Tuesday, December 25, 2007

After an Afternoon Nap

Woke up after a long snooze in a warm room.  Turkey is quite soporific; so must have been the punch and the sherry and the sparkling wine and the dessert wine and the brandy cream with the Christmas pudding...  Roast potatoes and pumpkin, zucchini with tomato, broad beans with peas, cauliflower cheese; turkey with gravy; apricot, pork, and water chestnut stuffing; prune stuffing; glazed ham.  Oh, and some cashews to nibble on.  Did I mention stuffing?

We'll gather soon for the last part of the family Christmas rituals: watching The Queen's Christmas Message – Long may she reign.

We had our usual exchange of presents before our Christmas dinner.  There was time to catch some of the Pope's Midnight Mass on TV just before we had to sit down and feast.  (I've just read his masterful homily, which I half-heard before.)  

Thank God I'm on holiday away from Perth!  Here it has been about 20˚C; over there, 40˚C, the hottest since 1915; and Midnight Mass, tho' beautified in Perth with polyphony, chant and incense, must have been stiflingly hot.

I served Mass this morning at the Carmel; by special privilege at Christmas they have Mass at 8.30am, not 7.30.  Since Midnight Mass at Carmel finished just after 1am, I managed to get maybe 5 hours sleep...  at least, since I wasn't needed to serve (an older fellow, one of the lay sacristans did; he's better with a thurible), which meant I could have my Trad. Missal with me and pray along (the readings and prayers are almost the same at Christmas, old rite and new).  

The nuns, as ever, sang a hymn or carol as a processional and recessional; they sing the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Gregorian chant; in English, they sing the Responsorial Psalm, Alleluia and Communion verses, the Memorial Acclamation, and, in Latin or English, a meditative Taize-style piece after their communion.  Two of the sisters read the Old and New Testament lessons from a lectern within their chapel, behind their screen, and one read the petitions of the Prayer of the Faithful.  At Midnight Mass, we had incense, as is their custom, and the image of the Holy Child was carried in by the priest, and censed upon being laid in the manger, during the singing of O come, all ye faithful.

The visiting priest, a Dominican, has used the Roman Canon at all Masses, and sung the Preface and sundry prayers; and he preaches well.

Here's my own half-remembered precis of his words.

Last night, he bade us consider the contrast between Octavian, at whose birth a runner brought the news to the Roman Senate that the future ruler of the world had been born, and Our Lord, born, not in a palace, but to humble folk in an obscure corner of the Empire.  By age 33, having defeated his rivals, Octavian had become the first Roman Emperor, and the Senate voted him the title Augustus; Our Lord at age 33 went to the Cross.  Yet it was by coming into our world, in true flesh and blood, and dying on the Cross, that our salvation was accomplished.  [It was not Augustus on his throne, robed in purple, who saved us.  The latter is dead and buried; the former is alive, living for ever and ever.]  The pagan world yearned for what it knew not, and its philosophers admitted their final inability to achieve contentment.  Experience shews that every human heart, whether poor or rich, is empty, yearning for something to fill it.  Down the ages, people have lamented this, and tried every expedient to fill it: riches, pleasure, etc.  But only God can fill the human heart.  As he pointed out, the Muslim call to prayer, Allahu akhbar, signifies "God is great" – but our Faith has it that God is so great, He can come as a tiny Child, humbly, in humility.

This morning, he preached on that fear many feel, consciously or unconsciously, that God is as it were an invader, coming to take away our human independence and way of life.  Perhaps since the Enlightenment, certainly since the rise of modern atheism, Existentialism, and so forth, God has been considered unwelcome because too many hearts fear Him, would not want Him, wish to deny and shut Him out – yet God comes not to destroy (or rather, to destroy only what is diminishing our humanity), but to raise up what is fallen.  Human nature is capable of bearing divinity [capax Dei].  The Incarnation proves this.  Every man and woman, then, is capable of becoming a partaker of the divine nature.  "This is the work of a lifetime – as you know, sisters" he said, "– but also the gift of a moment."

Christmas is indeed all about gifts: that holy and wondrous exchange of gifts: sacrum commercium.  As we sang at the end of Midnight Mass, in the words of O little town of Bethlehem: "How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given / So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven."

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