Archive for December 26th, 2011

Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Christmas at the Abbey

What do monks do at Christmas?  This likely won’t come as a surprise, but we spend a lot more time in church than we normally do.  First of all, in the space of about twenty-eight hours there are three Masses:  Christmas Eve morning; the Christmas Vigil Mass; and the Mass of Christmas Day.  There are three major times for the Liturgy of the Hours, including Vespers on the 24th, and morning prayer and Vespers on the 25th.   All that’s a good start.

Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Then there are all the hours spent in choral practice and decoration.  This year the Abbey schola and the Saint John’s Boys Choir sang several pieces that were new to them, and the long rehearsals obviously paid off.  As for decorations, it takes a lot of work to make the Abbey church look green and bright and warm on the shortest and darkest day of the  year.  But the monks involved in this did a great job.  And rounding out the roster, there were those who prepared the worship booklets, those who were ministers at the services, those who ushered, and those who made sure the church looked clean and tidy each time we entered.  All in all it’s a huge investment of time and effort, but the key ingredient — at least from my perspective — is goodwill.  Without a healthy dose of goodwill, not only is this not fun, it can descend into chaos and acrimony.  Yes, even monks can be acrimonious (read: testy) when they are overwhelmed.

Sanctuary, Abbey church

With that in mind, this was the short sermon that I delivered at the Abbey Mass on Christmas Eve morning.  The gospel passage was Luke 1: 67-79, and it relates the prophecy of Zechariah.  This is the familiar canticle which we say every day in the Liturgy of the Hours, and is known as the Benedictus.

“In his prophecy Zechariah speaks of the witness that his son John will make in anticipation of the Messiah.  He will go before the Lord to prepare His way.  He will give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.

“Today, what testimony will you and I make with our lives?  To what values and beliefs will we be witness?  The next few hours will be very busy for most of us, and there’s no better moment than now to summon up the example of John the Baptist.

Christmas creche, the Abbey church

“If today we harden our hearts, then we certainly do witness to a set of core values.  If we make today a display of short tempers, a day of huffs and puffs of self-importance, a day of non-negotiable grandstanding over all sorts of trivial things, then our celebration of Christmas will be a hollow postlude.  If today you and I go before the Lord to prepare his way, if our lives offer even the faintest glimpse into the salvation which Jesus Christ brings, then John the Baptist will have accomplished a great deal in us.”

That sermon was for Christmas Eve day in the monastery.  But it’s something to remember if you are going to be part of the mall wars this week.  It won’t be pretty with all those people returning stuff that they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing or using.  It won’t be serene as people battle savagely for post-Christmas bargains.  My unsolicited advice is this: if you go to the mall this week, remember  your Christian dignity.  And witness to values that you won’t regret owning later in the week.

The last big event on our Christmas calendar takes place in the Abbey refectory.  Following noon prayer, the monks gathered in the refectory for a festive lunch, followed by coffee, cookies and other choice morsels baked by a few of the monks.  The schedule is so arranged that the monks who serve nearby as pastors and chaplains are able to join us.  Also dining with us is the small crew of kitchen staff who have stayed behind to make sure that we and a few students on campus are fed.

After lunch it’s time for a siesta or a walk.  But a few monks do manage to travel to visit with family and friends.  Those of us whose relatives live at a distance stay behind to savor the quiet.  I am in the latter category, and the stillness of Christmas afternoon is the best gift that anyone could have.

One last feature is worth noting.  We may have been dreaming of a white Christmas, but we got a brown one instead.  It continues to be quite mild in Minnesota, and what snow that had remained from an early winter storm has long since melted away.  “Warm”, I realize, is relative.  We in Minnesota revelled in our version of warmth.  It was warm enough for walks in lighter clothing, but not so warm as to melt the ice-sculpted angel that greeted people at the doors of the Great Hall.

Thank you and merry Christmas!

This is the last posting of 2011, and I am grateful for your interest in what I have to write.  A year ago I never imagined a weekly blog, and now it has become a valued part of my routine.  To those who have relayed their continued encouragement, I express my deep gratitude.  And I wish you all a very blessed and joyful Christmas season.

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