendering of the Greek as “dwelt among us” does not fully coney the depth of the original Greek phrase, which could be translated as, "He pitched His tent among us”. Our Lord Jesus came from heaven as one of us, lived beside us, and ultimately died for us.

Why did God do this? To this question, as with so many others, St. Thomas Aquinas proposes an answer: "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” If this language seems striking, it should! Of course it is striking that an all-powerful God should become man so that we could come to know Him, love Him and have everlasting life with Him. The last phrase that St. Thomas uses is especially puzzling so let me add that we become like gods in the sense that through our Baptism and union with Christ, we are drawn into the inner life of the Blessed Trinity.

"In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is how Our Lord Jesus comes to us: as a human child, as one of his own, to bring life to the dead, to shine his light in the darkness of our hearts. The contrast of light and darkness is particularly fitting when one considers that winter solstice was originally dated 25th December, and that according to tradition Christ was born at Midnight. In other words, on this view: Christ our Light comes at the darkest point in the darkest night. He comes to us not only as his people, but personally. The sage and poet John Betjemen captures our natural astonishment at this fact:

"And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?"

What should be our response? In the Incarnation, God has become present to us in a new way. We would do well to ask how we can present ourselves to him in a new way? How can we better follow the Christian vocation to love God and love our neighbour? G. K. Chesterton said, “Now Christmas is built on a beautiful and intentional paradox that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home”.

The Nativity, Rubens
In the first place, we can love our neighbour by loving them as God's children, especially when like Christ, they are homeless. It's a problem which sadly persists beyond Chesterton’s time in a time great affluence in relative terms. Why not buy a poor man a coffee text time you see one on the street? After all, care for our neighbour is a matter not only of divine injunction but of basic humanity and we would do well to take the opportunity presented to us at Christmas to be more charitable, more generous, more loving. Secondly, we can love God in simple ways by making room in our homes and our lives for Him - He, whom the world, even at his birth, “received him not”. And yet, though physical space is important, it is not enough. The real answer to the question of how to respond to Christmas, it seems to me, is captured in the final stanza of my favourite Christmas Carol:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him -
Give my heart.

The Christ child, our Lord, gives us the promise of happiness in this life and heaven in the next. Unworthy, poor as I am, he asks in return for my resources - as brought by Shepherd in Rossetti’s poem, my talents - as with the Wise Men, and if I would only give him my heart, He will shine His light. Let this be our response: the gift of our hearts to Him this Christmas, and forever.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve: The Blessings of Salvation

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-12, 14, 16.  Psalm 88, 2-5, 27,29.  Luke 1:67-79

The Benedictus, today’s Gospel reading, is a beautiful summary of the salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ. It can help us make final Advent preparations to be blessed again this Christmas by the salvation brought by Christ and offered continually to us.

Firstly (vv 68-73), it states that salvation is based on the steadfast and faithful love of God expressed in the oaths, and promises made to the prophets, to David and to Abraham. This is a God who has been faithful to us for hundreds of years and in spite our humanity’s repeated unfaithfulness. God’s faithfulness to us encourages us and allows us to learn to be faithful to him.

Secondly (v 75), it makes clear God intends to form a priestly people “to serve him in holiness and uprightness in his presence, all our days”. Thus the enemies that the Christ will fight against and overcome are not so much military powers but sin, the devil and death, including fear of death (v 74).

Thirdly, to enter into and know salvation, to experience it, forgiveness of our sins is crucial. The message of repentance that John the Baptist (and then Jesus) will preach, is pivotal (vv 76-77). Nonetheless, the deepest foundation of salvation is the merciful and steadfast love of God (v 78a).

Fourthly, the Christ is like a rising light sent from on high. Christ comes to bring light and truth into the darkness of our minds and lives (vv 78-79). It is important to recognise our need of light, and to look to him and listen to him, contemplating and pondering his presence and words, so that we can enter the light of life.

Fifthly, the grace of salvation guides our feet into the way of peace (v 79). The graces given to us need to find practical application in our lives and conduct. We live out salvation in ways of upright living that bring us the peace that comes from a lived union with God. We are also to offer and extend salvation, and its peace and reconciliation to others.

Salvation is a huge gift. Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit to speak of it in prophecy and praise (v 67) while Jesus was still a foetus in his mother’s womb. Let us ask for the same Holy Spirit to fill us that we may enter more fully into salvation this Christmas, and praise and bless God for what he has done in Christ, soon to be shown to us in a new born babe.

- fr. Andrew Brookes OP

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Advent 2014: O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, King and Lawgiver, desire of the nations, Saviour of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God. 

Issiah had prophesied, The Lord Himself will give you this sign: the Virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel. 

Emmanuel literally means 'God is with us', so with this final 'O Antiphon' the Joy of God becoming man is fulfilled. Now that all the O Antiphons have been sung, we can take the last title first and then take the first letter of each one: Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia - the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning 'Tomorrow I will come'. 

Therefore, after preparing for the coming of Our Lord this Advent, after joyfully expounding the various Messianic titles, we are given a spoken response of 'Tomorrow I will come' . Despite this phrase originating probably from the creative minds of monks most likely in the late 7th Century, it nonetheless highlights to us the personal relationship we possess with God because of His Incarnation. It reminds us that we have a God who interrupts, and personally engages with his creation in order to bring it to a promised salvation. Therefore let us like Our Lady at the Annunciation, proclaiming a joyful 'Yes', welcome God into our lives, not in a superficial way, but in a way similar to receiving a new born baby, requiring of us a full transformation of our lives if we are respond accordingly and honestly.

How can we prepare the crib of our own lives and hearts? What gifts can my life bring to Our Lord in changing the troubled world which still exists? Whom should we invite to His Nativity this year, showing them the answer and the true desire of all the nations?

Take a friend to His crib this Christmastide and pray together for a world that still needs to be aware of such a powerful, surprising gift from God! For God is truly with us!

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Advent 2014 : O Rex Gentium

"O King of the Nations, whom they desire, and the cornerstone, who join two together into one: come and save mankind, whom you formed from the clay"

In many Norman and Gothic churches, it is to be noticed that cornerstones have become a dedicated places for ornaments. Usually, cornerstones are sculpted and painted in order to represent coats of arms, episodes of lives of saints and other religious patterns. Moreover, these ornaments turn out to have deep theological meanings.

The church of the monastery of Chalais in the French Alps, today occupied by Dominican nuns, is a case in point. This Norman church was built during the 12th century. The cornerstone above the sanctuary represents the Lamb of God, with writing around it saying “grant us peace”. This is the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, of whom John the Baptist announced the coming. 

Cornerstone of the church of the monastery of Chalais

Certainly, this cornerstone makes a reference to the psalm 118: I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing: it is marvellous in your eyes. Indeed, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was rejected and sacrificed himself on the cross. But, by his resurrection, he has become our salvation, the head of the Kingdom of God. He is the true cornerstone, the highest stone that makes the building of God hold together.

In today's antiphon, we glorify Jesus Christ as the King of the nations, the cornerstone who joins two together into one. By sending his Son to live among us, God the Father joined the divine and the human together into one. Jesus Christ is indeed true man and true God. This means that God assumes the human condition, at the risk of being rejected and dying on a cross. But he has become the cornerstone that makes all mankind, formed from clay, the true people of God, called to share in the life of God himself.

By his incarnation, God reveals to us how he loves and cares for mankind, to the extent of giving his life for us. In many ways, this is puzzling. But, in the end, this strengthens our real desire to share in the joy and love of God. Christmas is definitely the feast of amazement and wonder. Let us open our hearts and be filled with wonder. Then we will be able to sing: Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty; Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! (Rev 15:3)

Christ in majesty, Conques

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent 2014: O Oriens

"We are nearly there"; as a child, these were very comforting words, when sitting in the back of the car after a long journey: "We are nearly there, look for the signs". So I looked for the familiar markings in the landscape: the church-tower, a mill, an old manger. When I saw those signs, I knew that we would be home soon. I think we all have similar signs that we look for when we are travelling home.

The Gregorian Chant set for today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is giving us some signposts as well. It tells us what to look for in the readings we hear today. The Introit, Rorate Caeli, is a plea to the earth to open up to receive it's Saviour: "aperiatur terra et germinet Salvatorem" we sing. Thereby the theme of today's liturgy is introduced. Are we ready to receive our Saviour?

In the First Reading, from the second book of Samuel, we hear how king David thinks that he has to build a house for God. But in a dream God tells the prophet Nathan that He does not need a house. God does not depend on the king's favours. It is God who hands out the favours. God reminds Nathan that it was He, who took David from shepherding the sheep in the pastures to become a leader of His people. David did not make himself king, God did. God has chosen David to become part of his divine plan, and has remained close to him ever since.

The Gradual then repeats the theme of God's faithfulness and nearness. At the same time, it opens the theme up to include all of us: "Prope est Dominus omnibus invocantibus eum, omnibus qui invocante eum in veritate". God is near to all who call Him, all who honestly call to Him. Notice the emphasis here, through repetition, of the theme of "all who call Him". Our God is not an exclusive God. He is not only there for David, but He is God for all who honestly seek him.

The second reading, from Paul's letter to the Romans, extends the theme of God's loyalty yet again. He is a God to be made known to all the nations. Now the secret is out. And what a great secret it is. And so, in the Alleluia, we respond, we plead God to wait no longer to come and release us from our sins: "Veni, Domine, et noli tardare: relaxa facinora plebis tuae."

And God does respond. In today's Gospel we hear how God plans to come near to us. And when Mary is told by the Angel Gabriel of God's plans, she is puzzled, but does not argue. Whereas king David, in the text that follows after the first reading, when being told by Nathan of God's plans says "Who am I?", Mary is in a way more confident when she says "Here am I, let it be done according to your word". She trusts God, she is open to His plan and thus able, as first among all of creation, to receive the son of God, our saviour.
And what does that mean for us? Well, if we were still unclear about God's message in todays liturgy, then the Communio reveals the secret in full: "Ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium, et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel." The name of our Saviour echo's through the ages, it reminds us of God's closeness to David, the name of our Saviour is "Emmanuel"; God with us. With all of us, all who honestly call upon him.

And how do we respond? This year we will respond with fireworks. Why is that, you might wonder? Well, it so happens that, because in Oxford we celebrate Mass and Vespers combined, straight after the Communio, the 0-antiphon for the day is sung, followed by the Magnificat. And this year it happens to be the antiphon for the 21st of December "O oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae" O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness...". So, after hearing of the promise of Emmanuel, God with us, the light breaks into our existence. And what a bright light it is: morning star: sun of righteousness.

The night is ending, the moment is coming, our Saviour is near. It is not long now. We are nearly there. We can see the signs. A virgin, a bright light, an old manger. We will be home soon.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Advent 2014: 'O Clavis David'

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Recently I was in Australia for a friend's wedding but decided to leave the reception early as I was feeling quite tired. When I got to the house at which I was staying, I took the keys from my pocket and tried to open the door. To my dismay I found the keys I had been given wouldn't open the door. I tried the front door and the back door, but the keys did not work. Not the scenario one wants to be caught in in the early hours of the morning!

Being locked out is a pain, and even more so if we are to speak of being locked out of the Kingdom of God. In fact, no greater pain can be conceived than that of being locked out of the place for which we were made. 

In the Magnificat antiphon of today, we speak of Our Lord as the 'Key of David'. This is taken from Isaiah and can also be found in the book of the Apocalypse. The image of the 'key' also reminds us of Our Lord's entrusting to Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and the power to bind and loose. The image of David evokes a sense of royalty, dominion, and, of course, kingdom.

Jesus, the Messiah, is our key. He is the one and only key to grant us access to the heavenly Promised Land. No other key, no matter how desperately we may try to fit it into the lock, will grant us the access we desire. Without the 'Key of David' we will find ourselves dwelling outside the house, in the darkness. There is no access to the Kingdom outside of Christ. But we need not fear. There is no need to fumble in the dark anymore; the Key has become manifest for us and is offered freely to us. Are you ready to accept this gift?

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent 2014: 'O Radix Iesse'

O Radix Iesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur; veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, set up as a sign for the peoples, before whom kings will stop their mouths, to whom the nations will pray: Come to set us free, delay no more.

The picture of the Messiah as Root of Jesse is contained in a prophecy of Isaiah. When he delivered this prophecy, Israel was utterly dispersed and mixed with other peoples, what we call the Babylonian exile. The image of the root is a complement to a previous Isaiah's words in which he metaphorically described a decline of Judah and Jerusalem: "See how the Lord Sabaoth violently lops off the foliage! The ones standing highest are cut down, the proudest are laid low! The forest thickets fall beneath the axe, and the Lebanon falls to the blows of a Mighty One" (Is 10: 33-34). It is a picture of the complete devastation of the Kingdom of Judah along with all the important state-run institutions. David's dynasty collapsed.

But among this apparently deserted area, there grows new life amid the chosen people from the root of Jesse. The Root is a descendant of King David who will become soaked anew with the Spirit of the Lord: "On him will rest the spirit of the Lord, the spirit of wisdom and insight, the spirit of counsel and power, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord" (Is 11:2).

Today's antiphon expresses hope and deep yearning for the true Messiah under quite difficult, painful and sad circumstances. This prophecy teaches us that works of God arise among hardships and seemingly hopeless situations. The Lord do not leave us. Moreover, God restores us life in Jesus Christ and he wants to gives us full of his gifts - gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Come to set us free, delay no more!

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent 2014: 'O Adonai'

Moses and the Burning Bush by Marc Chagall

"O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and on Mount Sinai gave him your law.  Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us."

Yesterday’s antiphon hailed Jesus as “Wisdom”, the eternal Word of God, the "logos" John described in the opening of his Gospel. Today, we rightly acknowledge and hail Jesus as our “Lord” (in Hebrew Adonai). With this second antiphon we progress from creation to the recollection of God manifesting himself by name to Moses and giving his law to Israel as their way of life, the precursor to His fullest manifestation as Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Antiphon recalls how in Exodus 3:2 “An angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in fire flaming out of a bush” and how in Exodus 6:6 the Lord promised to free Israel from bondage under the Egyptians and to rescue them by His outstretched arm and with might acts of judgment. This image of God’s saving outstretched arm prefigures Jesus’ saving action, arms outstretched, on the Cross.

The Lord is the fulfilment of all that was promised to Israel and to Moses, and yet in many ways like nothing they could have imagined. A humble Messiah, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross”. (Philippians 2:7-9)

This is the Lord who shows us that the Law is so much more than a series of legal strictures, but rather finds its fulfilment in Him (Matthew 5:17). The Law paradoxically becomes stricter and yet so much more beautiful and attractive because it is the gateway to a personal relationship with God. No longer do we just seek to appease God, but with his coming in human form, we can know him and we can strive to become most fully ourselves, by becoming more like Him.

If we ponder this just for a moment we realise how momentous the Incarnation is. God became like us, so that we might become more like Him.

Advent may have rushed by, with Christmas ready to take us by surprise, but it is never too late to heed the Baptist’s cry to repent and turn to the Lord  . . . and if we do; we will find Him there waiting for us with outstretched arm, calling us by our name and loving us much more than we could ever imagine.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advent 2014: 'O Sapientia'

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

The first of Advent's 'Great Antiphons' hails Jesus as the Wisdom spoken forth by the Father. It is the Divine Son, the antiphon proclaims, who governs the universe and brings all things 'powerfully and sweetly' to their appointed end in accordance with Divine Providence.

Providence can be a challenging concept and we regularly see or hear about things which make us question if there really is a loving God tending to everything in creation, a God who has counted each hair on our heads and knows every sparrow in the skies (Matthew 10:29).

Indeed, even those who acknowledge and praise God for his benevolence towards creation sometimes forget the extent to which he cares. We can accept God has a 'long term' vocation planned for each of us but are sceptical that he really has much interest in the little things we do, it doesn't concern God whether or not we brush our teeth at night or if we read that book instead of this one, we might think.

One mistake which can lead to this sort of minimizing of our appreciation of God's active interest in the affairs of the world is to think of him only as a judge concerned solely with moral acts, acts which are either obviously right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful. It's easy to appreciate why people might make this assumption: after all, isn't gossip the most interesting of information? Don't we tell people to skip the details and 'get to the juicy bits' when they're telling us a story?

Does God care about the 'details' of our stories? Perhaps we need to reflect upon how we talk with people we love. When we love someone we aren't just interested in the 'juicy bits' of the stories they might have, we want to hear every detail. Hours can be whiled away between the best of friends as they talk about little things, inconsequential stories which don't seem to have much of a role in the big plan.

In the Incarnation we see that God is not merely some distant judge but rather the most intimate of companions. His love for us is so great that he came down from Heaven to dwell among us and further to unite us to him by assuming human nature and divinising it, filling it with his own life.

So, Jesus, who 'orders all things from one end to the other' is intimately and personally interested in every detail of our life. He is our closest friend. Perhaps then, as we contemplate his coming among us, we should endeavour to open up our prayer life to encompass all the things we do, big and small, that by welcoming him into our hearts this Christmas with the same fiat by which Mary welcomed him into her womb, he might sanctify every iota of our being with his presence.

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