December 24, 2014


Christmas Eve Talk
M. Rebecca

            This is my 3rd chapter talk for Christmas and each time I have used visual art to try to bring out a deeper expression and impression of this mystery of Jesus’ birth.  Guerric of Igny said in one of his Christmas sermons: “Our senses are incapable of seeing the invisible, inapt to comprehend the celestial…and although faith comes from hearing, it comes more prompt and ready from seeing…We not only hear the Word of God preached {today} but we see the Word of God given to us this day.”  Art can communicate in places words cannot go.  So I repeat today Guerric’s own invitation to his monks over 900 years ago, “Come let us make our way to Bethlehem and see this happening which God has made known to us”!!
            This year I would like to use a painting that I saw at the National Gallery in London.  It is called “The Nativity at Night” and was painted around 1490 by a Flemish painter, Geertgen. He was inspired by the mystical vision of St Bridget of Sweden (also from the 15th century).  In one of her visions, St Bridget wrote, “The light of the new-born child was so bright that the sun was not comparable to it”.   This is what Geertgen said he tried to capture - which is interesting for such a dark painting! 
            Yet what first grabbed my attention was his use of light.  The divine light from Jesus is the center or focal point – it is not a reflected light but comes from within.  When I saw this painting, our Lauds antiphon came to my mind:  “He is the source of light and in His Light we see light”.  Those who catch this light are in joy, awe, or adoration…even the animals.  The donkey is a bit shy and kind of nudges his way behind Mary.   But the ox pushed his way right into the middle of the painting with eyes wide open in amazement at seeing the Child Jesus.  All the little angels have their hands clasped in prayer except one who is so overcome with joy she is beside herself!  She reminds us that one cannot be ‘in the Light w/o delight’! 
            But in the background we have another scene going on.   There are shepherds in the field surrounded by a puny little campfire, while an angel shining in the darkness of a starless night illuminates the minds and hearts of the onlookers.  The angel is directly above Jesus in the crib and I wonder if that was on purpose to show Jesus was the source also of the angel’s light.  The human campfire is almost unnoticeable in comparison with the divine rays.   All the light we can generate in this world is puny compared to Christ…or as St Bridget said, not even the sun is comparable to it!
            A basic scientific understanding of light tells us that light is invisible until it hits something.  Light is wavelengths and so only after it touches an object can it reflect light, color, and beauty.  Otherwise, it remains an invisible, unnoticed reality.   This can teach us something about Geertgen’s painting but also about Christmas:  We must sit with the Light and allow it to touch us.  We must absorb and reflect the Light…in order for Christmas to become a visible reality. 
            It is thought that originally this painting was done as an altarpiece.  Imagine the symbolism of the priest raising the consecrated Host at the altar and having the Infant Jesus juxtaposed lying in a manger.  How fitting for this baby, humble and naked, to be situated at the altar.  Jesus at the end of his life will again be humbled and naked, not in a hidden manager but high on a cross for the entire world to see.  But these are not just past events.  Jesus continues to be humble and vulnerable as He gives Himself to us daily in the Eucharist.   The Eucharist is the greatest expression of the love of God incarnate!  The tie b/w Christmas and the Eucharist is inseparable…the Eucharist keeps Christmas happening every day!  So how fitting that we have in our own sanctuary the cross hanging over the crèche with the altar in between!  The cross and crèche join together at the altar, in the Eucharist.   
            Guerric of Igny hinted at this connection when he told his brothers “you too will find the Infant today wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger of the altar.”   He continued, “The more completely His majesty humbled and emptied Himself, the more easily and fully did charity divest itself of self-love and the love of God possessed them”.   Just as our Lord was disguised by being wrapped in swaddling clothes, so today we have this same sacred Body wrapped in the humble white host on our altar. 
            Yet again, we must have Light to see Light.  We must be near Christ to reflect His Light and be illuminated by this mystery.  So let us take Guerric’s instructions to his own monks:  Let us become more completely humble and empty so that charity may more easily divest us of self-love and let the love of God possess us.   This is Christmas.  This is how we give birth to Christ.  This is divine Light absorbed and reflected.  And this is what I think Geertgen’s painting is calling us to:  to be like that angel with open hands unable to contain herself or her joy…to be like the awe-struck ox caught in amazement…to be like the shy, reverent donkey in adoration.   So we must sit often in the silence of the Divine Child born on the altar in the Blessed Sacrament.  For when we receive the Eucharist, and when we become Eucharist for others, we make “Christ born to us” anew!  It is there we learn to receive and reflect His Light and then Christmas becomes a noticeable, visible reality every day. 
            So I will end with one final word from Guerric, “If we do not turn away our faces from considering Him who lies in the manager, we can be fed most happily by seeing and gazing on Him…and considering Him who lies on the altar, we can be fed most happily by tasting and savoring Him.”  So let us cast our sight on the Light…and let us savor our Savior!
When we do this it will truly be Christmas!  For Christ is born to us TODAY!
                        Christmas 2014      

December 7, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent

Mother Rebecca's Chapter Talk for the Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-5;9-11 and Mk 1:1-8  
 In the first reading John the Baptist is being described by the prophet Isaiah 600 years before he is born!  This prophecy shows John’s importance, however, it is not very detailed.  He is only described as “a voice” – “a voice crying out in the desert”.   This reminds me of when I was growing up, my sister nicknamed me ‘the mouth’.  Perhaps she was not prophesying that I would have something important to say in my latter years, but more so that as a child I talked loudly and a lot! (Note that I said ‘as a child”!)  However, we can’t underestimate John’s importance.  In Mark’s gospel the very first verses are describing John again.  He is “a voice crying out in the desert:  prepare the way of the Lord”.  The voice was important because of the word he spoke:  Jesus Christ…the Word made flesh.  He was a voice that didn’t speak just any words (like “the mouth”!), but he spoke The Word of God.
            Last week we saw how Mary was the prefect model for how we are to wait.  Today John the Baptist can be a model of how we are to prepare.   His message is a good place to start:  “make straight…a path for our God.”  Isaiah explains that to make a path straight we need to fill in the valleys and make low the mountains, so that the rugged land can become a plain.  It is then that even the humblest of vehicles can make it along the road to God.   
            Many of our Early Fathers used the analogy of “laying low mountains” as removing pride and “filling in valleys” as removing false humility or an unhealthy self-depreciation.  To be on the mountain top we feel we see greater and farther than others or we think we have greater power when we look down from above.  Ironically this arrogance shows our ignorance.  We are not striving to become number one but to become one – one with all people in the Mystical Body of Christ.   But to be in the valley of self-rejection or a poor self-image will also leave us blind.  We cannot see much from a sinkhole!
            It was a healthy humility that made John open to receive God’s Word and Spirit.  John did not care about appearances - his only desire and passion was to preach to others the need to prepare for the Lord’s coming.   Repent and straighten out your lives.  He was detached from “being a name”.  He could have described himself as son of Zechariah of the priestly order of Abijah and his mother as from the descendants of Aaron.  He laid that mountain low, not letting his ego get in the way. 
            John in humility tells people that he is not worthy to even untie the sandal of the One who is to come.  Yet he filled in that valley of low self-worth because he knew that God loved him tremendously and tenderly.  God was with him.   People were flocking out to the desert to hear John and be baptized.  Yet he remained transparent…always pointing to Christ and away from himself.  When John saw Jesus he told his own disciples “there is the Lamb of God”…and John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus.  John laid low the mountain of popularity, or needing to be needed, and was detached from outcomes.  When John said “I must decrease and Christ increase” he was filling in another valley.  It was not self-rejection; rather he was emptying himself of himself (!) so that he could be totally filled with God.  We see that this growth in humility was a process – and the process itself keeps us humble!  Little by little we decrease, but that is of no great virtue unless we increase in Christ…opening ourselves to the Spirit that guides us on the highway to God…here we learn that we are not the center of even our own lives. 
            These valleys and mountains have been described many ways:  pride verses false humility; an ambitious ego verses a lazy follower; the ups and downs of the spiritual life verses staying steady and even keel. What is important is that we come to understand what the valleys and mountains are in our own life.  This is John’s message to us:  Prepare.  Make the road to God level. 
            St Bernard captures this concept in a series of sermons from the Song of Songs (35-38).  He says we must have knowledge of self and knowledge of God, or more precisely, knowledge of our own goodness yet knowing it comes from someone greater than our self, from God.  He says, “Humility springs up within you from knowledge of self and love{springs up within you} from the knowledge of God, so on the contrary, pride comes from a lack of self-knowledge and despair from a lack of knowledge of God.” (Sermon 37:6)   St Bernard continues, “You cannot love what you do not know, nor possess what you do not love”.  (Sermon 37:1)   What are we doing in our own life to gain this knowledge of self?   Are we truly growing in humility?  And, what are we doing in our own life to gain this knowledge of God?…that knowledge that brings us to Love tremendously and tenderly!   For without the knowledge of self we are ignorant…and our talents will not be used.   And without the knowledge of God we are arrogant…and are talents will be abused.
            What John is teaching us today is that when waiting we need to be facing the right direction or what we are waiting for can slip right behind our backs…unaware of The Presence…even when so close!  Mary teaches us how to wait; John how to look in the right direction.
            So today on Retreat Sunday we can take some time to ask:  Do my actions bring me closer to God?  Do I bring people around me closer to God?    We believe that through our monastic life we can bring others to God who we will never even see…by prayer and fidelity to our way of life.  We bring God closer to us by identifying the obstacles in our path to God…to have the humility to lower the mountains of arrogance, as well as the knowledge that leads to love, to fill in the valleys of ignorance.  This is the message we receive from John:  Prepare a highway for God.