Sunday, 31 December 2006
Families can seem, at times, like the brussels sprouts that come with the turkey: you've got to have them, but they leave you feeling dreadfully winded. And so, today, as we gaze at the serenity of the family scene in the stable, you may well be thinking that it is very far from the festive scenes of near riot at your house.
Families, remember, are big enough to survive Christmas. They do so because whatever rows or strains they throw up, what holds families together is far stronger, and far more flexible. Love. Love is not just reserved for cute carol singers on Christmas cards, nor cherubs floating above picturesque cribs gently powdered with snow. Love can be unbelievably tough. Families go through good times and bad. Families sometimes hang on by their fingernails. But families win through, because whatever bad news the file contains, the filing cabinet can contain it, and put it in a bigger context. Families are about love, and the price paid for love. And that's a very Christmas theme.
For the Holy Family, like any family, is a haven. Against the uncertainty and dangers of a confused world, the members of a family - especially children - find the secure space to grow, develop, and equip themselves for life. Just as the family of Jesus shielded him from the terrors of a violent world (in their case, the wrath of Herod), so within our families, children have the space to grow, to learn to love, and to respect love.
That doesn't make families easy - as many of you can testify. Families are real. If you belong to a real family, you don't need a priest or a bishop to tell you that the romantic stable in Bethlehem also contains a great deal of pain. That peaceful scene was won at the price of deep suffering by Mary and Joseph. It was their sacrifices, their pain, their courage in the face of fear, that enabled Jesus to be born amid peace, love and security. They would have done anything to keep him from harm. Any parent would.
Yet, can that cosy image that is so familiar to us (here, above, is a detail of the Cathedral crib) - the happy, blessed family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph - really be the pattern of all families? Most of our families are far less than perfect. Fewer of our families these days measure up to the traditional image. The Holy Family of Bethlehem seems an impossible ideal, too perfect!
But let us also look at what we know about that Holy Family. The story begins with Joseph discovering that his financée is pregnant. Next, the Government forces him to travel several hundred miles with his pregnant wife to his original home, where her child - who, we recall, is not Joseph's - is born in an animal pen. They are then forced to flee the country as refugees to Egypt. Later, we hear that when Jesus is 12, he wanders off from his parents on a trip to the big city. They don’t miss him for an entire day - an extraordinary feat of negligence - and when they do find him and tell him off, he answers back in terms that would certainly have earned a child of my generation a good hiding.
Later, at the Marriage Feast of Cana, Jesus seems to tell his mother to shut up. We read later in the gospels that his family thought he was mad, and when they came looking for him, would not let them in to see him.
All of us, then, whatever the state of our families, however easy or difficult we find them, whether they fit the traditional image or don't fit it - we have a reason to rejoice on this feast. God chose to be born in a family. So all our families are blessed; Christ has made his home with us.
Posted by Mark Langham at 04:29
Saturday, 30 December 2006
When the brightest thing on the horizon is the McDonald's sign, then it really is a miserable day. This picture was taken at about 3.00pm, when the bright morning had turned into a damp and miserable afternoon. Thank goodness the interior of the Cathedral was bright and welcoming.
This photo of the Campanile reflected in the rainy Piazza is, admittedly, not quite as romantic as 'acqua alta' in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, but at least we don't have flooded crypts!
Posted by Mark Langham at 15:08
Friday, 29 December 2006
It is a great sadnesses that this Feast Day is no longer observed in the calendar, save as an optional memorial. It is hard for English catholics, this side of the Reformation, to realise just how popular St Thomas was in the medieval Church. At one time, the name of St Thomas of Canterbury (or Thomas a Becket) was daily on the lips of our forefathers; every person in this land would have been able to recite by heart prayers to him, or sing a few of the hundreds of hymns written to him. Many of us, in those days, would have made the visit to his celebrated shrine in Canterbury, where we would have mingled with Christians from all over Europe. For Thomas' fame spread throughout Christendom: there is an ancient Church to him in Spain, and another in Iceland; he is represented in near-contemporary mosaic in a Cathedral in Sicily, and in ancient fresco in Bordeaux. In sixteenth century Rome the entire College of Cardinals turned out for his feast day, and during my time as a student in Rome, the English College still kept his feast no this day with great ceremony and devotion.
Such was the fame of Thomas of Canterbury. How it has all changed now!
Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that he has gone out of fashion. Consider the reasons for his murder - not the sort of things we expect martyrs to lay down their lives for these days. St Thomas wanted to ensure the independence of the clergy from the secular law of the land - to which the king not unreasonably objected. He excommunicated two bishops who had crowned the king's son without his permission. This is a man who meddled in politics; we don't expect religion to go there.
Indeed, there are countless tales of his charitable deeds in life, and the miracles he worked after his death; but when all is said, the reason for his fame was not what he died for, but the very fact that he died. That an Archbishop should be cut down in his own Cathedral (as illustrated in the chapel, above) was an unthinkable blasphemy, an unforgivable crime. This was an epic tale, the struggle between a mighty king and his former friend and turncoat minister. No wonder he has provided fertile material for plays, films and poems.
But is that enough for prayer? Is that enough for us to hold a feast day to St Thomas? What does he say to us about Christian virtue, about faith, about holiness?
One can certainly point to Thomas' conspicuous charity; once the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king, as archbishop he lived simply and made generous provision for the poor. But then so did many others - even the King. Much can be made of the change in Thomas' personality, from grasping Chancellor to austere churchman. But this was his character - determined, efficient, thorough in whatever he did, whether politician or priest.
At the last, I think we have to look to the manner of his death, to see the heroic virtue that made him a saint. Like the man in the parable of Jesus who says at first he will not help his master, but later does so, Thomas deep down was faithful to the calling of God.
So it is, there are those who find faith hard, who struggle with the church, even with God. Those who have a complicated relationship with the Church and with the world, those who make mistakes, those in whome the strands of arrogance and piety are perhaps difficult to distinguish. But, at the end of the day, these same people are ready to give of themselves, to make sacrifices for God and for others.
I think this is where we find Thomas. He made many bad decisions, he mis-handled the king, and his motives and priorities were muddled. But at the heart of him was a deep and simple love for God, a belief in his calling, and a dedication that underpinned all he believed.
He is a patron for late-comers to the faith, those who are unsure of their commitment, of their ability to stand the test when it comes. He reminds us that God doesn't just want straightforward, uncomplicated people to serve him. God loves those who struggle, who fail, who are unsure of their motives. Standing alone in his vast Cathedral on 29 December 1170, faced with the wickedness of this world, Thomas shows the real source of holiness - a heart that trusts completely in the goodness of God.
Posted by Mark Langham at 11:39
Thursday, 28 December 2006
Wednesday, 27 December 2006
Posted by Mark Langham at 20:06
Certainly our youngest chaplain, Fr Slawek, seems content.
And the procession wends its way in to the Cathedral for Solemn Vespers.
Posted by Mark Langham at 13:30
Monday, 25 December 2006
I was gratified at the number of people who greeted me after Midnight Mass, saying that they read this blog! May I wish you all, on behalf of all the Cathedral Chaplains, a happy and holy Christmas, and a blessed New Year.
Posted by Mark Langham at 07:54
At midnight, following the Vigil of psalms and readings, the Cardinal intones the message of the Angels, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" - Glory to God in the Highest! The Cathedral is flooded with eye-blinking light as the bells are rung (you can see our young ringers on the santuary steps), the organ bellows and trumpets sound for a thirty second 'strepitus' - a joyful clamour at the birth of our Saviour - before the Gloria in continued.
Posted by Mark Langham at 07:47
Sunday, 24 December 2006
The Cathedral closed briefly this evening, to prepare for Mass. A chance to practice that fiendish tongue twister in the Christmas Proclamation. It is a marvellous text, reminiscent of those Classical texts in Livy where the year is set by reference to living and past rulers, and giving the occasion a sense of historical and universal significance. Here is the Latin text as sung, with the phase of the moon duly rendered:
Octavo Kalendas Ianuarii, crescenti Luna, Innumeris transactis sæculis a creatione mundi, quando in principio Deus creavit cælum et terram et hominem formavit ad imaginem suam; permultis etiam sæculis, ex quo post diluvium Altissimus in nubibus arcum posuerat, signum fœderis et pacis; a migratione Abrahæ, patris nostri in fide, de Ur Chaldæorum sæculo vigesimo primo; ab egressu populi Israel de Ægypto, Moyse duce, sæculo decimo tertio; ab unctione David in regem, anno circiter millesimo, hebdomada sexagesima quinta, iuxta Danielis prophetiam; Olympiade centesima nonagesima quarta; ab Urbe condita anno septingentesimo quinquagesimo secundo; anno imperii Cæsaris Octaviani Augusti quadragesimo secundo; toto Orbe in pace composito, Iesus Christus, æternus Deus æternique Patris Filius, mundum volens adventu suo piissimo consecrare, de Spiritu Sancto conceptus, novemque post conceptionem decursis mensibus, in Bethlehem Iudæ nascitur ex Maria Virgine factus homo: Navitas Domini nostri Iesu Christi secundum carnem.
Today, the twenty-fifth of December, under a waxing moon, unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth and then formed man and woman in his own image. Several thousand years after the flood, when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant and of peace. Twenty-one centuries from the time when Abraham, our father in faith, set our from Ur of the Chaldees; thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt; about one thousand years from the anointing of David as king; in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophect of Daniel. In the one hundred and ninety fourth Olympiad; the seven hundred and fifty second year from the foundation of the city of Rome. The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by his merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary. Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
Posted by Mark Langham at 22:02
We were all up late last night with preparations. The Cathedral is blessed to have such a good team, and each chaplain has worked hard to make sure the Cathedral and Clergy House are ready. With Christmas Eve as a Sunday, there will be little time to devote to these tasks, so Saturday was a useful and necessary space.
One job has been to set out the magnificant consecration sconces (left) - the twelve candles holders in the form of a hand holding a torch, which are set into the walls of the nave for major occasions. They give a wonderful feeling of the apostles leaning into the Cathedral, to light its way.
Sunday begins in the usual way, with four morning Masses (including the High Mass at 10.30) and Morning Prayer at 10.00. Somewhere over luncthime, however, the day transforms into Christmas Eve, with Solemn First Vespers of Christmas at 4.00pm. The first (family) Mass of Christmas will be at 6.00pm, replacing the usual 5.30pm and 7.00pm Masses.
As ever, this is joyous place to be, but also busy (the Confessional queues have been continuous), and one rather has a sense of 'coming to' at Midnight Mass, realising it has all arrived! For myself, many things to do today, including some music rehearsals. I have to practise singing the Christmas proclamation, which includes the toungue twister 'anno septingentesimo quinquagesimo secundo' (the seven hundred and fifty seveth year)! Better lay off the sherry at lunch!
Posted by Mark Langham at 04:56
Saturday, 23 December 2006
The crib in St Joseph's chapel awaits the arrival of the Lord, and heralds the last few hours of tranquility before the frenzied activity of Sunday and Christmas Day. As far as the calendar, a Monday Christmas represents the second worst scenario, since Christmas Eve is a busy working day. However the worst secenario (Christmas on a Saturday) is very much the worst possible situation, since Boxing Day becomes a working day! Whatever, this work joyfully undertaken, for this is a glorious time of year.
This smaller of our two cribs has, for the first time, a magnificent new setting since the mosaics in the chapel were completed earlier this year.
Posted by Mark Langham at 09:40
Friday, 22 December 2006
I remember visiting Bethlehem myself years ago, and being outraged that locals kept trying to sell us souvenirs when our group was attempting to pray at the Church of the Nativity. But then, this is as it always has been, for Christ was born into a world that had no time for him. Despite the angel glory, society did not pause on the day of his birth, and men carried on their commerce with as much greed, pettiness and rage as ever they did. We celebrate our Christmas Day this year at a painful time for the world – even if in the cheer of our homes we don’t switch on the radio to hear it. Much as we adore the Christ child, the rest of the world will scarcely take note.
But Jesus never came to impose himself in that way. So fully did he insert himself into our sinful world, that throughout his life he allowed himself to be the victim of events. This is a God who does not, by and large, tell everyone to shut up and pay attention. Rather, he is a God who quietly accompanies us into the darkest places of our lives. The very manner of his birth is a sign that he shares – rather than overwhelms – the darkest and most difficult moments of our world.
The pain and sadness all about us continues, even on Christmas Day, but we can no longer say that this sorrow has nothing to do with God. As God enters our world on Christmas Day, so he enters every aspect of it, joyful or sorrowful. As God was born into human suffering, so he is born in the life of every human who suffers. Jesus lay in a manger in a Bethlehem that, even in his day just as today, was afflicted with turmoil and strife.
We long for Christmas to be more than make-believe for our world. We wish that humanity would truly live the peace and joy of Christmas, and we join fervently in the words of the Carol, “O hush the din, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.” We must strive to make it so. But even as we do, we must recognize that something more important has happened. God is with us, however sinful we may be, born into suffering Bethlehem and our war-torn world; and that is not make-believe. That is real.
Posted by Mark Langham at 04:30
Thursday, 21 December 2006
Wednesday, 20 December 2006
Posted by Mark Langham at 14:51
Tuesday, 19 December 2006
Posted by Mark Langham at 01:56
Monday, 18 December 2006
Sunday, 17 December 2006
Middle Row: Deacon Richard Nesbitt, Fr Tim Dean, Fr Denis Sarsfield, Fr Slawomir Witon
Front Row: Fr Christopher Tuckwell (Sub-administrator), Mgr Mark Langham (Administrator), Fr Michael Durand
Photographed in the Lady Chapel this afternoon, wearing our winter fur Cappas. Another version below:
Posted by Mark Langham at 19:54