Christmas Eve 2016

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Photo by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dearest Friends

When Mary was carrying her child she must have thought ‘he is me but he is not me’. Through our long journey of faith, as we allow Christ to be formed in us, we go through the same kind of discovery of who we are and who we are not by discovering who he is.

When we think we have this problem wrapped up, we soon realise how short-sighted we were. To live in faith means to allow the mystery of Christ in us to grow and make us one with him. ‘You and I are one undivided person,’ the Risen Christ will say.

Christmas begins in the great silence of God from which the Word springs from the depth of God’s being into human existence for all to see and touch him. Our deepest response to this eternal birth in time is silence. Silence, first through the letting go of images and concepts, then in free-fall, restores us to this primal silence which is the fountain of love through all dimensions of time and space.

Many of us will be giving and receiving presents soon. Let’s remember that the gift beyond price is already in our own being waiting only to be accepted and unwrapped. Our meditation on this day of the great Gift is never more profoundly a gift to others. But let’s remember the many who have no gifts to share, and little enough hope with which to look forward. In doing so we will come closer to them and to him who was born in a stable and visited by the poor shepherds before the kings arrived.

And as our Christmas present from some politicians has been a call to make more weapons of mass destruction let us proclaim in confidence by our silence the greater power of the great healer of humanity, Jesus who is our peace.

At midnight mass tonight I will hold, with great gratitude, all of our brothers and sisters in our very blessed community in my heart. Happy Christmas!

With much love

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Forth Week of Advent

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A short walk from the retreat centre in Rio there is a path that leads you into a little Amazon. Follow it through to the end – don’t fear, you are never far from the familiar world and the path is man-made – and you find yourself immersed and welcomed as part of the endless buzz and activity of life. The ecology of the forest is a dance of such complexity and intricacy that cannot be conceptualised. To analyse it is to lose it. To grasp it as a whole needs a change of focus.

Its complex inter-systems – insects, birds, fauna, flowers, trees, parasites and all the other kinds of life that shyly avoid bipeds like you – revolve in their own worlds of survival and self-reproduction, like countless whirling galaxies. Sometimes they collide silently and the stronger prevails. But no one complains. Destruction is part of the life system. Continually, leaves flutter down, having served their purpose. They settle on the ground to decompose and disappear forgotten and become something else. All the time there is a constant vibration of noise, the origin of music, but also forms of energy beyond our few weak human senses.

Looking down I see a perfect impatiens walleriana, the little five petalled flower of pastel colours I have on my balcony in London and that we call Dizzy Lizzie. It is a bridge between worlds but you are still the only human being in this particular parallel universe.

Walk out of the forest past the retreat house, you find well-manicured gardens, part of the tamer human ecology. Forest becomes garden. Low paid workers, now in their homes in the favella, keep it neat and tidy for those who have leisure to enjoy, but perhaps have also lost the calmness necessary for leisure. The flowers have the look of flowers that are looked at, the origin of cosmetics.

What if, from within and beyond these great artless symphonies of wild nature and the self-conscious aesthetics of human culture another vibration were to emerge? It comes silently, concealing itself in the very forms in which it is clothed. It is the source of both worlds including all worlds yet to be. In those perhaps the self-regarding human will be unknown. It is the primal utterance that brings existence out of being and leads it back to being. As leaves flutter down so universes expire. But this originating Word is the base line of all time and space.

We wait for it. It is coming. It is here. It is moving on, completing its big purpose, with or without us. But it has come to its own, as gloriously, movingly human as a newborn. Utterly weak so that it can reveal itself as the power of life to those who recognise it and are not too busy to listen to it during their short span of days. It was why a good Advent makes for a Happy Christmas – all year.

A very happy Christmas and peaceful new year to us all.

Laurence Freeman

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Third Week of Advent

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I once met a young businessman from a very troubled part of the world. I noticed that in an earlier conversation with others about the political situation he kept aloof and said nothing. Later, alone, he told me that he didn’t do politics because ‘they (politicians) are all the same’. I thought, well they are the same inasmuch as they are all imperfect; but their way and degree of being imperfect is not the same. I asked him how his business was going and he brightened up. ‘It’s going very well. Hard, risky. But you can do very good business in a crisis’. It was for me the saddest point of my visit and threw a lurid light on the future of our broken democracies.

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I was similarly surprised when people tell me that they didn’t vote in the recent US election because ‘one side was as bad as the other’. Reflection on the meaning of Advent should throw light on all dimensions of our life – not only the interior and solitary but also the ways we are obliged to interact responsibly in the world. Most moral decisions – and all decisions are moral – are not black and white. Many situations, especially in this post-truth world where extremism is rising, force us to choose the lesser of two evils. The greater evil, linked to moral cowardice, could be not to choose at all because we are waiting for a perfect set of circumstances to arrive to match our prescription of reality.

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Keeping Advent trains us in realism. We choose to wait – without fantasy – for a good that will never fit into a packaged scenario of our imagination. We learn to believe in a good beyond what we can desire. We await a degree of goodness, of plenitude that has already begun to influence us from the first time we hear about the good news. We may dismiss it as myth or false consolation, not worthy of a modern sceptical rationalist. Or we may get impatient and doubt it will ever break through. But if we get the Advent spirit we learn what it means to ‘wait in joyful hope’ as one of the prayers of the Advent liturgy puts it.

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Joyful hope is not the same as celebrating an arrival, a homecoming. The time dimension hasn’t yet been penetrated by the eternity that sweeps up and unifies all dimensions including those we have not yet discovered. Chronology has not yet been bathed in ontology. Doing the daily stuff has not yet been illuminated by the radiance of being. Just knowing that all this is yet to come lifts the spirit and gives encourages us to engage with the hard decisions of the times.

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But at least we’re getting there. Knowing that much strengthens our trembling knees and saves us from the precipice of cynicism where our only loyalty becomes to ourselves. The delay is only the time it takes us to us to drop over into another kind of precipice by letting go of our defences, to recognise and believe what is coming towards us. In that instant we see that incarnation happens when we stop fantasising and accept reality.

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It is not only the eternal Word that is made flesh. Time and eternity are partners in a marriage. We too need to become incarnate. Then we recognise what we are hurtling towards. We realise that what is coming towards us is also here. It is concealed in its self-revealing until we have been shaken up and transformed by the peaceful collision of Christmas.

Second Week of Advent:

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Last week we looked at Advent as an illumination of desire. Human beings, who are creatures of desire, experience growth in self-transcendence and through the transformation of desire – what we want and how we pursue it. Eventually, we see that we do not want only what we like but we want the happiness of others. In that self-recognition we expand into the kingdom, free form the self-centred orbit of our self-made suffering. The catalyst for this transformation is to discover progressively that we are desired by a love beyond our wildest fantasies.

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Advent is a time to sense how this desire beyond the event horizon of our imagination is hurtling towards us in all the sweet majesty of its stillness. All of this is poetry until we meditate. Then it becomes ‘experience’ – but beyond all that we normally think of as experience. The early Christian thinkers who drew the ground-plan of this theology changed our anthropology in the process. The way we understand God changes the way we feel about ourselves. St Gregory Nazianzen, for example, wrote in the 4th century that in Jesus the Word of God comes to its own image in the human, ‘to unite himself to an intelligent soul.. to purify like by like’. This insight helps us imagine this core mystery of Christian faith from the inside as well as an external event.

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God forms into the human even beyond the event horizon of the cosmos. But that horizon is equally present in the deepest and brightest mystery of the human soul. Thus we can speak of the two births of the Word – in God eternally and in my time-bound soul. And it comes in three waves, in the great Beginning of all things, in Bethlehem on some unknown date and at the unpredictable end of time. The trick of our Advent this year of the Lord 2016 is to relate all this to Black Friday hysteria, to tinsel and sentimentality and to Christmas trees in public squares – or rather sharply to distinguish them.

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This coming of God into the human, from beyond and from within, is the great revolution of human intelligence. Once we have started to consider it we are never the same. It redefines power and weakness, richness and poverty, time and eternity. In other words, the Word made flesh explodes the fission bomb of the paradox of reality. It will never allow us again the cheap indulgence of dualistic answers. We have been plunged into the reality that is deeper than the atom.

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We are drawn to this almost in the same measure as we dread it. But in this advent – and our meeting with what comes towards us we discover the joy of being, the freedom to love and the supreme delight of sharing in the life of the source of our selves.

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In Amazonia there is a stretch where the two great rivers of the Amazon and Rio Negro meet. Their confluence is dramatic, the black river and the sandy-coloured river. For six kilometres they run side by side without mixing because of the differences in temperature and flow speed. But eventually they recognise each other as water and become one.

First Week of Advent 2016: We are creatures of desire

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We have been waiting for Advent for most of the year. (The Word was made flesh on March 25th, on the Feast of the Annunciation). But, like a seed silently growing in the ground day and night, its silence begins to be audible in the four weeks of Advent. If we can listen to the rising volume of the silence of the Incarnation during this season of heightened expectancy, we will be better set to celebrate Christmas as it is expects to be celebrated.

The nativity into our world of sense of the divine human and the human God is endlessly mysterious – and so it is easily lost in the yuletide razzmatazz. It reveals and conceals simultaneously. In Advent we begin to sense how God must be both very daring and very shy.

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As Advent is folded in four, let’s take the experience of waiting in that number of stages. The first is the dull awareness that there is something to wait for. This is felt rather than thought. The feeling of waiting however sharpens awareness and awakens us to our selves. It’s funny that we should first be awakened by longing, by the pain of not having what we long for and which we can’t even properly name. But Homo Sapiens is naturally discontented and ever hungry for more. Our satisfactions are wonderful but don’t last long. Fulfilling one desire soon shows us that it hasn’t concluded the sense of incompleteness that possesses our ever changeable selves. Before the froth of one wave of success hits the beach another is building up behind it. We are creatures of desire. So, we instinctively and fatally interpret each moment as painful or pleasing.

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As we see this, we mature and become better at raising the young. It makes us tender and compassionate to them. We are touched and amused at how ecstatic they are when their intense but still simple hopes are fulfilled. But it also makes us aware both of how we should help to shape their desires and of how we must keep our promises. Through this awareness created by growth we learn to be other-centred (some of the time). We see the provocative wisdom of putting the happiness of others on the same plane as our own. Children exemplify this for us. Not surprisingly then, when the wisdom of God comes in human packaging He comes as a child. We have to look after Him. Bow to Him. Tend to Him, change His nappies, comfort His crying. The gift we have been waiting for fulfils our desire to the degree that it turns our attention off ourselves.

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I have seen some very self-centred and anguished adults, tormented by the disappointments of their long waiting, transformed by a newborn child, lifted into a kind of happiness they could never achieve by fulfilling their desires.

Humanity too has been waiting, since it was first awakened by its its enslavement to desire. We have been waiting for God to burst through our images and desires projected onto our self-made gods. God takes us by surprise. He arrives as a helpless baby that we have to suckle and protect so that it can survive and grow. We parent God. But the growth that follows becomes wondrous as it was for Mary and Joseph. Our so called ‘spiritual journey’.

As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

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In contemplation God is born in us, how we don’t know, but at some point we feel the pangs of birth and rising wonder replaces the cycle of desire. Advent makes sense because growth means life revealing and unfolding on new levels of experience and meaning. Daily business, dealing with things, planning for contingencies, taking breaks to escape the drudgery is all one level. It is the literal level where success and failure are what they seem because they are labelled this by others. But another level manifests where all these judgements and activities also appear symbolic, reflecting another dimension of reality, expressing a new way of being, a fresh self-awareness propelling us from a tortured world of judgement and dissatisfaction into a realm filled with the wonder of the exchanging of gifts and real, not sentimental, innocence.

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The build-up to this is patience, the contemplative art of waiting. We have lost this art of practical wisdom in the modern world but meditation restores it. A contemplative Advent will re-enchant Christmas for us, sparing us from the tedium of its crude consumerism.

We become patiently aware of what we waiting for as it hurtles towards us through the interstellar spaces, homed in on us, eager for us, desiring us, transforming what and how we desire as we become more acutely aware of it.

Emily Dickinson wondered:

How News must feel when travelling
If News have any Heart
Alighting at the Dwelling
‘Twill enter like a Dart

We are humble creatures of desire. So, we merely repeat the cycle of pain and pleasure until we understand that we are also desired. What we truly long for, the love that creates us, has already targeted us. That is why we long for it. It is what we long for because God longs for us.