"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Just What Do Catholics Believe About Icons?

Are icons really superior to other forms of sacred art?
The Triumph of Orthodoxy

The growth of interest of icons, identified with the Eastern Church, has helped to ignite a greater movement towards the re-establishment of authentic Christian art in our churches. This is good. Very good.

However, the same process that has lead to a greater appreciation of the importance of icons has created as well, it seems, a misplaced mystique about icons to the detriment of a genuine appreciation of our own traditions. Whenever I write about icons I get responses from people who are very often Roman Rite Catholics who tell me that Catholics can’t paint icons, only Russians or Greeks can do it (even though the fact is that it is as much part of the Western tradition as the Eastern). Some tell me that only religious can paint them despite the fact that I know accepted and thriving icon painters who are not monks or nuns. I am told that I should not say that an artist ‘paints’ icons, rather that he ‘writes’ them; even though my teacher, who is as Orthodox as they come and a respected authority in the Orthodox world, refers to this pedantic insistence on the word ‘write’ as ‘a bit precious’. (I am told that this happens because the word for write and paint is the same in Greek.) And, perhaps most importantly, people speak of icons as though the saint depicted is really present in the icon. So what does the Church really believe about icons? I have done my best to find out.

As I understand it, the orthodox view was articulated in the 7th Ecumenical Council and with a later clarification by the Synod of Constantinople, which finally closed the iconoclastic period in AD843. This is celebrated today in the Eastern Church as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church Father who expresses this is St Theodore the Studite. Theodore was abbot of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and he is revered in the Eastern Church as well as Western. (He is probably more known in the Eastern Church.) What is ironic is that the error of attributing to the icon a presence of the saint by iconophiles (those who were in favour of them) is one of the things that the iconoclasts objected to so strongly that it provoked them into seeking to eliminate the use of sacred images altogether. Theodore, like the iconoclasts, opposed this view; but he provided an alternative theology that justified the use of sacred images.
Saint Theodore the Studite

According to Theodore:

1. The essence of the saint is not present in the icon. It is just wood, gold, paint etc. The connection to the saint is made in our minds, especially through the imagination, when we see the characteristic likeness portrayed. So if the icon is covered up, for example, by metal cladding, it has no sacramental value (unless the cladding has been panelbeaten into a likeness, in which case it is the cladding that evokes the saint for us). Theodore illustrates with the point that once the icon becomes damaged so that the likeness is destroyed, it is just thrown away.

2. Icons, when worthy of veneration, are  like sacramentals.  Their value is that they predispose us to grace, they are not themselves channels of grace. This distinguishes them from sacraments.

3. Theodore’s theology applies as much to any form of art in which the characteristic likeness appears. Therefore the view that what we now consider to be the iconographic style is a higher form than the other traditions of the Western church, such as the gothic and the baroque, cannot be justified. Theodore spoke of ‘icons’, but only in the broad sense of the meaning of the  in Greek, meaning ‘image’. He did not refer to specific styles or traditions beyond that. Accordingly, his theology, applies as much to gothic and baroque art (the other two traditions cited by Pope Benedict XVI as authentically liturgical in his book the Spirit of the Liturgy) as it does to the iconographic style; it can also be applied to statues as it does two-dimensional images.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that there is no canonical or dogmatic statement or account by any Church Father, Eastern or Western that I know of that that says that the iconographic style, as we now refer to it, is inherently superior to any other. Like the discussion of Theodore, the debate in the early Church was about the validity of images in general.

It may be a surprise for some to discover the theology of the iconographic style is it is generally articulated today (and which does distinguish the iconographic style from other forms of sacred art) is a modern development and did not exist until the 20th century. This doesn’t make it wrong, but it does make it new. We should be aware however, that it was developed by very anti-Catholic Russian Orthodox thinkers based in Paris (such as Ouspensky and Lossky). So while they did some great work in their assessment of their own tradition, they spoke in ignorance of other traditions. While their dismissal of other liturgical traditions may be fair from an Orthodox point of view (that is for the Orthodox to say) but has no basis in the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Eastern Rite Catholics might legitimately and reasonably say that the only form of sacred art that is appropriate for the Eastern Rite is the icon, and this might affect their choice of image for an icon corner in their homes. But it is just as legitimate for Roman Catholics look to their authentic liturgical traditions (which includes the iconographic) and consider them appropriate for the Roman Rite, and for use their own home.

To read an account of the theology of icons of Theodore the Studite, his works are still available. For an excellent summary of the whole debate regarding sacred art which includes an account of the theology of images develope by both Theodore and St John of Damascus, I recommend God’s Human Face by Cardinal Cristophe Schoenborn, published by Ignatius Press.

The icon at the top is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.


This is an excellent article, but I would like to make one or two comments and distinctions in order to better draw out the meaning of icons.

The clue to understand the role of icons in the Christian life is that they are liturgical art: after having been blessed by the Church, they become a means by which we participate in the Christian Mystery.   It is true that there were many people at the time of the controversy over icons who believed that they are sacred in themselves, that they, by themselves, are a means of making present the saint or mystery depicted.   This is superstitious, and the iconoclasts were quite right in opposing such a view.

   It is equally superstitious to believe that a priest has the power quite independently of Christ and the Church to consecrate bread and wine as long as he says the right words, consecrating a bread van or the contents of a wine shop out of malice, but it would be equally wrong to deny him the power to consecrate as instrument of Christ and functionary of the Church within the context of the liturgy.   The Bible simply as a book made out of paper and ink, is not God speaking when no one is reading it with faith.  The Divine Office, simply as a text, is not Christ praying when no members of the Church are praying it. However, the Bible is the Word of God, and the Divine Office is a participation in Christ's prayer when they are being used as they should be used. Likewise, an icon does not manifest  the presence of a saint nor is it the participation in some aspect of the Christian Mystery when it is alone.  Nevertheless, it is a real meeting with a saint, or a real participation in some aspect of the Christian Mystery when it is being used as it should be used, as a means of our participation in the Church's liturgy or a means of extending the liturgy into our ordinary lives.

To say that there is a real meeting with a saint or a real participation in the Christian Mystery by means of an icon does not contradict the understanding of St Theodore the Studite.   No one is saying that some kind of miracle takes place.   In our celebration of the liturgy, we are truly celebrating the Christian Mystery in communion with Our Lady, the angels and saints and with Christians of all times and places; we are taking part in a cosmic act, all by the power of the Holy Spirit, an action that is objective in so far as it goes on whether we as individuals are conscious of it or not, but there is no interruption of ordinary natural causes: they become instruments of a higher reality without any damage to themselves.   As de Caussade says, every moment of our lives is a kind of sacrament, stuffed full with divine activity and purpose.   If there are miracles, it is only to draw our attention to the wonderful presence of God who is just as present in ordinary life as in miracles.  We celebrate the liturgy accompanied by the angels and saints, and heaven can be discovered in the humdrum tasks of everyday life.   We can encounter the presence of the saints in icons because they are present already as co-members of the Church by the power of the Spirit and want to communicate with us.

The trouble is that we westerners, especially Protestants, are heirs of the Enlightenment in which a distant God created a world to run by itself.   He wound up the clock, set it ticking, and then left it alone to tick by itself.   If God wants to intervene in this self-contained world, then he has to break through his own system and make exceptions to the way things normally work.   The world is run by natural rules, and God intervenes by miracle.   This is not Catholic Tradition. Our Tradition is expressed by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

 God’s Grandeur

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;         
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;         
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

You only have to read a book like "The Cross and the Switchblade", to see that, for the young Protestant pastor, Christian life is one miracle after another, one divine intervention after another.   Compare it with Lourdes where people are fully aware of the presence of Christ and Our Lady in their lives, but miracles are rare.  God is just as present and active where nature follows its course as where he works miracles.

In Catholic Tradition, God works in and through natural causes by his Providence: miracles are always exceptions and lead us to believe that ordinary, everyday life can be as wonderfully filled with the will of God as any miracle.   

A moment with an icon can be really filled with the presence of a saint or can take us up into participating in the Christian Mystery without any miracle taking place; but, of course, there are miraculous icons  to teach us the value of all icons.

Thus, when St Theodore gives a "natural" explanation of how icons work, he is not excluding the use by God of these natural means to bring about an extraordinary effect.   After all, St Thomas Aquinas teaches that the gift of prophecy is directed towards and acts through the imagination of the person who receives it.  The question,"Is it a real prophecy or did he imagine it?" does not arise because prophesying and imagining are not alternatives: imagination can be a vehicle of prophecy.

Whether Eastern icons have something that western religious art hasn't is a more complicated question.  Of course, Eastern iconography has developed its own language of symbols which may differ from western catholic depictions of the same subject.   But that is not the most important thing.   I believe that the most significant question is, "Is the western art filling a liturgical function?"   Images in Peruvian villages, Our Lady of Guadalupe and other images in Mexico and throughout Latin America, Our Lady of Monserrat in Spain, Our Lady of Engelberg in Switzerland are clearly fulfilling the same function as Eastern icons, whatever the style of the art.

   However, the Frankish bishops received the 2nd Council of Nicaea with reluctance, only after being persuaded by the Pope; and we have never developed a theology of the icon as has the East.   That is happening now as we begin to breathe through both lungs, so that we can be in tune, not only with the East, but with our own religiosidad popular among the poor.

At the same time, we must also acknowledge that  much western Christian art is educational but not liturgical and we often do not expect it to be a means of our sharing in the Christian Mystery. 

St Andrew Rublev passed twenty years in retreat before he painted his famous "Hospitality of Abraham".   To paint an icon is a spiritual project, one that requires much self-giving from the artist; but it doesn't express this self-giving; it is not about him.   It proclaims our participation in the Christian Mystery and our subsequent relationship with the saints.  It requires prayer and humility on the part of the iconographer as well as on the part of the person who is looking at it.   In fact, the person who looks at it in faith is really part of the icon because, through his participation, the icon fulfils its role and he shares in the life of the Church, as in any other liturgical act.   

An icon becomes visual liturgy whenever prayerfully looked at by someone who shares the faith that it depicts.   I am not sure this can be said of western religious art in general.

Monday 29 December 2014

What Does It Look Like When We Participate In Christ’s Glory through the Liturgy?
by DAVID CLAYTON on JUNE 1, 2012
The Transfiguration as a symbol of the liturgy and our participation in the glory of Christ

As I have written before, I recently read Jean Corbon’s book The Wellspring of the Worship. In it Fr Corbon describes how an ordered participation in the liturgy opens our hearts in such a way that we accept God’s love and enter into the mystery of the Trinity; in which we worship the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. This renews and transforms us so that we are rendered fruitful for God by participating in the glory of Christ. Some who read this might wonder what this glory as manifested in the people of the Church looks like. Can we really see people shining with light? I have not seen one person shining with light that I am aware of, so does that mean that none of my Christian friends are properly participating in the liturgy?

The answer to this might come through consideration of Corbon’s description of the symbolism of the icon of the Transfiguration. It is an icon of the liturgy.

At one level the icon of the Transfiguration portrays, of course, the events as they happened in the bible. The composition of the icon shown above, by Theophanes the Greek, is ordered to Christ. He is flanked by the prophets Moses and Elijah who bow reverently. His appearance changes so that he and his clothing shine with uncreated light. Peter on the left is shown talking to Christ, he and the others all looking disoriented by what they are seeing and hearing. Three rays extend to the ears of the apostles as they hear the voice of the Father.

The biblical description of the Transfiguration, says Corbon, point not only to Christ’s transfiguration but also to our own through participation in the liturgy. Through the liturgy, he says, the Church becomes the ‘sacrament of communion between God and man’ and as members of the mystical body of Christ we we partake of the divine nature becoming ‘God as much as God becomes man’ (quoting Maximus the Confessor). We participate in this glory. The disciples see Christ because they are raised up also in purity, symbolised by their going up the mountain. This enables them to see and to hear the divine light and voice. In this life we too by degrees, through our participation in the liturgy and participate in this glory and ascend the holy mountain. The complete transformation does not take place until the next life.

For Corbon, there is a threefold manifestation taking place here. First the revealing of Christ, second the purification of the hearts that enable us to see and grasp the truth; third and finally ‘if we are given the gift of “believing in his name” and if we have received “power to become sons of God” (Jn 1:12), it is in order that he may send us into the world as he himself was sent by his Father. His Spirit gives us a new birth in order that his glory may be manifested to others through us and that they in turn may be transformed into the body of the Lord. This final extension of the life giving light is intended to communicate the reality that is the body of Christ and introduce into communion with it the scattered children of God.

This tells us how that in order to be agents of evangelisation, we must shine with the light of glory and it is through our ordered and active participation in the liturgy. ‘If we consent in prayer to be flooded by the river of life, our entire being will be transformed: we will become trees of life and be increasingly able to produce the fruit of the Spirit : we will love with the very Love that is our God…This process is the drama of divinisation in which the mystery of the lived liturgy is brought to completion in each Christian’.

So do we really shine with light? I have never seen anyone shining like Christ as portrayed in these examples of the Transfiguration. If what Corbon says is true, one might at least expect to see a few halos or feint light of partial divinisation occasionally, if not full-blown transfiguration. I fact, I feel I probably have seen saintly people without knowing it. The fact that I do not see the light of glory in them is as much a reflection on me as the people I have met.

When I was learning to paint icons, my teacher who was an Orthodox monk told me a story that explains this. I cannot remember the detail but the essence of it was this: two saints met and as they spoke to each other, each saw the other shining with halos of uncreated light. They were both amazed and later described what they had seen to a third party. On hearing the tale from each one, the third party realised what was happening, that each was a holy man, shining with the uncreated light but unaware of it. Because of their holiness and purity they were able to see the uncreated light of the other. The third person, who knew both, could not see the light in either.

If this is the extent of it, then it doesn’t help us much, for only the holy, the already converted, are open to being conversion because they are the only ones who can see the light of glory. However, through God’s grace there are other ways that we grasp with our inner eye of faith the glory that shines out of those we meet. In my own conversion there are a number of things that brought me to the Church. One was the beautiful liturgy of the Brompton Oratory. But it was also the examples of the people that I met who had an effect on me: their conduct, the glint in their eye, the sense of peace, the dignity and calm with which they went about their business. Although they didn’t speak of their Catholicism much – just the occasional reference to it – I somehow knew that these qualities in them. This drew me to them and because I wanted these things too, to the Church which was the source. Christ’s glory was shining through them. It was one of these people who, in a matter-of-fact way suggested that I might like to visit a church in South Kensignton one Sunday ‘but make sure you go to the eleven o’clock,’ he said. I didn’t know it, but he was directing me to Solemn Mass at the Oratory.

Corbon is telling me how I can be one of these people who is an agent of transformation in the lives of others. Because society is the vector sum of personal relationships, this is the answer to the transformation of society as well. In the final slim but powerful chapter of the book he describes how this is the answer to the transformation of every aspect of the culture, including even economics and injustice in the workplace (I was amazed by this and wrote about it in my blog here).

The second painting is by Fra Angelico. Interestingly in this St John is the one shown looking directly at Christ. One wonders if perhaps Fra Angelico is indicating that John has that purity of heart that enables him to look directly at the Lord. St Augustine tells us (cf Office of Readings, Saturday after Ascension) that the Church knows two lives: one is through faith, the other through vision; one is passed on pilgrimage in time, the other in our eternal home; one is life of action, the other of contemplation. The apostle Peter personifies the first life, John the second. Maybe this is what Fra Angelico is trying to communicate to us.

Saturday 27 December 2014


my source: Duns Scotus by David Torkington

Blessed John Duns Scotus saw so clearly that God had planned that his son, for whom the world was created, would be made flesh to live in and rule over that world as Christ the King. From this Duns Scotus argued that the very moment that God had made this decision, then that decision included a human mother, how else would he be made flesh? As Scotus put it – “If God wills an end, he must will the means.” This was obviously before creation had taken place in space and time, so his mother would have been conceived perfect in every way, as the mother of the Word to be made flesh, or if you like, Immaculate. She would be totally free from sin. When sin did eventually stain humankind, God made sure that the human mother of his son remained exactly as he had originally conceived her, otherwise his plan would be in jeopardy. It was inconceivable for a woman warped by sin and selfishness to give birth to and bring up a perfect man destined to be the King that he claimed to be before Pilot.

It was for these reasons amongst others, that at the beginning of the fourteenth century, Scotus was the greatest champion of the Immaculate Conception. He was furthermore in the minority, sometimes of one, as he defended this doctrine against all comers most particularly against the Thomists. Now Scotus wasn’t anti- Thomas Aquinas, in fact there’s no evidence that he ever read his works, except through the writings of others. Inevitably the Thomists who held what’s come to be called the ‘Legal Theory of Redemption’, argued that all the descendents of Adam were infected by his sin and that included Mary. Many bitter battles were fought over this doctrine until it was finally defined ‘de fide’ by the Church in 1854.

The moment the famous Jesuit mystic, Teilhard de Chardin had heard about Scotus’ teaching, he immediately replied, “Voila! La theologie de l’avenir.” “There it is, the Theology of the future”. So many of Chardin’s ideas not only resonated with those of Scotus, but added to them and even enhanced them. One thing Chardin did say that was relevant to what Scotus stood for was this: – “Love differentiates.” In other words, love makes things different. The prayer inspired by St Francis ends with these words, “It is in giving that we receive.” In other words when we try to love God, in the very act of loving we receive his love in return and this loves enables us to grow into our true selves, and in becoming our true selves we all become different. That’s why Scotus taught that love is the principle of individuation. There’s an old saying –‘people are the same the world over’ –and it’s true, self-centred people are the same the world over. They are like a handful of different seeds. Even an expert horticulturist would find it difficult to distinguish one from another, because they all tend to look the same, they all seem to be turned in on themselves. But, put them in good soil, water them and make sure that they get plenty of sunlight and see what happens. Then, when they bloom they will all become totally different, each manifesting God’s beauty in many totally different ways.

If human  care can do this for common seed, what can God’s love do when it is allowed to enter into human beings? It will enable them to grow into their true selves. Then, as they become their true selves, they will gradually become more and more different from the crowd from whom they were hardly distinguishable before. Francis of Assisi was a case in point, he was just one of the boys before his conversion, but the more he allowed the love of God to change him, then the more he became what love made of him – his true self, and that was miles away from the drinking pals he’d left behind. That’s why all the saints were totally different. Compare Francis of Assisi with Thomas Aquinas or St Teresa of Avila with St Joan of Arc or St Ignatius of Loyola with St Benedict – love differentiates. Even the early companions of Francis, Leo, Angelo, Rufino, Masseo and Giles etc were, thanks to the love of God, all completely different. I have no doubt that most of them would have been canonized shortly after their deaths, but unfortunately it would have been seen as supporting one faction of the order at the expense of another. What was more important at the time was supporting the unity of the whole order, than stating publicly what those who knew them knew only too well.

Perhaps Chardin’s famous little phrase helps to give a further glimpse into the very nature of the Trinity – ‘love differentiates’. As we have seen, the closer love enabled Francis to draw closer and closer to God, the more he became aware that His love is not just twofold. For the love that continually revolves between the Father and the Son is not just a blind impersonal force, but a person too in ‘His’ own right. Furthermore Francis realized that the more that love entered into him, the more he became himself, not just here on earth but hereafter. The invitation to share in the love unlimited that binds the three in one together to eternity, means that his journey never ends. It is not just one continual ecstasy but ‘epecstasy’, as St Gregory of Nyssa described it. What he means by adding the pre-fix ‘ep’ to the word ecstasy is that we are not just taken out of ourselves and into God, but continually taken out of ourselves and into Him forever and ever. The more love that we receive, then the more our hearts are opened to receive more love, and as God’s love is infinite, the journey goes on and on without end.

The reward of the traveller is to go on travelling, the solace of the searcher is to go on searching, for there is no end to this journey this side of eternity. In heaven the ever deeper and fuller loving simply goes on to eternity together with the ever increasing joy and delight that being loved always brings with it. Like a rose bud that is touched by the sun, it cannot help but respond. Now the longer the sun shines on it, the more the bud opens to receive its powerful rays with ever greater intensity, until it is fully open to display the fullness of its beauty and spread its fragrance to the delight of all. The sun however is finite, it has a beginning and an end, and so does the rose that depends upon it, but the love that we depend on for our completion had no beginning and no end. We have a beginning like the rose, but we have been created by God with an infinite capacity for love so we can go on living and loving to all eternity, like the love that that never stops possessing us with ever increasing power and intensity.

When Our Lady appeared to Marie-Bernarde Soubirous in 1858 she told St Bernadette, as she was later to be known, that she was the Immaculate Conception. Mary herself confirmed what had been defined by the Church only four years before. The teaching of Scotus, once only held by a minority, had at last become part of her official teaching.

Saturday 20 December 2014

from the Monastery of the Incarnation,
Pachacamac, Lima, Peru.
This site will be added to over the following days.   You ain't seen nothing yet!!

SATURDAY, December 20th:


Our Lord and God, who so arranged things that the immaculate virgin Mary should give flesh to your Son in her womb, you who have transformed her by the action of the Holy Spirit into a temple of your divinity, grant us that, following your example, the grace to accept your  designs with a humble heart.  Through Christ, our Lord.


Today's Mass teaches us a truth of enormous importance, something that is true, not only for the Blessed Virgin, but for us as well.  The story of Our Lady's annunciation that we have in today's Gospel, tells us of the very essence of a Christian vocation, of whatever shape and size, whether we are called to be pope, a bishop, a priest, a monk, or a married lay person.   The prayer for today's liturgy tells us what we have in common with the Virgin Mary and with every other Christian. We, like her, have a vocation which cannot be fulfilled without the harmony between the action of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to fufill our vocation as Christians, and our own humble obedience, enabling the Holy Spirit to work in us.

Our vocation is not to do what we do, whether we are monks in a monastery, sisters working in a parish, or married layfolk.   Our vocation consists  in allowing Christ to work in us in what we do.   It is Christ's presence in what we do that gives value to what we do.  If Christ is absent from what we do, then our activity is not authentically Christian, however brilliant it may be from a merely human point of view.  Our glitter may shine like the sun, but it won't be the shine of genuine gold.

Hence, our connection with Christ in prayer is not an optional extra, something to do when we have time: it is the only way to ensure that our apostolic activity is genuine, the real thing.   Without prayer, without our humble submission to Christ who is our Lord, our autosufficiency takes over, and people hear our voice, but not the voice of God.

Martin Luther put a wedge between faith and works, simply because he could not see that it is Christ who works through our works, giving them value for our own salvation and for the salvation of the world.   It was our error as Catholics that we did not have sufficient understanding of what it means to be member of the body of Christ to be able to point this out to him.  He was right in that works without Christ are dead; but he was wrong when he believed that the activity of Christians is without Christ, "I do not live, but Christ lives in me."  If we are saved by faith alone, as Luther taught, being saved involves Christ coming to live and work in us and through us, so that our own interior struggles and our witness to others acquire value as extensions of Christ's own action in the world.  The Eucharist makes the Church the body of Christ, and our reception of the Eucharist makes each of us the embodiment of Christ in whatever context Divine Providence places us.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is our model.  In her Christian vocation, she became Mother of God when she said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word."   At that moment, she became Mother of God, and God and his creation became one in the person of Jesus Christ.   By Christ's death and resurrection and his ascension into heaven, we have the same choice as she had.  A messenger of the Lord says to us, "The body of Christ," and we say, "Amen" as she did; and, like her, we receive our blessed Lord.   We have chosen the way of humble obedience, and he lives in us and we in him; and we participate in Christ's activity for the salvation of the whole world.

Let us pray to God that, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may be humble enough and obedient enough to partipate in the wonderful plan of God to unite the whole of creation to himself.

Gospel LK 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done to me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from her.


Listen to the unexpected
Mary McGlone  |  Dec. 20, 2014 Spiritual Reflections

my source: National Catholic Reporter

Blessed Fra Angelico produced various depictions of today's Gospel story of the Annunciation. Although the 15th-century Dominican painter created significant variations on the same scene, it is said that he never retouched his paintings because, like the iconographers of Eastern Christianity, he believed that he produced them under divine inspiration; thus, they should not be changed.

Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

Blessed Fra Angelico produced various depictions of today's Gospel story of the Annunciation. Although the 15th-century Dominican painter created significant variations on the same scene, it is said that he never retouched his paintings because, like the iconographers of Eastern Christianity, he believed that he produced them under divine inspiration; thus, they should not be changed.

Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Psalm 89
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Fra Angelico's "Annunciation of Cortona" offers a telling commentary on today's Gospel about Gabriel's mission to Mary of Nazareth. It is filled with symbols of sacred history. One striking element is that the artist linked Mary and the angel by writing the words of their conversation in the space between them. The angel's declaration that the Holy Spirit will come upon her is straightforward, but her response, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word" is written upside down and backward. Whatever Fra Angelico's intent, that depiction portrays something fundamental about the implications of the human response to God's invitation.

Gabriel's message to Mary was anything but expected or predictable. In spite of what legends have added to her story, the Gospel tells us nothing of her background or personality, not one word about her piety or righteousness. We know nothing more than that she was a young woman, engaged to a man named Joseph and living in a little-known town 90 miles from Jerusalem. The only thing that singles her out is that God was with her, that she had found favor in God's sight. It was all God's doing.

What then was her role? It is as simple and profound as the Latin word fiat (may it be done). That is the same word we find in Genesis 1 when God creates the world. Fiat lux is "Let there be light." Here we have Mary echoing the creative word of God, making possible what had never happened before. And yet, the dialogue Luke provides shows that Mary did not consider herself capable of carrying out the angel's prediction; only after hearing that God would overshadow her and the Holy Spirit come upon her did she pronounce her "fiat." She spoke not from a position of ability, but of availability. Fra Angelico depicts the effect all of this would have on her life by painting her words upside down and backwards.

From the moment Mary spoke those words, her life was irrevocably changed. She had given herself over to God's designs in a way that no other person had ever been asked to do. Her very life was to be turned upside down. She could no more anticipate the implications of her fiat than one can make sense of their painted depiction without a mirror.

Here we have the crux of today's readings. God invites humanity to be available. We are to cultivate our attentiveness and generosity so that we can hear well and be open to what God hopes to do through us, even though it may seem unimaginable, much less fit our plans.

In our first reading from 2 Samuel 7, David has conceived a great scheme to build a temple. It sounded like a great plan, a generous act of public praise, and the prophet Nathan told him to go for it. But, after a nighttime encounter with God, Nathan returns to tell David, "I was wrong, and so were you."

David's plan was a great one, but that was the problem: It was his plan, not God's.

David had to abandon his plan for God's earthly dwelling because it was not big enough. God could not be confined in a structure of stone and cedar. The God who had accompanied Israel through the Exodus willed to remain present through living people, through any who would hear the word of God and say "fiat."

What do these readings say to us as we prepare for Christmas? Both of them remind us of God's desire to dwell in the midst of humanity. They speak of being open to God's unforeseeable plans. Blessed Fra Angelico preached with paint that Mary was available; she allowed her life to be turned inside out in response to God.

Contemplating Mary and David, the simple woman and the powerful king, we see that the key to discipleship, the essence of being servants of God, lies very little in the plans we make or the gifts we would give to God. The message for us, as for Mary, is that God continues to want to do what has never been done before, and that can happen only to the extent that we are willing to listen to the unexpected and to put our very selves at the disposal of God's plan. Then, we can pray the prayer Mary very likely taught Jesus: "Thy will be done."

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA, a charitable foundation that supports work with people with disabilities in Ecuador.]

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was born a hundred years ago in October.  This video is based on one of his poems:
Here he recites the poem himself:
But my favourite Christmas poem is by Sir John Betjeman.  I cried when I first heard the last verse.  Silly me!

Here are some Orthodox articles that follow the same line of thought as my homily and the article by Sister Mary McGlone.   They are first rate.

Father Stephen Freeman on

Father Aidan Kimel on

Father Stephen again on
which is a commentary on
by Father Alexis Trader, a monk of Karakalou Monastery on Mount Athos.

Sorry about keeping on about this: It is not what we do that is important, but what Christ does in what we do through the Holy Spirit and how much room we allow for Christ to act in our heart, to what extent it is true that we do not live, but Christ lives in us. The basic ingredients of the Christian life in us, as it was with the Blessed Virgin in the Annunciation, is the action of the Holy Spirit in synergy with our humble obedience.  This is the difference that Christmas should make in our lives.


Did You Know?
On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.

Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.

At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

Some soldiers used this short-lived ceasefire for a more somber task: the retrieval of the bodies of fellow combatants who had fallen within the no-man’s land between the lines.

The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.

During World War I, the soldiers on the Western Front did not expect to celebrate on the battlefield, but even a world war could not destory the Christmas spirit.


A Talk Given to the Monastic Community in Pachacamac.

If I should be asked, "What is a fish?" it is not enough to say that it lives  and breathes under water, because there are other creatures that do this without being fish.   If I were asked, what is a Christian, it is not enough to describe how he behaves.   You will discover that many other people behave in the same way without being Christian.   If you follow that line, then you will inevitably come to the conclusion that Christianity is not unique.  To say that is like saying that otters, seals and whales are really fish because they live and breathe under water!   No.   We must look deeper.   I believe that nothing illustrates better the essence of Christianity than the above icon.   It is called "Our Lady of the Sign", the sign being the pregnant woman in cgapter 12 of the Apocalypse; but the icon is also a sign of what it means to be a Christian.

There are two stages in the presence of the divine Logos in the Blessed Virgin Mary.   The first is his presence from the first moment of her conception.   It was the presence of him who enlightens every man and woman who comes into the world.   Of course, with her, the Logos had a special relationship with his future mother.   If, as Duns Scotus held to be true, the Incarnation is the central and unique event that fulfills  the divine purpose in creating anything at all, then Mary, as Christ's mother, was in God's plan before anything was created because the Incarnation needed a mother in whose womb Creator and creation were united in one Person.   Nevertheless, although she was pre-eminent, she was not unique; although she was holy, the holiest person so far existing, it was an Old Testament holiness, the holiness that was produced by an Old Testament relationship with God, of a kind that made Moses' face shine, but not that which transfigured Christ; a holiness that came from God coming among his creatures, not that which arises when creatures share the very life of God.   This icon illustrates the second stage of the presence of the Logos in Mary, the stage that began at the Anunciation.   In her womb, Christ is present, body, blood soul and divinity, as we learned in the catechism, the presence of that unique Individual whose love embraced the whole of humankind and, indeed, the whole of crreation, who would , one day, unite all things to himself.   It is the holiness of the Mother of God.   It began with her hearing the proclamation of the Good News by the angel Gabriel and her humble acceptance in obedience, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord.   May it be done to me according to your word."   

Let us look at the icon a moment.   On either side of her are two cherubim because she is the new ark of the covenant where God dwells among his beloved human race.   The Father sends his Son into her womb and, through his human nature, there is present the eternal interchange of divine love, and the Holy Spirit forms him and also unites him to all human beings of all times and places.   He is united to them, but they are not yet united to him: that will need his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and he becomes universally available at Pentecost.  He will become available through Christian faith and most especially through the Eucharist.    Her hands are raised in prayer and form the silouette of a chalice: she becomes the cup in which the eucharistic presence of Christ is offered to everyone.  Then we too become what Mary became at the annunciation, bearers of Christ in the fulness of his divine and human natures:   At that time, Mary, the first of the Christ-bearers, becomes what the Church was to become later and what each of us becomes as member of the Church.   Her icon becomes our icon, each and every one of us..

"He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, I live in him and he in me," says Our Lord.   God's messenger proclaims the Good News, "The body of Christ," after we have been taken up into his sacrifice, and we answer, "Amen" which means what Mary meant when it happened for the very first time in Nazareth; and we receive into ourselves the living Christ, whole and entire.   THAT is what a Christian is, and is the reason why Christianity is unique: a christian is someone in whom Christ dwells.   "I do not live, but Christ lives in me," says St Paul.  Or as many of the Fathers said, "God became man so that man can become God."
   "How can that be, because we are mere human beings?"
   "You will be baptised in the Holy Spirit, and you will eat my body and drink my blood and shall have life in you, and you shall dwell in me and I in you."

That is being a Christian: it is a vocation to do the impossible.   The more we try, the more impossible it is seen to be.   But what is impossible for man is possible for God.   We are commanded to love our enemies because God is Love, which is only o.k until we really get enemies.   We are commanded to give liberally to all who ask, because God is all Gift, which is o.k. until we are asked for something we really want to retain.   We are commanded to love God with our whole mind and strength, and that point is a horizon that constantly seems further and further out of reach.  As we try, time and time again, and fail, so we become humble; and the more humble we are, the more we rely on God; and, as we come to rely on God, little by little, he works through us, and what is impossible for us, we find he can do in us and through us.   Prayer, even the mute presence of people who are trying to pray but can't,
is essential to this process: and the humbler we are, the nearer we are coming to God as we die to ourselves: "Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on us," until the definitive moment when our life folds up completely in death, and we are saved.

This "little way", as St Therese called it, the way of humility is lived, not only for ourselves, but for the whole human race; because Christ did not just die for Catholics, but for all; and just as there was a continuity between the Old Testament holiness in the Blessed Virgin, and its fulfilment in her life as a Christian, so there is a continuity between the presence of the Logos in all human beings and the particular presence of Christ in the Christians.  Christ unites us to all human beings and we in our eucharistic life represent them before the Father, so that, when they meet Christ in this life or the next, they will realise they have already met him in us.

At Easter we celebrate our salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ.   At Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation which made all this possible and which provides Christian holiness with its particular quality as we share in the actual body of Christ.

How Big Is Your Christmas?
Fr. Stephen Freeman (Orthodox)
my source: Glory to God for All Things

We have entered the days when news pundits are asking, “Will Christmas be big this year?” When individuals ask one another, “Are you having a big Christmas this year?” It is understoood that economics are involved (as with the media). Our modern economies are greatly dependent on the massive buying that occurs between late November and late December. Christmas shopping is so good for the economy (as presently constituted) that if Christ were not so conveniently born, we would need to come up with another excuse for giving gifts.

However, though the world’s economic system seems to hang in the balance over the generosity of two months spending, this is a very little thing about Christmas. My favorite summation of Christmas (and the Incarnation as a whole) is from St. Maximus the Confessor: “The Incarnation of the Word is the cause of all things.”

This wonderfully paradoxical statement, notes that “all things were made by and for him, etc.” St. Maximus reads these words as referring to the Incarnate Christ and not to the pre-incarnate Word. It turns history inside out and establishes the incarnation of Christ as more than a temporary skirmish to free us from our temporary bonds. It is the act of God who truly completes His creation in His Pascha. The words, “It is finished,” are the words of the Creator over the whole of His creation. He foretold this, “If I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto myself.” This is echoed in a more cosmic sense in the words of Ephesians’ first chapter:

 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)

Christmas, as the feast which celebrates the incarnation of Christ (as does the Annunciation), is the feast of the beginning of all things, and the feast of the end of all things. It is both cause and the end of all effects. And thus we will have a “big” Christmas this year, for the gift that is given us is nothing less than creation itself. Its price was nothing less than the life of God. It’s not the economy, in the way politicians think of economy. It is the oikonomia – the unrelenting love of God completing what He alone could begin and what He alone could finish.

(Quotation from "Any Questions?" a few days ago:  "My Christmas begins when the voice of a single choir boy of Kings College, Cambridge, sings the first verse of "Once in David's Royal City." on Christmas Eve.)

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Christmas Eve 2014

            “Today in the city of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” The sign that the Saviour is born is “a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger “. The child, a new-born babe, is the sign of God’s presence among us, Emmanuel “God with us”. The star, the angels, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the kings, the ox and the ass are not the sign. No, it’s the babe in the manger and all eyes are fixed on him. He is the sign and sacrament of God’s presence. St Paul wrote that, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”. The Christ-child is God made man and that is why we are here tonight. We have come to worship and adore.

            What does it really mean to worship God, to adore the Christ-child? In the second reading, St Paul says, “What we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God.” Each one of us knows the things we must give up. Now Christmas is really about Christ’s Second Coming, rather than the commemoration of his Birth, though this is what we overemphasise in our enthusiasm for cribs, carols and Christmas cards. St Paul tells us to “wait in hope for the blessing which will come with the Appearing of the glory of our great God and saviour Jesus Christ”. Mind you, many of the carols we sing do get it right and see the Nativity in the light of Christ’s Death and Resurrection and his Coming again in glory on the last day.

            In the meantime, and that is what life on earth really is, a meantime, a waiting room, our sole purpose should be “to have no ambition except to do good”. Life only has meaning when we ourselves live out that “justice and integrity”, which, we are told by the prophet Isaiah in the first reading, will be inaugurated when “a child is born for us and a son given to us”, whose name is “Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal-Father, Prince of peace”.

            Today our world, more than ever in its chequered history, needs to discover God’s presence in the Child of Bethlehem and, “putting aside all worldly ambition,” begin worshipping God in spirit and in truth by simply being good and doing good, loving God above all else and our neighbour as ourselves. “Put Christ back into Christmas” is once again a slogan being used a lot this Christmas. Yes, by all means, let us put Christ back into Christmas, but we can only do that by putting him back into the centre of our own lives. Only then will God’s kingdom come and the eternal life we hope and pray for truly begin.            

On behalf of Fr Prior and the Monastic Community, I wish you all a very happy Christmas. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your loved ones today.



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 by Dom Jonathan

  Christmas Day 2014

 I hope you were listening carefully at the beginning of Mass to those words of the prayer which was sung by the Abbot just before the readings: “grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” This prayer, called the ‘Collect’, collects together all that our celebration of Christmas is about and summaries it in a single prayer and petition. The same words in fact will reappear later on in this Mass, as they do at every Mass, when you’ll see me, as deacon, pour wine and water into the chalices at the offertory, after the gifts of bread and wine have been presented to the Abbot. Whilst I do so, I’ll quietly pray the words: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”    
What does all this signify? Well, essentially that the coming of Christ, the Son of God, as a human being at Christmas and what we do at every celebration of Mass are inextricable linked together. It’s a link seen in the word Christmas itself: Christ-mas (the Mass of Christ, that is, of the birth of Christ). Of course both components of the word are conveniently camouflaged by our pronouncing ‘Christ’ as ‘Chris’ and by our omitting the last ‘s’ from ‘Mass’. If we sometimes hear the rallying cry to put Christ back into Christmas, we should also not neglect, as Catholics, to put the Mass back into Christmas or indeed into our everyday lives. How important and irreplaceable the Mass is for our celebration of this great feast today, as well as of every Sunday and other significant feast day throughout the year.            
Perhaps you have heard that saying: it’s the Mass that matters. What is it about the Mass that makes it so important then? Are you still able to recall those words from the prayer said at the offertory? – “By the mystery of this water and wine may we share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” This “mystery” is referred to by St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (in present-day Tunisia), who wrote, way back in the third century, that: “in the water is understood the people, but in the wine is showed the blood of Christ. But when the water is mingled in the chalice with wine, the people are made one with Christ” (Letter 62, to Caecilius). This wine (with a few drops of water added), together with the bread, will during Mass, when the priest pronounces Christ’s own words at the Last Supper: “This is my Body” and “This is the chalice of my Blood,” become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Son of God. By our participation at Mass and by our receiving him in Holy Communion we, the people, “are made one with Christ.”            
In being “made one with Christ” we hope to share in his divinity, as expressed by the prayer accompanying the pouring of wine and water into the chalice, as well as by today’s Collect. The whole idea of our partaking of the divine nature is perhaps a bit too startling for us to properly take in just before we start tucking into our turkey, but it is what the message, the wonder, of Christmas and the crib is all about. In the Gospel, we heard once again that familiar, yet at the same time utterly awe-inspiring, statement of St. John: “the Word was made flesh and he lived among us” (Jn 1:14). Christ, the “Word” of God, “humbled himself to share in our humanity” by his becoming “flesh” and by subsequently living “among us.” He shared “in our humanity” so that we, in union with him, might share in his divine life. As one Christian writer of the fourth century, St. Athanasius, rather strikingly put it: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God” (On the Incarnation of the Word, 54, 3).
If we remember and don’t forget such inspiring thoughts, we hopefully won’t get too bogged down in all the trivia of this, let’s face it, all too fleeting life. Where, we may ask, can we find the divine life which Christ is offering us? Well, precisely in what we mentioned a few moments ago: our participation at Mass and our receiving him in Holy Communion. It’s true that we encounter Christ in a variety of ways, and hopefully this Christmas season will present us with many: in our family and friends or in the beauty of art and nature, yet these don’t sufficiently compare with what we’re doing here today, or possibly even every day, at Holy Mass.      
What’s the meaning of Christmas? Simply unwrap the word.      
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