Christmastide: December 2012 Archives

O Thou, Innocent Lamb of God

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Bérulle Enf Jésus132.jpg

Over the centuries, souls have been drawn irresistibly to the mystery of the Infant Christ. Among these was the great Pierre Cardinal de Bérulle, the "Apostle of the Incarnate Word." The image I chose to illustrate this prayer of mine was originally designed to inspire devotion in souls, who, following the teaching of Cardinal de Bérulle, would offer themselves to the Infant Jesus. The prayer that I was moved to make today, as a kind of amende honorable to Jesus in His adorable innocence in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, is one, I think, that Pierre de Bérulle would have understood and made his own.

Lord Jesus Christ,
Thou, innocent Lamb of God;
Thou, pure Victim, Holy Victim, Immaculate Victim,
I adore Thee who art present here
with all the love of my heart,
and I thank Thee that, from this altar, even now,
Thou art offering Thyself to the Father
as the sacrifice of propitiation
that destroys the sin of the world
and restores poor sinners to friendship with God,
not by changing Thy Father's Heart,
but by opening the hearts of poor sinners
to receive His pardon, His mercy, and His grace.

Do Thou open hearts long closed by sin.
Do Thou deliver souls languishing in darkness
and in the shadow of death.
Do Thou set free souls bound in the fetters and chains
forged by Satan and his hateful allies.
Do Thou give sight to the blind,
movement to the paralyzed,
hearing to the deaf,
and tenderness to the stony-hearted.

Unite me to Thyself,
and, by Thy Virgin Mother's prayers,
so make me one sacrifice with Thee,
that I may appear before the Father,
consumed in the flames of Thy holocaust,
and made pure in the fire of love
that ever burns in Thy Eucharistic Heart. Amen.

The Mystery of Suffering Innocence

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The Child in Egypt

The name Egypt occurs three times in today's gospel. "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt" (Mt 2:13). "And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt" (Mt 2:14). And finally, Saint Matthew cites the prophet Hosea: "Out of Egypt have I called my son" (Mt 2:15; Hos 11:1). As with so many proper names of persons and places in Sacred Scripture, Egypt enfolds and discloses a deeper mystery.

Egypt is a name and a place charged with ambivalence. On the one hand, it is the land of abundance, a refuge in time of famine (Gen 12:10; 42:1-3), a safe place for the political refugee (1 K 11:40; Jr 26:21). On the other hand, Egypt symbolizes the servitude and genocide out of which the Lord delivered his people. Hear the words of the Lord, speaking to Moses out of the burning bush: "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex 3:7-8).

The descent of the Infant Christ into Egypt and his return is a fundamental point of correspondence between the Old Testament and the New. The Infant Christ is the new Joseph in Egypt. In Christ, the words spoken concerning Joseph are fulfilled: "The Lord blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had, in house and field" (Gen 39:5). Like the innocent Joseph, the innocent Christ is a guest in Egypt, receiving Egyptian hospitality, finding in Egypt a place of safety, a refuge from the murderous threats born of jealousy.

The Blood of Jesus

Christ is the new Moses and Christ is the Paschal Lamb in Egypt slain. His blood marks the souls of the faithful as once the blood of the immolated lamb marked the doorposts and lintels of the houses of the Jews in Egypt (cf. Ex 12:7). This is the very blood of which Saint John speaks, saying, "The Blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin" (1 Jn 1:7).

Behold, I am With You

Christ is the true and definitive Israel, "the head of the body, the Church" (Col 1:18) called out of Egypt into the desert wilderness, there to face the struggles and temptations of the Evil One in fasting and in prayer. Christ, having come out of Egypt, having vanquished the temptations of Satan in the desert, emerges victorious into the land of the living. This is the spiritual geography of the whole Christian life: out of Egypt, through the desert, into the Promised Land. Herein lies the whole of baptismal, Eucharistic, and monastic spirituality.

Egypt always evokes the dramas of exile and of flight. Jacob twice knew exile. The first exile was due to the hatred of his brother Esau; Jacob fled eastward to Haran and there, in a mysterious dream, he heard the word of the Lord, saying to him, "Behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go" (Gen 28:15). Then again, as a very old man, Jacob, again in a dream, heard the familiar voice saying to him, "I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation; I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again" (Gen 46:3). The going down to Egypt and the coming up from Egypt are intrinsic to the plan of God not only in the Bible, but in your life and mine.

Where Salvation Begins

Israel's sojourn in Egypt -- all 430 years of it -- is essential to the unfolding of God's plan. Joseph says to his brothers, "I am your brother Joseph . . . . It was not you who sent me here, but God. . . . God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not tarry" (Gen 45:8-9). We are, at times, tempted to think of the Egypt years of our own lives as somehow expendable and unimportant: an embarrassment to be forgotten and consigned to the memory's darkest and deepest archives. Such thinking is flawed. Salvation begins precisely in Egypt. Israel went down to Egypt; the Infant Christ went down to Egypt; every Christian and, in a dramatic way, every monastic goes down to Egypt to await there, groaning in bondage (Ex 2:23) the hour of deliverance.

Where We Learn to Pray

Egypt is where we learn to pray, not with pious phrasing and elegantly fashioned sentiments, but with groans, and cries, and tears. "And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. And God heard their groaning . . ." (Ex 2:23). How closely this corresponds to the prayer of Christ himself, described in the Letter to the Hebrews. "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear" (Heb 5:7). This is the reality echoed by Saint Paul: "We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8:23).

A Paschal Mystery

Given all of this, what is the meaning of the exile of the Infant Christ in Egypt? The new-born Christ is, by divine design, carried in his mother's arms to the point of departure of salvation history. The Infant Christ goes down to Egypt to signify that his saving work will be, for all who believe in him, a flight from Egypt, a passover in the night, an exodus by far more glorious than the first. The flight into Egypt of the Innocent Christ, and his return is a paschal mystery; it is already a foreshadowing of cross, tomb, and resurrection.

The Passion of the Infant Christ

I can never celebrate this feast of the Holy Innocents without returning to a book written many years ago by Caryll Houselander: The Passion of the Infant Christ. Writing in London during the Second World War -- literally "under the bombs" -- she was inspired to speak of the Passion of the Infant Christ. Seeing the sufferings of her own life and of those she loved with the pure vision of one become a child in Christ, she recognized in both cradle and cross wood hewn from the same tree.

The Cradle of Christ

"The way to begin the healing of the wounds of the world," she wrote, "is to treasure the Infant Christ in us; to be not the castle but the cradle of Christ, and in rocking that cradle to the rhythm of love, to swing the whole world back into the beat of the Music of Eternal Life. It is true that the span of an Infant's arms is absurdly short; but if they are the arms of the Divine Child, they are as wide as the reach of the arms on the cross; they embrace and support the whole world; their shadow is the noonday shade for its suffering people; they are the spread wings under which the whole world shall find shelter and rest" (Caryll Houselander, The Passion of the Infant Christ).

The Wood of Cradle and of Cross

Houselander understood that nothing of the paschal mystery of Christ is locked in an irretrievable past. The liturgy is the passion of the Infant Christ made present to us and for us, here and now, in all its fullness. Are you in Egypt, "groaning under bondage" (Ex 2:23), learning to pray in suffering? Are you wandering in a desert waste, tortured by hunger and thirst, a prey to temptations and terrors of the night? Have you crossed over into that good and broad land where milk and honey flow? Through the Most Holy Eucharist, the Infant Christ is with you, his prayer in yours, and yours in His: a prayer that says "Yes" to the wood of the cradle, to the wood of the Cross, and to everything that lies in between.

The Divine Infancy

Caryll Houselander, a woman of our own times, a woman "acquainted with grief" (Is 53:3) can, I think, help us understand something of the mystery of the Innocent Christ, something of the mystery of suffering innocence in each of us. "The Divine Infancy in us," she wrote, "is the logical answer to the peculiar sufferings of our age and the only solution to its problems. If the Infant Christ is fostered in us, no life is trivial. No life is impotent before suffering, no suffering is too trifling to heal the world, too little to redeem, to be the point at which the world's healing begins."

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Saint John by Sir Ninian Comper, Lady Chapel of Downside Abbey Church. Thanks to the ever gracious Father Lawrence, O.P. for the use of his photo.

The Logic of the Liturgy

The liturgy has a marvelous logic all its own. On this third day of the Christmas octave, Mother Church gives us a Resurrection Gospel, taken from the very last chapter of Saint John! While we are yet at the manger, the liturgy compels us to gaze into the face of the risen Christ! John, the disciple whom Jesus loved is there before us. Indeed, it was he who arrived first at the sepulchre, preceding the Prince of the Apostles. Saint John's virginal love gave wings to his feet. "Draw me in thy footsteps," says the bride of the Canticle, "let us run" (Ct 1:4). John is the first of those who set out in search of the Body of Christ; arriving even before Peter, and yet deferring to him.

Peter and John

The Petrine authority in the Church is firmly established by Christ on the solid rock of Peter; it continues through the successors of Peter: teaching, reproving, testing, correcting, forgiving and calling together in unity. The Johannine authority in the Church is not hierarchical, but belongs, rather, to the order of graces freely given for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ; it speaks with the voice of love, with the inimitable accents of direct experience. It is the authority of the saints and mystics, the authority of holiness, the authority of the greatly loved and of the great lovers. "I belong to my love, and my love to me" (Ct 6:3).

What We Have Seen and Heard

The Church has need of both voices. She needs the strong, unwavering voice of Peter; she also needs the many-voiced Johannine chorus of those who sing: "Something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes; that we have contemplated and touched with our own hands: the Word who is life--this is our theme. That life was made visible; we saw it and are giving our testimony. . . . We declare to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may share our life" (1 Jn 1:1-3).

Love of Things Invisible

The Johannine chorus speaks with the unmistakable authority of those who have gone into the wine-cellar and rested beneath the banner of love (cf. Ct 2:4-5). Their breath is fragrant with honey and with the honeycomb, of wine and of milk: that is with the imperishable sweetness of the Holy Spirit, with the Blood of the Lamb and with the pure milk of the living Word of God. These are the ones who have eaten and drunk, drunk deeply (cf. Ct 5:1) of the streams of living water that flow ever fresh from the pierced Heart of the Bridegroom (cf. Jn 7:37-38). These are the descendants of Saint John the Beloved, those to whom the Father has given the eagle's vision, those who are little enough and poor enough to be borne aloft and carried away into the love of things invisible, as the Preface of Christmas puts it.

Those Who Dwell in the Cleft of the Rock

All through history the spiritual offspring of the Beloved Disciple have, like so many doves, found refuge in the cleft of the rock, the pierced Heart of Jesus. They are found everywhere in the Church and are needed everywhere in the Church; very often they are desert-dwellers, lovers of solitude, hidden away behind enclosure walls that are but the symbol of a deeper desire: "to be hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3). But they are found as well in all sorts of other places: in city apartments and in fashionable suburbs, in conditions of extreme poverty and in places of great suffering. When they speak, their word is uttered out of silence and returns to the silence whence its springs. More often than not they sing, for words alone are poor and inadequate; song, at least, lifts words above themselves, breaks them open and allows their fragrance to fill the whole house (cf. Jn 12:3).

The Authority Born of Adoration

The Johannine authority of the Church comes to birth in adoration: in the contemplation of Jesus' Holy Face, shining with the glory of the Father in the bright cloud of the Holy Spirit on Mount Tabor. It is nourished by the Bread of Life containing in itself all sweetness. Its place of preference is close to the altar, in the radiance of the Most Holy Sacrament. It is instructed in secret: "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. . . . It is written in the prophets: They will all be taught by God; everyone who has listened to the Father and learnt from him, comes to me" (Jn 6:44-45).

With Mary

The Johannine authority is one of love; it flows out of the Heart of Jesus into the heart and mind of whosoever rests his head upon Jesus' breast. It is purified in Gethsemani where it enters into a bloody struggle with the powers of darkness and of sin. It is steadfast on Calvary where, opening its mouth it inhales the gift of the Spirit, handed over in the breath of the Bridegroom, and where raising its eyes to the Pierced One it contemplates a stream of blood and of water. The Johannine authority of the Church is inseparable from the Virgin Mother, has taken her into its home, lives day by day and hour by hour in her intimacy, learning from her things long cherished in the silence of her Immaculate Heart.

Friends of the Lamb

Finally, the descendants of John -- friends of the Lamb -- see beyond what is now into a new heaven and a new earth where God will wipe away all tears, where there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain (Ap 21:3-4). On their faces shines already the radiant glory of God and the Lamb himself is their lighted torch. They make their own the cry of the Spirit and of the Bride: "Come! Amen. Come Lord Jesus!"

Disciples of John

By the infinite mercy of the Word made flesh, may we who want to listen to Peter and defer to him in all things, be numbered among the least disciples of John. Amen.

Christmas at Silverstream Priory

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Here is the crèche at Silverstream Priory: beneath the figures of the Holy Family there is a beautiful, soft carpet of Irish moss. The crèche is in the great hall of the main house.

A Monastic Christmas

Friends, relatives, and visitors to the monastery have been asking, "How do you spend Christmas?" and "What did you do for Christmas?" For the men newly-come to monastic life, Christmas can be a difficult time. Even adult men miss their families at Christmas. For a veteran monk like myself, long accustomed to being far from my beloved family at ChrIstmas, the experience is not the same; in spite of the distance that separates us, I feel very close to them and, standing at the altar to offer the Holy Sacrifice, time and distance are mysteriously swallowed up in the divine here and now.

The monastic celebration of Christmas is primarily liturgical. We planned on having First Vespers of Christmas early on Christmas Eve, at 3:00 p.m., in fact. By the time the last visitor had left The Gatehouse, and all was in readiness, it was closer to 3:30 p.m.. In a nascent monastery one mustn't expect things to happen right on time. Announced times are necessarily approximate times, and must have a healthy ability to adapt with good grace to things unexpected and unforeseen.

First Vespers

Following the First Vespers of the Nativity of the Lord (after a day of fasting) we had our first Christmas meal in front of the blazing fire in the great hall. Friends of the monastery delivered this delicious meal -- their gift to us -- shortly before Vespers. We are not using the refectory at the moment; it is difficult to heat. The great hall with its welcoming hearth tends to become the focus of much of what we do together. After our meal, we chanted Compline, and then repaired to our cells for a few hours rest before Matins.


At 10:45 p.m., we were back in our choir stalls, ready to begin the Night Office of Matins, also called Vigils or Nocturns. Matins opens with a splendid Invitatory Antiphon: Christ is born for us. O come, let us adore! The Invitatory Antiphon is musically embroidered in and around the verses of Psalm 94. A chain of antiphons, psalms, blessings, lessons, and responsories follow, lasting well over one hour. The high point of Matins is the chanting of the Gospel of Our Lord's Genealogy, preceded by the Te Deum Laudamus, and followed by the Te Decet Laus, both ancient hymns of praise.

The First Mass of Christmas: at Midnight

Matins leads directly into Holy Mass, the first Mass of the Nativity of the Lord, called In nocte, that is, in the night. The Introit of the Mass (Dominus dixit ad me) sets the tone; it is contained and contemplative. It is the voice of the Only-Begotten Son telling us what the Father says to Him from all eternity: "Thou art my Son; today, have I begotten Thee" (Psalm 2:7).

The Second Mass of Christmas: at Dawn

We took a little refreshment after Holy Mass -- by this time it was 2:30 in the morning -- and again repaired to our cells for a few hours rest before rising again for the Second Mass of Christmas, the so-called Dawn Mass (Lux fulgebit), at 8:00 a.m. The Hours of Lauds and Prime followed the Second Mass of Christmas, prolonging it in a lavish outpouring of praise and jubilation.

The Third Mass of Christmas: in the Day

At 11:00 a.m. we were in choir again for Tierce, and then had the Third Mass of Christmas (Puer natus est) with the chanting of the sublime Prologue of Saint John. According to an ancient monastic tradition, there is no homily at the Mass of Christmas Day. The Prologue of Saint John -- the mystery of the Word out of silence -- calls for what the Venerable John Paul II described as an "adoring silence." Before the glory of the Word, all other words fall silent. In the presence of the Word, human discourse stammers and fails. Silence alone is worthy of the mystery.


After Holy Mass we began preparations for our Christmas dinner, grateful to Divine Providence and to the friends and benefactors who supplied us with everything necessary, and then some. After dinner, a good Christmas day nap was in order, having been awake most of the night before.

Evening of the First Day

None, adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Vespers, and Compline brought our Christmas Day to a peaceful close. And thus ended the First Day of Christmas at Silverstream Priory in County Meath.

Wreathe the Door of Thy Heart

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The painting is by Blessed Fra Angelico (1400-1455). Saint Peter is ordaining Stephen to the diaconate while Saint John the Beloved (whose feast we will keep tomorrow), holding his Gospel, looks on. The composition is remarkable: the three heads of Peter, John and Stephen form a triangle, a symbol of communion in the Three Divine Persons. Peter is handing over the chalice and paten; they are very large. Fra Angelico makes the Most Holy Eucharist central; he paints what Saint Thomas Aquinas taught, i.e. that the unity of the Church is constituted and held together by participation in the adorable Body and Blood of Christ.

December 26
Saint Stephen the Protomartyr

The Holy Spirit at Christmas

The liturgy of Christmas, while drawing our gaze to the Son, the Word made flesh, in no way obscures or minimizes the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit. Quite by chance, I came upon this astonishing text of Saint Ephrem the Syrian: "At this feast of the Nativity let each person wreathe the door of his heart so that the Holy Spirit may delight in that door, enter in and make there his dwelling; then by the Spirit we will be made holy."

Fear Not, For Thou Hast Found Grace With God

Already on the First Sunday of Advent, we sang in the Benedictus Antiphon, "The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, O Mary. Do not be afraid." And on the Second Saturday of Advent, Blessed Isaac of Stella explained that "what is said in the particular case of the Virgin Mother Mary, is rightly understood of the Virgin Mother Church universally (Sermon 51). Today's feast of Saint Stephen is the liturgy's way of repeating now to the Virgin Mother Church the mysterious words of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mother Mary: "Fear not, for thou hast found grace with God.' (Lk 1:30).

Grace and Power

It is remarkable that Saint Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, describes Saint Stephen in today's First Reading as "full of grace and power" (Ac 6:8). The phrase has a distinctively Marian resonance. To Mary, the "highly-favoured" of God (Lk 1:28), the "full of grace," the angel Gabriel says: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee" (Lk 1:35). The words addressed to the Virgin Mary in a particular way hold universal import for the Church.

On this second day of Christmas, Stephen, "full of grace and power"(Ac 6:8) is the radiant icon of the Church indwelt and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Without leaving Mary and the Infant Christ, we pass to Stephen and the Infant Christ, to Stephen and the Infant Church.

The Spirit of Truth

Saint Luke tells us that those who disputed Stephen "could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke" (Ac 6:10). Stephen of the growing Church, like Jesus at the age of twelve (Lk 2:42) opens his mouth in the midst of the people, the elders, and the scribes, and his utterance is evidence of the Holy Spirit sent to the Church in fulfillment of Jesus' promises. "When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me" (Jn 15:26). Saint Matthew, in today's Gospel expresses the same reality: "Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Mt 10:19-20).

Full of the Spirit, Stephen Gazed into Heaven

We generally interpret this promise of Our Lord as having to do with the witness given by those who are delivered up to the enemies of His name and persecuted for the sake of the Gospel, and this is indeed the first meaning of the text, but the use of the text in this liturgy of Saint Stephen suggests yet another meaning to us, one that is, at a first glance, perhaps less apparent. Saint Luke clarifies his initial description of Stephen as "full of grace and power" (Ac 6:8) by making it explicit in his description of Stephen's martyrdom: "But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Ac 7:54).

"Full of grace and power" is synonymous with "full of the Holy Spirit." The effects of the indwelling and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit are that how we are to speak and what we are to say are given us by the Spirit of the Father in the hour of our need (Mt 10:19-20) and also that those who are "full of the Holy Spirit" gaze into heaven, see the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Ac 7:54).

The Boldness That Comes from the Holy Spirit

The first effect corresponds to Saint Paul's experience of the indwelling Holy Spirit. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8:26). How we are to speak and what we are to say comes from the Holy Spirit not only when we are facing persecutors but also when we, gathered in Christ, are facing the Father in prayer. In both instances the Church is in need of the parrhesia; -- the boldness -- that comes from the Spirit.

Tu Solus Sanctus

In her prayer, the Church indwelt and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the Church "full of grace and power" (Ac 6:8), knows how to speak and what to say, for the Spirit helps her in her weakness, giving her to pray as she ought. This is why in every festive liturgy the Church gazes into the heavens and seeing the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father, sings "Thou alone art the Holy One, thou alone art Lord, thou alone art the Most High: Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit: in the glory of God the Father" (Gloria). This is the second effect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Church-at-prayer sings what, with the eyes of faith, she beholds.

The Prayer of Christ

The work of the Holy Spirit, first of all through the sacred liturgy, is to align us with the prayer of Christ to the Father, to empty us of all that is our own prayer -- narrow, subjective, constrained -- and to fill us with the utter fullness of the prayer of Christ, a prayer that is immense, universal, all-encompassing, all-powerful and always and everywhere pleasing to the Father. In his martyrdom, Saint Stephen reveals this. "As they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them'" (Ac 7:59-60).

Designedly, Saint Luke, in his account of the death of Stephen, reproduces his own account of the prayer of the dying Jesus from the cross. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," and "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:34 and 46). There is, however, a subtle theological difference. Whereas the dying Jesus addresses the Father, the dying Stephen addresses the living Christ, the risen and ascended Jesus whom he beholds "standing at the right hand of God"(Ac 7:55). Stephen's prayer at the hour of death is a confession of the resurrection of Christ.

Under the Overshadowing of the Holy Spirit

Poised between hearing the Word of God and going to the altar for the sacrifice, the Virgin Mother Mary and the protomartyr Saint Stephen are given us as living signs of the indwelling and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. To us is said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow you" (Lk 1:35). To us is given, "wisdom and the Spirit" (Ac 6:10), which no earthly power or wisdom can withstand.

Body of Christ, Voice of Christ, Prayer of Christ

By our communion in the Holy Sacrifice of Christ's Body and Blood, we, like Saint Stephen, are filled with the Holy Spirit. Herein is the transforming effect of Holy Mass: we are no longer many individuals speaking many words and praying many prayers. We are, by the action of the Holy Spirit, a single Body with a single voice and signal prayer: the Body of Christ, the voice of Christ, the prayer of Christ. Amen.

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Among the mectildian-benedictine practices that our monastery has come to cherish is that of the Amende honorable (Act of Honourable Amendment): a prayer of adoration and reparation pronounced aloud before the Most Holy Sacrament. Here is the prayer that I offered today following Vespers.

Lord Jesus Christ,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten of the Father before the daystar,
and consubstantial with Him,
born in the fulness of time of the Immaculate Virgin Mary,
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
I adore Thee,
who art truly present here,
and, out of my own poverty and weakness,
I desire to make reparation
for those who do not adore Thee in this wondrous Sacrament,
and for those who deny the mystery of Thy real presence.

I would make reparation as well
for those who approach Thee without reverence,
for those who touch, and handle,
and receive Thy adorable Body
with coldness, with indifference,
and with little awareness of the immensity of Thy charity
burning in this Most Holy Sacrament.

Thou art here upon the altar
just as Thou wert in the cave of Bethlehem,
where, wrapped in swaddling bands,
Thou wast laid in the manger as upon an altar,
the innocent Lamb made ready for the sacrifice,
the Living Bread come down from heaven,
and set forth upon the altars of Thy Church
for the nourishment of those
whom Thou hast created to partake of Thy Flesh and Blood
and, in so doing, to become one with Thee.

Here, though Thy glory be veiled, yet is it visible,
for one cannot gaze upon the Sacred Host
without reflecting, as in a mirror,
something of the radiance of Thy glory
hidden beneath Its humble appearance.

I unite my adoration first to that of the Virgin Mother and of Saint Joseph,
desiring, in some way, to adore Thee with them
and to abide in their company.
I adore Thee in communion with the Angelic Choirs
who filled the skies of Bethlehem on that most holy night,
and I adore Thee together with the lowly shepherds
who, crossing over to Bethlehem, found there
that everything was just as the Angel told them.

Receive my adoration here,
and in every church become the true House of Bread,
by reason of Thine adorable presence,
thus prolonging the mystery of Bethlehem
through space and through time,
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Bowing low before Thee,
I adore and I submit to this mystery of Thy omnipotence become so fragile,
of Thy glory so hidden,
and of Thy love so despised.

Let all that is in me surrender in faith to what I see before my eyes,
and to what I do not see,
for Thou art here,
who livest and reignest with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Transeamus Usque Bethleem

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Monastery of Decani, Fresco of the Nativity of Our Lord

Saint Peter's Basilica Monday, 24 December 2012

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

A Beauty that is the Splendour of Truth

Again and again the beauty of this Gospel touches our hearts: a beauty that is the splendour of truth. Again and again it astonishes us that God makes himself a child so that we may love him, so that we may dare to love him, and as a child trustingly lets himself be taken into our arms. It is as if God were saying: I know that my glory frightens you, and that you are trying to assert yourself in the face of my grandeur. So now I am coming to you as a child, so that you can accept me and love me.

No Room Left for God

I am also repeatedly struck by the Gospel writer's almost casual remark that there was no room for them at the inn. Inevitably the question arises, what would happen if Mary and Joseph were to knock at my door. Would there be room for them? And then it occurs to us that Saint John takes up this seemingly chance comment about the lack of room at the inn, which drove the Holy Family into the stable; he explores it more deeply and arrives at the heart of the matter when he writes: "he came to his own home, and his own people received him not" (Jn 1:11). The great moral question of our attitude towards the homeless, towards refugees and migrants, takes on a deeper dimension: do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for God. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still. Does God actually have a place in our thinking? Our process of thinking is structured in such a way that he simply ought not to exist. Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the "God hypothesis" becomes superfluous. There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so "full" of ourselves that there is no room left for God. And that means there is no room for others either, for children, for the poor, for the stranger. By reflecting on that one simple saying about the lack of room at the inn, we have come to see how much we need to listen to Saint Paul's exhortation: "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Rom 12:2). Paul speaks of renewal, the opening up of our intellect (nous), of the whole way we view the world and ourselves. The conversion that we need must truly reach into the depths of our relationship with reality. Let us ask the Lord that we may become vigilant for his presence, that we may hear how softly yet insistently he knocks at the door of our being and willing. Let us ask that we may make room for him within ourselves, that we may recognize him also in those through whom he speaks to us: children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world.

Hearing the Sounds of Heaven

There is another verse from the Christmas story on which I should like to reflect with you - the angels' hymn of praise, which they sing out following the announcement of the new-born Saviour: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased." God is glorious. God is pure light, the radiance of truth and love. He is good. He is true goodness, goodness par excellence. The angels surrounding him begin by simply proclaiming the joy of seeing God's glory. Their song radiates the joy that fills them. In their words, it is as if we were hearing the sounds of heaven. There is no question of attempting to understand the meaning of it all, but simply the overflowing happiness of seeing the pure splendour of God's truth and love. We want to let this joy reach out and touch us: truth exists, pure goodness exists, pure light exists. God is good, and he is the supreme power above all powers. All this should simply make us joyful tonight, together with the angels and the shepherds.

A Bright Ray of Peace and Goodness, Which Continues to Shine

Linked to God's glory on high is peace on earth among men. Where God is not glorified, where he is forgotten or even denied, there is no peace either. Nowadays, though, widespread currents of thought assert the exact opposite: they say that religions, especially monotheism, are the cause of the violence and the wars in the world. If there is to be peace, humanity must first be liberated from them. Monotheism, belief in one God, is said to be arrogance, a cause of intolerance, because by its nature, with its claim to possess the sole truth, it seeks to impose itself on everyone. Now it is true that in the course of history, monotheism has served as a pretext for intolerance and violence. It is true that religion can become corrupted and hence opposed to its deepest essence, when people think they have to take God's cause into their own hands, making God into their private property. We must be on the lookout for these distortions of the sacred. While there is no denying a certain misuse of religion in history, yet it is not true that denial of God would lead to peace. If God's light is extinguished, man's divine dignity is also extinguished. Then the human creature would cease to be God's image, to which we must pay honour in every person, in the weak, in the stranger, in the poor. Then we would no longer all be brothers and sisters, children of the one Father, who belong to one another on account of that one Father. The kind of arrogant violence that then arises, the way man then despises and tramples upon man: we saw this in all its cruelty in the last century. Only if God's light shines over man and within him, only if every single person is desired, known and loved by God is his dignity inviolable, however wretched his situation may be. On this Holy Night, God himself became man; as Isaiah prophesied, the child born here is "Emmanuel", God with us (Is 7:14). And down the centuries, while there has been misuse of religion, it is also true that forces of reconciliation and goodness have constantly sprung up from faith in the God who became man. Into the darkness of sin and violence, this faith has shone a bright ray of peace and goodness, which continues to shine.

To Recognize Your True Face

So Christ is our peace, and he proclaimed peace to those far away and to those near at hand (cf. Eph 2:14, 17). How could we now do other than pray to him: Yes, Lord, proclaim peace today to us too, whether we are far away or near at hand. Grant also to us today that swords may be turned into ploughshares (Is 2:4), that instead of weapons for warfare, practical aid may be given to the suffering. Enlighten those who think they have to practise violence in your name, so that they may see the senselessness of violence and learn to recognize your true face. Help us to become people "with whom you are pleased" - people according to your image and thus people of peace.

A Holy Curiosity

Once the angels departed, the shepherds said to one another: Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened for us (cf. Lk 2:15). The shepherds went with haste to Bethlehem, the Evangelist tells us (cf. 2:16). A holy curiosity impelled them to see this child in a manger, who the angel had said was the Saviour, Christ the Lord. The great joy of which the angel spoke had touched their hearts and given them wings.

Step Outside Our Habits of Thought and Habits of Life

Let us go over to Bethlehem, says the Church's liturgy to us today. Transeamus is what the Latin Bible says: let us go "across", daring to step beyond, to make the "transition" by which we step outside our habits of thought and habits of life, across the purely material world into the real one, across to the God who in his turn has come across to us. Let us ask the Lord to grant that we may overcome our limits, our world, to help us to encounter him, especially at the moment when he places himself into our hands and into our heart in the Holy Eucharist.

The Actual Town of Bethlehem

Let us go over to Bethlehem: as we say these words to one another, along with the shepherds, we should not only think of the great "crossing over" to the living God, but also of the actual town of Bethlehem and all those places where the Lord lived, ministered and suffered. Let us pray at this time for the people who live and suffer there today. Let us pray that there may be peace in that land. Let us pray that Israelis and Palestinians may be able to live their lives in the peace of the one God and in freedom. Let us also pray for the countries of the region, for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and their neighbours: that there may be peace there, that Christians in those lands where our faith was born may be able to continue living there, that Christians and Muslims may build up their countries side by side in God's peace.

Holy Curiosity and Holy Joy

The shepherds made haste. Holy curiosity and holy joy impelled them. In our case, it is probably not very often that we make haste for the things of God. God does not feature among the things that require haste. The things of God can wait, we think and we say. And yet he is the most important thing, ultimately the one truly important thing. Why should we not also be moved by curiosity to see more closely and to know what God has said to us? At this hour, let us ask him to touch our hearts with the holy curiosity and the holy joy of the shepherds, and thus let us go over joyfully to Bethlehem, to the Lord who today once more comes to meet us. Amen.

Ye Shall See His Glory

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Lauds on the Vigil of Christmas

One of the most beautiful Offices of the entire liturgical year is, I think, that of Lauds on the Vigil of Christmas. A veritable Pre-Feast! Set amongst antiphons that are poignantly expressive of hope and gladsome anticipation, the festive psalms are sung: 66, 92, 99, 62, the Benedicite, and then, of course, the Laudate Psalms, 148-149-150.

Today's Antiphons

Consider the antiphons we sang at Lauds this morning:

1. O Judah and Jerusalem, * fear not; tomorrow ye shall go out, and the Lord will be with you, alleluia. (Chronicles 20:17)

2. This day ye shall know * that the Lord cometh: and in the morning, then ye shall see His glory. (Exodus 16: 6-7)

3. On the morrow * the sins of the earth shall be washed away, and the Saviour of the world will be our King.

4. The Lord cometh! * --Go ye out to meet Him, and say, How great is His dominion, and of His kingdom there shall be no end: He is the Mighty God, the Ruler, the Prince of Peace, alleluia, alleluia.

5. On the morrow * ye shall be saved, saith the Lord God of hosts.


All, or any one of these antiphons, or even a phrase taken from them, is enough to hold the heart recollected in the presence of God through the remaining hours of what, for most of us, will be a very busy day of preparation. The Church herself teaches us to return to the antiphons of the morning Office by repeating them at Prime, at Tierce, at Sext, and at None. This is the very pedagogy of the Church, exercised in the Sacred Liturgy.

Praying the Rosary with Antiphons

For folks (even Benedictine Oblates) who do not have the time to pray the entire Divine Office, or even one or another of the Hours in full, it is always possible to integrate the antiphons of a given feast or mystery into the humble prayer of Our Lady's Rosary. Given that there are five antiphons in this morning's Office, one might read one antiphon before each decade of the Rosary. In this way, the mystery of the Incarnation (recalled in the Joyful Mysteries) becomes the meditation of each decade, while the Rosary itself is more closely bound to The Prayer of the Church. Thus does "Our Lady's Psalter," the Rosary, become a way of entering more fully into the contemplation offered us by the Church in her liturgy.

LIsten to Saint Paul

The Capitulum (short reading) is the incipit of Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, born a descendant of royal David, is the fulfillment of all that was spoken by the Prophets.

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an Apostle, separated unto the Gospel of God, which He had promised afore by His Prophets, in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, Which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh. (Romans 1:1)

The Responsory

The Short Responsory departs from the yearning Fourth Mode melody that we have sung all during Advent and, in anticipation of the joy of the Nativity, returns to the confident and glad-hearted Sixth Mode:

R. Today ye shall know * that the Lord cometh.
V. And in the morning, ye shall see His glory.
R. That the Lord cometh.
V. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
R. Today ye shall know * that the Lord cometh.

The Benedictus Antiphon

The Saviour of the world shall rise like the sun
and come down into the womb of the Virgin
as the showers upon the grass, alleluia.

The Benedictus Antiphon, with its expressive Eighth Mode melody, is exquisite. It joins two images of the mystery of the Incarnation. The first image is the dawning sun, the dayspring; Mary is the dawn, Christ the perfect day. The second is that of a gentle rain falling soft upon the grass. Mary is the virgin earth made fruitful by the Holy Ghost; Christ is the seed sown in her, a seed that, in the Most Holy Eucharist, becomes, for all, the finest wheat, the Bread of Life.

The Collect

Finally, today's Collect asks that we, who welcome the Infant Christ in His lowliness and poverty, may be found worthy of greeting Him without dread on the day of His return in glory. In this prayer there is no vapid sentimentality. It is rigorously theological, embracing, in a few carefully crafted phrases, the immense circle of the Economy of Salvation.

O God Whose mercy doth year by year cause us to rejoice,
looking forward to our deliverance,
grant that as we now make ready with gladness
to receive Thine only-begotten Son as our Saviour,
so we may see Him without dread
at HIs second and terrible coming as our Judge,
even our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son,
Who liveth and reigneth with Thee,
in the unity of the Holy Ghost,
one God, world without end.


Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698) gave this Chapter conference on 17 December 1671. I share it for those who may be looking for a text to help them enter the grace of Christmas -- little, poor, and trusting.

To illustrate the text, I chose the work of a contemporary of Mother Mectilde, the French sculptor MIchel Anguier (1613-1686). The piece was originally executed for the altar of the church at Val de Grâce in Paris. Today it is in the Church of Saint-Roch just above the tabernacle. Mother Mectilde says it well: "Holy Communion is an extension of the Incarnation."

As for the text itself, it is representative of the French School with its interest in the perduring grace of the mysteries of Christ, something masterfully developed by Blessed Abbot Marmion in Christ in His Mysteries. At the same time, by reason of her insight into spiritual childhood and littleness, Mother Mectilde is a forerunner of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face.

It is true that the mystery is past, I recognize it, and that it happened only once, but the grace of the mystery is not, in fact, past for the souls who prepare themselves to give birth to Jesus Christ in their heart. He was born one time in Bethlehem, and he is born every day in us with Holy Communion, which, as the Fathers say, is an extension of the Incarnation.
Do you know why Our Lord did not want to be born in the city of Jerusalem? It is because there all was full of creatures; there was not a single empty house. All was full of business or something other. He preferred to be born in a poor stable, empty and abandoned. This demonstrates to us that, if we want Jesus to abide in us, we must empty ourselves of all things, withour exception. This being done, He will impress in us His spirit, His life, His inclinations, and in such a soul one will see only Jesus.
Those who have received this grace, will be recognized easily by their docility and simplicity, the companion virtues of holy childhood. Who are the first to come to the Infant Jesus to offer Him homage? Poor folk, shepherds. It is what the Gospel says: "Ye who are little, come unto Me." Only the humble are worthy of learning secrets so divine, hidden from the great ones of the earth, who are precisely the proud. The more a soul is little, the more will God communicate Himself to her. He goes to seek her out in the depth of her nothingness, where He fills her with all Himself.

One must burn with love

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Image of Mother Mectilde: detail of a painting attributed to Philippe de Champaigne, Monastery of Mas-Grenier.

I am continuing my translation of Mother Mectilde's conference for the Vigil of Christmas 1694. She emphasizes that the Incarnation is God's gratuitous expression of love for each and every human being. Christus natus est pro nobis. The pro nobis (for us) that the liturgy sings must be brought to bear upon each one. One who hasn't grasped that the Word became flesh for me cannot rightly understand what the Church means when she sings that Christ is born for us.

God Did for Me Alone What He Did for All

As I have told you, God, having within Himself everything that could make Him happy, had no need of His creatures, and these can add nothing to His felicity. He could not have given us a greater sign of His love, as Saint John says, "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son." (John 3:16) And it can be said that in giving us His Son, He gave us all that what dearest and most precious to Him.

Let us, then, immerse ourselves in profound sentiments of gratitude towards the Eternal Father for the grand gift He offers us today. But, so as to penetrate better into the grace of the mystery and enter into a true gratitude, it is necessary, dear sisters, that each one of you make it your own and strive, with all her capacity, to think of the goodness of a God who, by His birth, comes to give Himself to us. Say then to yourselves: -- God did for me alone what He did for all. Be persuaded of this, because it is really true. In making the mystery your own in this way, it will make much more of an impression on your spirit and will dilate your heart to love God, inflaming it with love of Him. Is it, in effect, ever possible to believe without being set all ablaze with love for a God who is so good, who has done all these things for us? How? God loves me, and shall I not love Him? It is impossible. One must burn with love.

When One Feels Nothing

Somebody may say to me: -- But one does not always have so much ardour, nor a love that is felt --. This is true, but we must not fall into sadness if we are not feeling a sensible love. just as we must not refuse it when God grants it. Believe me, go to God with naturalness, in all simplicity, just as little children go to their papa, without scruple; don't be so fearful. Take what is given to you: if there are sensible feelings of love for Our Lord, so much the better: you shall be set all aflame by the desire to love Him. Receive everything and refuse nothing, not to satisfy your self-love or permit it to claim such sentiments by living them too sentimentally, but only to receive them from Our Lord so that they may produce in us the effect that He wants.

Desiring Nothing but the Reign of His Good Pleasure Within You

At the same time, when He makes you suffer a more painful disposition, darkness, dryness, incapacity, etc., receive it all equally and be indifferent to whatever state [you find yourself in], content with what God gives you, refusing nothing, and desiring nothing but the reign of His good pleasure within you, which reign will not be established except by your own destruction.

Things So Prodigious and Incomprehensible to the Human Mind

De Condren, noting that on the loveliest feasts and in the celebration of great mysteries, one often finds oneself in darkness and in interior dryness, asks why this is so. He responds, observing that our human reason wants to penetrate into the mystery in order to understand it, but because the mystery surpasses the capacities of reason, it does not succeed in going there. This is what produces our darknesses. We never, therefore, enter into the mysteries except by pure faith. Let us leave aside our reasoning and our own mind: they are not worthy, they are too material to conceive what is above the sensible; let us not even heed them. Follow with simplicity the spirit of faith that illumines and makes us believe things so prodigious and incomprehensible to the human mind.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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