Reflection for the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 31st December 2021
From the gospel according to St Luke:
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
A very brief mention of this important rite of passage for a Jewish boy – Mary’s son became a child of the covenant, a son of Abraham, one of a long line of baby boys before him and following on since.
For the people of Israel their sense of ancestry and of having a heritage to pass on to their descendants is very strong. This has given a very clear identity to the Jewish people to this day, even though lived out in many different ways. Also indigenous cultures in these modern times, those who have not suffered the dislocation of industrialisation, have a strong sense of their ancestors and their tradition. They cherish what they have received from their ancestors and inculcate this respect for their ancestry in their children.
I wonder if we modern Western people have lost this sense of being within a stream of humanity, of our ancestors before us and the descendants that will follow. I have found myself pondering the title of a chapter in a book I read a while ago – ‘Becoming Ancestors’ (1). The author was inviting his readers to enter in to what it felt like to be the ancestors of people hundreds of years in the future. He posed the question – “what kind of ancestors do we want to be?” It’s an interesting upside-down kind of a question! I don’t think of myself as an ancestor, that is something that applies to those way back in my past. But even if not through biological children we are in some sense ancestors of those who will follow after in years, centuries to come. What is the heritage we wish to pass on to these descendant of ours, those who will look back on us as their ancestors? What do we want them to see when they look back at us and what we have bequeathed to them? What is our prayer for them? What are the gifts we wish to pass on to them?
These questions were posed in the context of the environmental crisis that we face, not specifically to Christians, but I think they are good questions for us as inheritors of the new covenant, mediated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ whose naming we celebrate tomorrow. As those who believe in Jesus’ name, we have received power to become children of God. We believe that this new covenant within which we find our identity is not one of rules and regulations but of relationship, of relationships of love. We know ourselves to be loved by God and in the strength of that love we seek to live in love with those around us.
We have come together as a community called by God to live in this abbey here at Malling, living a life of love and prayer together. We have received a rich heritage from the sisters who have gone before us, a living heritage that has to be constantly rediscovered and lived in a way that is an authentic response to the times in which we find ourselves. The sense of God’s presence is very strong here, built up by centuries of prayer before the Reformation and reinforced now by the sisters who have lived here since it was brought back into religious use in the late 19th century. The depth of our own prayer here is one of the gifts we pass on to future generations. It creates a space within which people can see the world with fresh eyes and can question the values of the culture around us that is wreaking the natural world and condemning so many to dire poverty.
At the turning of the year we look both forward and back, wondering what this current year will bring and in what ways it will build on what has gone before. Times are uncertain and we have no idea what life will look like even 10 years ahead, let alone 200 years. We need to be open to God’s call, to what God is asking us to incarnate here and now as the ancestors of those who will be here hundreds of years hence. We need the long view that takes us out of our narrow, selfish concerns and enables us to let go things that no longer bring the divine life to birth in us. We have inherited a robust framework for our life here but we need to be discerning about where it is a trellis that supports us in growing into abundant life and where it has become a strait-jacket that stifles us. I don’t think that is an easy discernment – as Luigi Gioia writes, wisdom and folly can be very close in monastic life(2). But let us step out into this new year trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead us into fullness of life.
(1) The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief , Francis Weller
(2) The Wisdom of St Benedict – Monastic Spirituality and the Life of the Church, Luigi Gioia
Mother Anne - 31st December 2021