Sunday, 31 December 2006

O Taste and See how Gracious the Lord is.

Throughout Christmas, we have placed Sr Mericia's Nativity Cake in the centre of the table in Clergy House dining room, as an inspiration and as a work of art. Today, at the end of Sunday lunch, having admired her creation with reverent restraint, we asked her to come and cut it.
It required not just a steady hand, but a bold heart, to cut into the crib scene. Sister Mericia (one of the Portuguese sisters who works in Clergy House) showed no qualms.

However, nobody could quite bring themselves to eat the child in the manger.

The Holy Family

The mosaic from the chapel of St Joseph forms an appropriate heading for today's Feast. You may well feel that celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family straight after surviving Christmas en famille is a bit rich. Having withstood Christmas Day together, having put up with the in-laws and endured charades, having received a ghastly jumper and found that the alka-seltzers have vanished from the bathroom cabinet, rather than praise the family, you may want to murder them.

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.
But perhaps they are not so far apart.

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.

I note all this not to shock, nor to be an iconoclast, but to point out the real truth of the Holy Family; that it is truly a pattern of families - but not just ideal, TV advert, get-everything right families. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are also the pattern for families where things do not go right, where problems seem to overwhelm, where relationships do not always work out. This was not a painted family carved in gilded wood; it was a real, human family with real human problems.

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.

Saturday, 30 December 2006

Dampening the Spirits

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!

After the Storms, the Sun

An unusual view of the North transept, taken from Ambrosden Avenue.

Friday, 29 December 2006

The Beauty of These Days

Taken from the Grand Organ gallery, at noon.

Thomas of Canterbury

This morning, as is my custom, I celebrated Mass in the small chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury (also known as the Vaughan Chantry). Decorated with mosaics just two years ago, this chapel is a gem, with the walls and vault resembling the pages of a decorated medieval manuscript.

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.

Thursday, 28 December 2006

Holy Innocents' Day

There is a lovely atmosphere in the Cathedral during this Christmas season, and I enjoy the calmness of the great church - with many visitors simply walking around, or sitting silently. There is a sense, as ever, of prayerfulness and repose.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Nativity in Trafalgar Square

Strolling this afternoon to Trafalgar Square, I was delighted to see a crib nestling at the foot of nelson's Column. There has been much talk this year in the press of playing down the religious side of Christmas. This, then, was good to see.

I remember reading that the Trafalgar Square crib has been created by a Japanese non-Christian. The artist had an enjoyable time learning about the legends associated with Christmas, and then presented it in a Japanese idiom. Certainly it has the clean, minimalist look of a Japanese home (a tourist behind me said, "What? No straw!"). But it also has something of the renaissance about it. There's a clear hint at Piero Della Francesca's Nativity in the nearby National Gallery, even to the figure pointing to the heavens. Like Piero, the artist has placed the Christ child on the floor (a detail which is only just visible in the above photograph). The Madonna has the poise and tranquility of one of Pisanello's profiles, and the whole scene accomplishes a radiance and peace that is deeply moving.

A lovely detail is the figure of Joseph, lying alongside the child, and watching over him and (below) the three wise men who represent the three racial types of Africa, Asia and India.

Sankta Lucia

The photographer at the Swedish Church has sent us some photographs of the Sankta Lucia festival on 15 December, capturing the drama and beauty of the occasion.

For more stunning pictures, head to the gallery at the website of the Swedish Church

The Sacristy on Christmas Afternoon

Getting into our cappas is none to easy at the best of times. One false move, and a chaplain is garrotted.
However, at length all is in place, cords are fixed, and no one appears to be asphyxiating

Certainly our youngest chaplain, Fr Slawek, seems content.

And the procession wends its way in to the Cathedral for Solemn Vespers.

Monday, 25 December 2006

Away in a Manger

The beautiful crib at the High Altar dominates the Cathedral. Both simple and gracious, it creates a feeling of tranquil contemplation at the mystery of the Incarnation.

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.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

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.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

First Mass of Christmas

A packed Cathedral for this evening Mass, especially aimed at young families. At this Mass, children are invited up for the blessing of the Crib

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Administrator

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.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

On this shortest possible fourth week of Advent, the four candles on the wreath express our joy and hope at the coming to birth of our Saviour.

In Joyous Expectation

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!

Saturday, 23 December 2006

All is Calm...

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.

Friday, 22 December 2006

A Foggy Day in London Town

Despite the fog that has settled in over the country, badly affecting transport, a weak sun did manage to peep through this afternoon, illuminating a corner of the Cathedral.

O little Town of Bethlehem

Last night, we held our annual Christmas Celebration, one of the major events of the Cathedral year. In Cardinal Cormac's absence, it was hosted by Bishop Stack.

The Cardinal is in Bethlehem, with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other religious leaders, on a pilgrimage of prayer to highlight the plight of the town of Our Saviour's birth - the Cardinal himself describes it as a 'pastoral visit to encourage the minority Christian community.' With the tense security situation, the tourist trade which has supported Bethlehem's Chrisitan community has collapsed, and the normally thriving town is almost empty. The Christian inhabitants are harassed and reduced to destitution, and many of them are emigrating. As an aside, the World Monuments Fund wishes to enlist the Church of the Nativity (above) among the ten most endangered buildings in the world.

It is hard to hear such news at any time, but at Christmas the plight of Bethlehem is especially distressing. It is not meant to be this way; as we mark the birth of our Saviour, the little town of Bethlehem should be the epitome of tranquility and beauty - the stuff of Christmas cards, not of news reports. Surely at Christmas, at least, it should sleep in heavenly peace.

Christmas is a time of make-believe; not simply because Bing Crosby tells us that we will all be watching to see if reindeer really know how to fly. There is a serious aspect to our make-believing, for we imagine that this really is a time of peace and goodwill, that the guns will fall silent, the starving will be fed, and the oppressed will be visited with open handed generosity. The truth is, of course, that as we celebrate Christmas, our world is still crucified by war and hunger, by oppression and violence. When the glow of Christmas fades, and the decorations are taken down, the world will look just as it did beforehand.

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.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Crib Wars

While the Administrator has opted for the trusted formality of his familiar italianate display in the Clergy House dining room, Fr Tim (under the heady influence of his recent pilgrimage to Our Lady of Gaudalupe) has gone all Mexican in the Common Room -

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

Wreathes around the Baldacchino

To celebrate the centenary of the Baldacchino this Christmas, we have wreathed two columns with garlands. Poor Tom, our electrician, ended up a ladder late last evening, threading the garland around the columns while avoiding the Christmas trees. However, with the help of Bernie, our handyman, a spectacular effect was achieved:

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

A Festive Note

Tradition has it that the youngest resident of the Clergy House must decorate the Christmas Tree in the Common Room. Usually, this means the Organ Scholar, and here Simon Lloyd sets about the task with great enthusiasm! Below, Simon stands before the finished product.

Monday, 18 December 2006

Light in St Andrew's Chapel

Light floods into St Andrew's chapel, revealing the exquisite designs in marble, and the arts-and-craft stalls by Ernest Gimson (1863 - 1919).

Sunday, 17 December 2006

The College of Cathedral Chaplains

Back Row, left to right: Fr Dwayne Bednar, Fr Michael Archer (Registrar), Fr Michael Seed SA
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: