Advent, Christmas. And the Incarnation
There has been no shortage of good copy for newspapers this year, but back in the early summer, somewhere between the General Election, and before terrorist horrors in Tunisia, there was a brief few days when not much seemed to be happening. And so a rather obscure campaigning group was able to get some headlines by announcing that God should be addressed as “she”.
The thing had a faintly '70s flavour – Daily Mail headlines sounding appropriately shocked etc – and the story, as it emerged from the layers of cliché, was not particularly impressive: something called the “Transformations Steering Group” had announced that Anglican bishops should promote more “expansive language and imagery about God”. And the Transformations Steering Group turns out to be a gathering of lobbyists from groups with 70s-style acronyms, the Cof E's website informing us that “The Steering Group comprises 2 representatives proposed by each of the constituent groupings (DARC, NADAWM, WATCH & AWESOME) plus a senior woman from the Northern Province”.
The main difference that is noticed in a modern Catholic funeral is the abundance of flowers and candles, (which have become the universal mark of condolence) and almost in inverse proportion, the scarcity of Mass cards and Mass stipends. Thirty years ago it was the other way round. We need to ask if people still believe in praying for the faithful departed and that it is “not a fond thing vainly invented.” The practice was strongly endorsed by the Council of Trent in 1563 precisely to counter the arguments of the Reformers. There is a Memento in every Eucharistic Prayer, and the 2nd November and the subsequent month is dedicated to the Holy Souls. Has it just withered away in people’s minds ?
Pious remembrance is better than nothing, but it easily slides into a certain agnosticism. We can wonder whether we wander disembodied in the next life, ‘having passed over’ or maybe dwell in some alternate universe. Perhaps we console ourselves with the thought that our dead are all with God in heaven, like the angels - which of course is an impossibility, as we are a different species. Cardinal Basil Hume visited Jennifer Patterson (of the Two Fat Ladies) in hospital, as she lay dying of cancer, and said as he was leaving, “Well, Jennifer, see you in heaven.” To which she is supposed to have replied, “No, Eminence, but I hope we meet in Purgatory.”
Since the legalising of same-sex marriage in the United States this summer, surprisingly few Catholics have voiced their dissent, either in pulpit or public square. Most have tended to murmur together in their own small groups, sharing worries for the future and disbelief at the present state of affairs. It’s understandable in the face of an aggressive cultural movement which quite frankly doesn’t “play fair” in allowing any opposition view.
But we all know in our hearts that we cannot stay silent. It’s a matter, then, of finding the right words and methods to defend the truth of marriage, without producing just another shouting match or a public smear campaign.
Perhaps a closer look at some basic elements of the recent shift may offer us a few conclusions, with which we can cut through the complexity of this debate. Then we might find practical ways to move forward.
I had hoped for a quiet Summer. From late July to early September, Parliament shuts down for Summer Recess, and MPs return to their constituencies and enjoy a holiday. This usually means that political campaigners get something of a quieter period too, and in the case of those campaigning for the right to life this would have been particularly welcome.
The last six months before the General Election saw a good deal of political activity on ‘life’ issues. A Ten Minute Rule Bill introduced by Fiona Bruce MP turned into an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, and there was much work to try to mobilise the support of right-to-lifers on that issue, as indeed on the Government regulations allowing embryo-exploitative and destructive ‘mitochondrial donation’ techniques. The votes for both of these, rather unhelpfully, happened within a day of each other. Then there was the long campaign to inform voters – at least as far as possible – about the beliefs of parliamentary candidates on life issues for the Election itself.
Universal King - because from His ‘Fiat’ the universe itself was spawned in the first microseconds of the explosive energies with which the creation itself began. King - because through Him, as Eternal Word, Intellect of the Divine, that dynamic movement of energies was ordered like an equation to its ascent of being. It was ordered says the Wisdom of Solomon, in “number, in measure, and in weight” (Wisdom 11:20). King and Son of Man, - because as the Angels were made in the sheer likeness of God’s immaterial being, so man’s kind was, from the beginning, made to the Image not of God in general, but of God to be Incarnate, in Christ. King he is as Teacher, Leader, Ruler of our lives: the Lord of History. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. King again, because victor, as becomes a King in battle hard won over the power of evil and loss placed in the nature of Man by Original Sin, and the long catalogue of personal sin. King victorious, he is called Saviour, King as our Redeemer, the one who won back his own inheritance, and rescued us from our powerlessness to overcome the realities of sin, ignorance, and death. We could not break out upwards to God. We needed Him to break down the wall of the dungeon of our servitude.
Newly ordained priests, giving First Blessings, a popular Forum with young people giving testimony to their faith, a ceilidh with dancing until late...all part of the 2015 Faith Movement Summer Session, with some 200 young people, daily Mass, and a programme of talks focusing on the Sacraments.
Some sound bites: Fr Nick Walsh - "The Holy Eucharist is the centre and focus of the Church's life. Christ, the Son of God, through whom was made the universe, makes himself available for us at every Mass. Why wouldn't we want to be there?"
Jessica Robertson, history student at the University of Hull, giving her personal testimony about her devotion to the Eucharist - “Adoration really gives you the strength to do anything, as does Mass. I urge you - if you can get to weekday Mass, then go.”
When Father Roger Nesbitt celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination in 2007, he was presented with a scroll signed by almost forty priests, each of whom owed his vocation, at least in part, to Fr Nesbitt's example.
A schoolmaster, a parish priest, a youth leader, and a co-founder of the FAITH Movement, Fr Nesbitt is now (sort of) in retirement – but remains an active speaker and preacher at FAITH events, and the dynamic teacher he has always been.
“It's a long story” he says, when I ask him to talk about the origins of the FAITH Movement. We are enjoying the warm hospitality of Mgr and Mrs Keith Newton, at the Rectory of the Ordinariate Church in central London, with a pot of tea in the large dining-room. In the church crypt – currently undergoing refurbishment – the popular Evenings of Faith attract good crowds, and Fr Roger has been among recent speakers.
The Sacrament of Confession /Reconciliation /Penance is a most wonderful Sacrament and we are fortunate to have this amazing gift from God. Confession looks to Christ the “physician” of our souls” (CCC 1421) to restore us to wholeness after our turning away from God in sin. Only God can forgive sins (Mk. 2:7). In this Sacrament, God, who created us to relate to Him, reaches out and draws us back into His fold. In order to present this most valuable Sacrament in a positive light to children we need to regularly receive the Sacrament ourselves.
After explaining why we need Confession we will look at the priest’s prayer of absolution, as the focus for the Children’s preparation for this Sacrament. A brief look at the Sacrament’s different names, will lead to a more detailed consideration of “forgiveness” and some ways in which children can come to experience being forgiven and learn to forgive. After looking at the effects of the Sacrament we will look at the general “mechanics” of the Sacrament and how children can be prepared for their first Confession.
You will find them at the entrance to a railway station, or at some street corner, standing politely, holding booklets that no one seems to take. They have dressed carefully to look smart, the men in jackets-and-ties and the ladies well groomed. And they have definite rules: smile pleasantly, don't accost anyone, hold the booklets but do not deliberately proffer them. Just be there, as a witness.
And that is the name they have given themselves: Jehovah's Witnesses. They are decent folk, and in an ugly modern Britain, they are rather endearing. They smile, they have beliefs about God that matter to them, and they are trying to live by a moral code that is more than just “what feels right for me” and is certainly not particularly fashionable.
Some of them are ex-Catholics. At least, that is how they describe themselves, sometimes explaining why they abandoned a Faith they never really understood. They are glad to talk about it – or to talk about anything, really, because most passers-by don't want to talk to them, and it feels exciting when some one stops, and they can do some real Witnessing.
Aidan Hart’s collection of essays in his book Beauty, Spirit, Matter: Icons in the Modern World covers a wide range of topics that are united in their interest in the material world seen through the prism of the Orthodox Church’s theology of the icon. The author, a professional painter and iconographer, is well-versed in his subject and offers careful reflection on the renewal of Orthodox liturgical art, on the tension between tradition and innovation, and more broadly on modern art, on ecology, on the human person, on suffering, and indeed the state of human beings today.
To a certain extent, much of what Hart has to say is captured in his opinions on art. In a comment on some modern (or perhaps post-modern) art that seeks to shock and is graphic in its ugliness and violence, Hart says that “modern art’s unwitting prophetic role has been to reveal to us man’s loss of dignity”. Modern art witnesses to the effects of the Fall and in particular to man’s loss of God. Pre-dating post-modern art, the modern form of abstract art is, he says, trying to “unearth spiritual realities”. For Hart, all art despite its differing expressions, shares a theme: to mediate between some higher realm and the artist’s own world. All art is a search into the essence of things even though at times, instead of being a language to express things, it is mere play.