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Advent / Christmas, 2023

Dear Friends                                                              

 

The drive to the monastery was appropriate for the season.  It was grey, dreary, and worn, the fields barren and the drooping kind of clouds we used to call “fish scales.”  All seemed to be in Emmanuel mode, in readiness for the coming of Christmas hope.  The feature story to be told was that by Thanksgiving our fruitcake sales were down, sufficiently so that it seemed as though for the first time we might not sell out.  But “miraculously” during the next 10 days our sales were such that by December 10 we had no fruitcakes left!  But although all our supply sources made significant increases in their costs, we kept our price the same, resulting in less profit than usual.  The only change we noticed was that a number of our patrons who formerly placed multiple orders were more cautious in number this year.  Also in the “good news” category is that two of three Vietnamese monks passed their U.S. interviews in Saigon, and will be coming to Ava in early February, just in time to help begin our baking year.  Br. Gabriel has been on loan for two months to help with the shipping, and will return to school in California soon.  It was for him that the Orchid House was built to match his talents, but while here, in seeing that no one had been able to match his skills, he tore down his gardening “palace.” Life goes on -- but at least this gives some of the monks a better view of the garden, strewn with cardboard to fight the weeds. :-)  Our new heating system for the Church does a fine imitation of a motorcycle, so it has been exiled from our Offices.  Fr. Peter T. and Br. Joseph flew to Monterey, CA. to represent Assumption Abbey at our new monastery there in marking the third year since the co-founder Fr. Peter died.  They participated as well in the first Mass celebrated by a recently ordained monk. Fr. Alberic #2 remains for the time being in our monastery in Vietnam.  Our Prayer Bulletin Board is nearly full, with the majority of requests having to do with cancer.  Our cemetery has taken on a new brightness.  When a year’s promise by a group of friends to redo all our crosses did not materialize, Fr. Bruno took on the task himself.  The reader for our community meal at noon is now a tape of scripture readings read by a person with the enthusiastic voice of a sports announcer.  Our Guest Wing is slowly reopening, with one, two, or three retreatants on any particular day. My assignments were two homilies and masses; deacon; reader for Vigils, Sext, and Vespers; and Refectory Server. 

           

It was interesting to see our Vietnamese Christmas unfold.  In past years, several of us would be on the outlook during the year for three of the most “perfect” cedar trees for harvesting three days before Christmas -- an 18 foot one for the Refectory, perhaps 16 foot for the church, and a 10 foot one for the Retreat Wing.  After the Wreath for Advent, this season’s adorning began on Wednesday (Dec. 19) in the Refectory. The table, on which Christmas cards had been placed as they were received, had added to it some small new figures for a manger scene.  Beside it was a 5 foot artificial tree with flashing lights.  “Simplify” was the Superior’s name for this version.  Our traditional three foot lighted star appeared high in the Chapel window, glowing out upon the Garth.  Thursday was the Christmas Tree day.  A 12 foot one was cut for the Church and a 6 foot one for the Guest House.  In the afternoon I drove Fr. Cyprian to the Cardiologist in West Plains.  Together we listened, to make sure that we heard well.  What we both heard was what we hoped:  “All is well.”  Thursday also saw the appearance of a large crèche scene in front of the altar, without yet the Christ child, complete with greenery and lights.   Friday was “trim the two trees” day, the base adorned with cut flowers and poinsettias.  The colored lights were in waiting mode until Christmas Eve.  After Midnight Mass, all were invited for refreshments in the Refectory.  A new twist was colored lights all over the water feature in the Garth. 

           

My homily on Thursday began by observing that in reading over the various Christmas letters and annotated cards that I have received, I became deeply aware of ONE WORD that has been present in almost every one of them -- that one word is NEVERTHELESS.”  Almost all of their messages begin with a lament -- the war in Israel is very much on their minds, but also there is the tragedy of massive immigrants, record    gun violence, widespread poverty, starvation and homelessness -- even corruption in the halls of Congress and the sacristies of our Churches. And just a week ago the head of the United Nations warned the world that with the failure of the recent Climate Change Conference we may well have passed the “point of no return” in regards to the destruction of our planet.  But what renders these letters and cards Christian is that after their extended laments, came that one word:  NEVERTHELESS.  Nevertheless WHAT?  The first sentence in our Advent Ordo states it clearly:  “Human beings cannot live without hope.”  This is why suicide has reached epic proportions in our time -- because an increasing number of persons are no longer able to utter this one word, “Nevertheless.”  As a result, it is impossible for them to live, for they have nothing to live for, nothing to which to look forward.  But for us Christians, this “nevertheless” is what Christmas provides -- the gift of being able to hope again. Now the genuineness of hope is determined by the breath, and width, and depth of that for which we hope.  Perhaps for some persons it may seem enough to hope for marriage, or to have children, or perhaps to gain a promotion, or even to buy a home -- some version of success as measured by society’s so-called values.  But the Christian knows better, for we know that death ends all such things, that the grave awaits such so-called successes.  Therefore it is vital that we read the Old Testament, because that is the document of larger hopes, of bigger yearnings, of intoxicating visions.  It is where we learn to yearn for when justice and peace shall kiss, for when the lion and the ox shall be able to play together, and for when a little child will lead us into a place where there will be no more tears and death shall be no more.  Then, with such yearnings firmly in place, the New Testament brings us the first installment of this massive hope -- the birth of the Christ child.  The writer Annie Dillard wisely identified atheism as a massive failure of imagination.  Yes -- this Christmas Child who came long ago in a tiny manger in a ramshackled barn in a little known country, this child promises to come again in a way that ignites our imaginations to overflowing, luring us into a hoping that is big, very big.  Four weeks ago we celebrated this hope as the climax of the Church Year-- when Christ as King shall bring the Kingdom of God as the NEVERTHELESS which gives to Advent its promise and to Christmas its hope.  My favorite theologian is Nicolas Berdyaev, and from him I have learned the fuller dimensions of this Christmas vision.  He asks this question:  when Christ comes again, will the creative works of our hands have a part in that Kingdom?  Yes indeed, he insists.  Included in the fabric of Christ’s Kingdom will be the sculpture of Michelangelo, the paintings of De Vinci, and the plays of Shakespeare.  And also, I would insist, will also be the coin dropped by the widow into the Temple coffer, our own memories and dreams and imaginations, the beauty we have created and the majesty we have seen, the shining mountain peaks, the sparkling lakes, the virgin snows, the spring flowers -- all, all, all shall have their part in the Christmas vision that the Christ child promises.  The shepherds heard angels, the Wise Men saw stars, and we have been gifted with a faith that makes all the difference.  Shall we succumb to the tragic condition of our modern world, or shall we take the wager of faith-- of believing in the Christmas NEVERTHELESS that renders to life a hope worth living with joy.

           

Our Christmas Day homily began by suggesting that perhaps by that time we might well be burned out on Masses.  We had one around midnight today, another at dawn, and now a third one on Christmas mid-morning.  Enough may seem like far more than enough -- so why do we have these three apparently repetitive masses?  Well, it is because they represent the three different dimensions of the Christmas Christ event.  The first Mass can be celebrated as the eternal birth of Christ the Son in God the Father.  From all eternity, before the dawn of creation, scripture has God saying to his Son, “I have begotten you.”  Christ is eternal, forever being birthed in the Father’s ongoing creativity.  

As today’s scripture from John states, this Christ is God through whom all things came lovingly into existence.  We may call this a celebration of Christ BEFORE us.  But Christ would remain distant without the affirmation symbolized by the second Mass -- the celebration of Jesus’ birth in human form.  The significance of the Eternal Christ is that in time He has come into our midst to make his home among us.  We may call this a celebration of Christ WITH us.  And yet this Christ event is not complete without the meaning symbolized in the third Mass -- the birthing of Christ in each of our souls as the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We act this out when in the Eucharist we make of our two hands a manger in which to receive the body of Christ that we then consume as Christ becomes part of us.  We may call this a celebration of Christ IN us.  Thus the fullness of Christmas Day comes to us in these three ways:  as Christ BEFORE us, as Christ WITH us, and as Christ IN us.  Now for just a minute or two it is appropriate for us to focus on this third emphasis of our third Mass -- Christ IN us.  I’ve thought much about what the heart of the Christian faith feels like -- way down deep inside.  Is it our minds focused on doctrine, centering on what we BELIEVE?  This is important, but not quite the heart of our faith.  Well then is it action, focused on doing what Christ wants us to DO?  This too is important, but still not quite at the heart.  I think that the reason why the Eucharist is so central for us is because of one word -- PRESENCE, real presence.  And this is how St. Paul defined the “feel” of Christian life for all of us -- by declaring that “it is not I who lives but Christ who lives WITHIN ME.”  To be a Christian means to be emptied so that we can be filled.  And this is why the Christmas event is so key.  Today’s scripture states it clearly -- that we who accept Christ are thereby “empowered to become CHILDREN of God.”  It is often said that Christmas is for children -- yes indeed, but especially for us adults whom Christmas makes into little children.  Even after his resurrection, Christ called his rough and tumble Apostles “Children.”  When all the busyness of Christmas morning is over, when all the Christmas gifts are opened, when the special meal is eaten--then it is that we can begin to feel the heart of Christmas, the feel of childlikeness. Unless we become as little children, Jesus said, the Kingdom will not be for us.  Singing Christmas carols helps us sense this childlikeness, as does a bit of snow, or holding a tiny grandchild in our arms as though it were the Christ child. It is then that we can feel born inside us a tenderness, a quietness, a stillness, a gentleness, a kindness, a caring, a mildness, a softness, a calming peace.  Yes, that’s it -- to be a Christian is to feel the Christ child being born in us.  My friends, I truly believe that this is what it feels like to be a Christian -- and it is what we monks call contemplation.  To let go, to lose ourselves in the depths, to be filled and whole, this is to become a little child, thankful in every moment for every thing and every one, because the Presence of God that is everywhere is becoming especially incarnate within us.  And so I invited each of us, some time this afternoon, to go where we can be solitary.  And there in the quietness; begin repeating the mantra with which our New Testament ends -- “Come Lord Jesus.”  “Come Lord Jesus.”  “Come Lord Jesus.”  And then as we begin to lose ourselves in this Presence, may we truly know the Christmas promise -- of having Christ born BEFORE us, and WITH us, and especially IN us.    

           

After this Mass the drive was to my Hermitage, to see that everything was in order, to prepare for some retreatants, to repack, and to send out this Report to you -- in readiness to drive the next day (the 26th) for Boulder, CO.  There amidst the mountains our extended family of perhaps 18 will spend the next three or four days in repeating the sequence -- Advent preparation, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. What a fitting celebrative climax.  Then home again to my Hermitage, and there to greet the New Year with child-like hope.

 

May this Monastery Report be my CHRISTMAS GREETING to all of you, hoping that your “nevertheless” will be genuine and its “breadth” cosmic.

 

Fr. Paul



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