Conference November 24th 2015
Brethren, it’s now 5 days since our workshop on the EBC Forum came to an end and already it seems like a lifetime away. It’s amazing how quickly our duties and the routine of everyday life take over and you wonder if those talks and discussions we had ever took place. And, of course, over it all still looms the spectre of Paris and Isis and an uncertain future for the world we love and for that vision of unity and peace, which lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel, together with the imperatives of mercy and forgiveness. Let us pray earnestly, even more so than before, for peace and that the King of Peace may touch the hearts of the most hateful and negative people in the world. We must never forget the importance of intercessory prayer.
As we approach the beginning of Advent, we are very conscious of the inauguration of the Holy Year of Mercy and the fact that, here at Belmont, we too will have a Holy Door and that people will be coming on pilgrimage, looking to the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. Br Bernard is elaborating a simple programme, with which I hope all of us will be happy to cooperate. Let me just say about the workshop that I hope the discussions on the various themes will continue, informally at least, and that we will take to heart the call of Fr Luke Beckett to share more with each other, talking about the serious matters concerning our spiritual and community life, as well as all the usual topics that normally dominate our conversations, whether at recreation or elsewhere. One of the great things about our community is the fact that we are not straightjacketed and are free, within reason and using discretion and moderation, to say what we think and to speak frankly about ourselves and our needs and worries. Obviously, we all have a “wish list”, much of which will have to remain just that. I know that if I were to read mine out to you, you would all run a thousand miles. And, to be truthful, were it to be implemented, I would probably run a thousand miles as well! Let us all try, at least, to put others first and community before self, difficult enough as that is and the work of a lifetime spent in a Benedictine monastery.
We have been in Advent mode since the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, when, suddenly and without warning, the readings changed and became apocalyptic in nature, a give-away that originally Advent commenced with the feast of St Martin of Tours and that there were six Sundays rather than four, just as in the Ambrosian and Byzantine rites. Although our Victorian forebears, looking back to the Middle Ages, made a lot of preparing for the coming of the Christ Child, the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, even the great O Antiphons, including the last one O Virgo Virginum, that was sung on Christmas Eve and is addressed to Our Lady, speak as much of the Second Coming as of the First in human flesh. It is the intermediate coming here and now in the Sacraments and that final coming at the end of time, which we long and yearn for as each day of the Octave leading up to Christmas we sing those magnificent chants. Of course, in the Mass Lectionary, they are also used at the Alleluia before the Gospel.
Although St Benedict talks about Lent as being the quintessential season for monks and that our lives should always have a Lenten aspect about them, it is equally true to say that we should also live in the spirit of Advent and that our lives should be a permanent vigil, looking forward not just to the Resurrection of Jesus as in Lent, but to his Second Coming as Lord and Judge at the end of time to recapitulate all things to the Father’s glory and separate the sheep from the goats and set fire to the tares that have been pulled out from among the wheat at harvest tide. Of course, the monastic life in its entirety is a preparation for that dread moment, when we could be chosen for the Kingdom or excluded for ever. Little wonder that the Dies irae, although no longer sung at a Requiem Mass, is to be found in many office books to be used during the last week of the liturgical year. I wish we could do that here at Belmont as they do in many other monasteries. Even being able to sing Charles Wesley’s great hymn, Lo! he comes with clouds descending, doesn’t quite make up for not singing the Dies irae. It is such a magnificent poem, which has inspired such great musical settings as that of Verdi, a hymn that is full of tenderness and compassion, while sparing none of the horrors of judgment and Hell.
Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti. on the one hand:
Judex ergo cum sedebit
Quidquid latet apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit. on the other.
Yet it ends,
Pie Jesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem.
Our God is a loving God, there can be no denying it, but he is also a just God and Jesus does not move from that truth in the Gospel, but rather warns us to be prepared, for we know not the day or the hour. However, we do know what we will be examined on, we have been shown the examination paper beforehand. We have been told the answers. The Lord asks us simply to show kindness and generosity, true charity, nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps this is what we should be meditating on as we prepare our Advent confession. How generous am I towards my brethren and towards others who need me and need my help? Do I give them what they need or do I give grudgingly what I think they deserve or whatever costs me as little time and energy as possible? Do I visit the sick or chat with the elderly? Do I have patience with others? Am I judgmental? Do I murmur inwardly and publicly? Do I think before I speak? Do I hurt people without thinking? Do I care more about myself and my own needs than I do about others and their needs? Would I be prepared to lay down my life for my brethren and friends as Jesus did for me? Do I recall I took a vow of conversatio morum?
I hadn’t intended ending up moralising like this, but I probably need it far more than you! Pie Jesu Domine, parce nobis hodie. Amen
The Liturgical Season of Advent
FR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS
How did the celebration of Advent come about?
The liturgical season of Advent marks the time of spiritual preparation by the faithful before Christmas. Advent begins on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (Nov. 30). It spans four Sundays and four weeks of preparation, although the last week of Advent is usually truncated because of when Christmas falls. (For instance, this year, the fourth Sunday of Advent is obviously on Sunday, and then that evening is Christmas Eve.)
The celebration of Advent has evolved in the spiritual life of the Church. The historical origins of Advent are hard to determine with great precision. In its earliest form, beginning in France, Advent was a period of preparation for the Feast of the Epiphany, a day when converts were baptized; so the Advent preparation was very similar to Lent with an emphasis on prayer and fasting which lasted three weeks and later was expanded to 40 days. In 380, the local Council of Saragossa, Spain, established a three-week fast before Epiphany. Inspired by the Lenten regulations, the local Council of Macon, France, in 581 designated that from Nov. 11 (the Feast of St. Martin of Tours) until Christmas fasting would be required on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Eventually, similar practices spread to England. In Rome, the Advent preparation did not appear until the sixth century, and was viewed as a preparation for Christmas with less of a penitential bent.
The Church gradually more formalized the celebration of Advent. The Gelasian Sacramentary, traditionally attributed to Pope St. Gelasius I (d. 496), was the first to provide Advent liturgies for five Sundays. Later, Pope St. Gregory I (d. 604) enhanced these liturgies composing prayers, antiphons, readings, and responses. Pope St. Gregory VII (d. 1095) later reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four. Finally, about the ninth century, the Church designated the first Sunday of Advent as the beginning of the Church year.
The Catechism stresses the two-fold meaning of this coming : When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviors first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for His second coming (No. 524).
Despite the sketchy history behind Advent, the importance of this season remains to focus on the coming of our Lord. (Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning coming.) The Catechism stresses the two-fold meaning of this coming : When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviors first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for His second coming (No. 524).
Therefore, on one hand, the faithful reflect back and are encouraged to celebrate the anniversary of the Lords first coming into this world. We ponder again the great mystery of the incarnation when our Lord humbled Himself, taking on our humanity, and entered our time and space to free us from sin. On the other hand, we recall in the Creed that our Lord will come again to judge the living and the dead and that we must be ready to meet Him.
A good, pious way to help us in our Advent preparation has been the use of the Advent wreathe. (Interestingly, the use of the Advent wreathe was borrowed from the German Lutherans in the early 1500s.) The wreathe is a circle, which has no beginning or end: So we call to mind how our lives, here and now, participate in the eternity of Gods plan of salvation and how we hope to share eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. The wreathe is made of fresh plant material, because Christ came to give us new life through His passion, death, and resurrection. Three candles are purple, symbolizing penance, preparation, and sacrifice; the pink candle symbolizes the same but highlights the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, when we rejoice because our preparation is now half-way finished.
The light represents Christ, who entered this world to scatter the darkness of evil and show us the way of righteousness. The progression of lighting candles shows our increasing readiness to meet our Lord. Each family ought to have an Advent wreathe, light it at dinner time, and say the special prayers. This tradition will help each family keep its focus on the true meaning of Christmas. In all, during Advent we strive to fulfill the opening prayer for the Mass of the First Sunday of Advent: Father in Heaven, ... increase our longing for Christ our Savior and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of His coming may find us rejoicing in His presence and welcoming the light of His truth.
Why fast before the Nativity?
I was wondering why we fast before Nativity. The Lenten fast seems more obvious. Also, from what foods do we normally fast from during the Nativity fast?
We fast before the Great Feast of the Nativity in order to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Our Lord’s birth. As in the case of Great Lent, the Nativity Fast is one of preparation, during which we focus on the coming of the Savior by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
By fasting, we “shift our focus” from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and so on in order to use our time in increased prayer and caring for the poor. We learn through fasting that we can gain control over things which we sometimes allow to control us—and for many people, food is a controlling factor.
[We live in the only society in which an entire TV network is devoted to food!] While fasting from food, however, we are also challenged to fast from sin, from gossip, from jealousy, from anger, and from those other things which, while well within our control, we all too often allow to control us.
Just as we would refrain from eating a lot before going to an expensive restaurant for dinner—if we “ruin our appetite” we will enjoy the restaurant less—so too we fast before the Nativity in order to more fully feast and celebrate on the Nativity itself.
During the Nativity Fast, we are called upon to refrain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and olive oil. At the same time, we are challenged, within this framework, to fast to the best of our ability, and to do so consistently.
If we must modify the extent to which we fast within this framework, it is of course possible, but in every instance our fasting should be consistent and regular, for Christ does not see fasting as an option, but as a “must.”
In Matthew Christ says, “WHEN you fast, do not be like the hypocrites,” not “IF you fast” or “IF YOU CHOOSE to fast.”
Finally, it seems quite odd that in our society—a society in which people gladly and freely spend huge sums of money for diets, most of which recommend that one refrain from red meats and dairy products—fasting is not more widely embraced. How odd that a Jenny Craig consultant or diet guru or physician will tell us to refrain from eating meat or cheese or butter and we will gladly embrace—and pay large sums of money for—his or her advice, while when the Church offers the same advice [at “no cost”] we tend to balk, as if we were being asked to do the impossible.