Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advent Wreaths and Looking forward to St Mark

Now that Advent is nearly over and all the candles on the Advent Wreath are lit I was trying to remember the first time I saw one in a Catholic Church in South Africa.  I'm sure it doesn't go back 20 years.     It's interesting that Wikipedia says that  it's originally German and Lutheran.  Wreaths of evergreens with candles going back before Christianity but I don't see the Advent Candles being particularly Catholic.  In fact the first one I ever saw had red candles with a white one in the middle for Christmas Day.  I imagine that we adopted three purple and one pink very recently.  

I think it's a rather nice custom but doesn't seem to sit very happily at the beginning of Mass.  A child usually lights the unlit candle for the week with the others already lit.  There is a little prayer and then we carry on with Mass as if nothing had happened.  It works much better in the home where it presumably originated.  We have always burnt one special candle for Advent and never converted to four!

This year, where gospel readings are concerned, is very much a Year of St Mark.  I'm looking forward to that as it is almost certainly the earliest Gospel and I love it's immediacy and it's teasing Messianic secret.  

I like to think that Mark is the John Mark of Acts and possibly the young man running away naked in Gethsemane because as a composite it fits with my picture of dare devil youth, of someone who couldn't get on with  Paul (I think Paul must have been insufferable as a companion.) though  Barnabas obviously saw his potential and he became the legendary founder of the Church in Alexandria, in Africa. 
HG Bishop Antonios Markos

St Mark is much venerated by the Coptic Orthodox Church and Bishop Antonios Marcos, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop for Africa, named the Cathedral in Johannesburg in his honour. The Copts are very much in need of our prayers and support at the moment with all the turmoil in Egypt and their fears of continuing persecution.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Spiritual" and an Ecumenical Service on Gaudete Sunday.

Recently I have come across a number of people who answer the Religion box with the word "Spiritual".  I don't know what this is supposed to mean as many of the people I ask can't really tell me.  I think it means "I don't belong to any organised religion.  I am not an atheist or agnostic.  I love angels and things like that...I just feel one with nature....I'm in touch with my inner being...I'm spiritual."  This is my limited distillation of what I have heard.  Being Spiritual means anything you want it to mean a la Lewis Carroll's caterpillar.

I think this picture sums it up.  As Catholics we have tried very hard to get away from pie in the sky when you die.  The picture is entitled "The Spiritual Path"!

I attended the Ecumenical Service I mentioned in the last post.  I did say I couldn't see the point of it.  St George's Singers provided some good music...a lot of it in Latin!   Everybody did their bit and I did change my attitude.

One thing in particular did worry me and it came out of Park Town North Methodist Church and that was what made me think of "Spiritual".  They had a little litany addressed to angels that came across as bordering on superstition. The sort of sentimental nonsense that we as Catholics are often accused of.  For example

V: You speak to your people through angels
R:  Keep our ears & hearts open to the whisper of angel voices.

V:  Angels come among us and many have entertained them unawares.
R:  Keep us watchful and waiting for the spirit beings in our midst.  Teach us to recognise them in all their disguises.

V:  Angels come among us, their presence comforting and disquieting.
R:  Make us sensitive to their presence feeling their spirit hands guiding us to the future, guiding us to heaven where we will see and hear clearly what we have glimpsed in shadow.

It seems to me to play into the hands of those who are 'spiritual' and encourages a spirituality without responsibility.  It goes with pictures like this one!

St Raphael the Archangel
We have a developed angelology in Christianity inherited from Judaism with its later influence of Persian Zoroastrianism.  An angel is a messenger in the Jewish and Christian traditions and doesn't have wings other than cherubim and seraphim in Isaiah.  A whole hierarchy has been developed with Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers etc and a demonology to match that probably owes a lot to the dualism of Zoroastrianism.

We don't seem to have a particularly sentimental attitude to angels in the Church though sometimes devotion to Guardian Angels borders on it.

In fact Archangels are portrayed as being particularly strong.  Neither Michael, Gabriel, Raphael or Uriel lend themselves to sentimentality!

The Anglican contribution, St Francis, Parkview & St George's Parktown, was much more nuanced and centred on environmental issues.  At one point I wondered if it wasn't struggling to be so meaningful that it ended up a little meaningless.  The Dutch Reformed contribution was only in Afrikaans, NGK Parkkruin, but it was straight forward.

The Coptic Orthodox from St Mark's Cathedral, Parkview, sang what was effectively a Litany of the Saints for Advent.  The protestant churches seem to mix up Advent with Christmas so we sang O Come all ye Faithful and a few other carols but it was interesting to see how liturgical they have become.

I nearly forgot the singers from St Peter's by the Lake Lutheran Church!

Overall it was too long with maybe too  much music and the  litanies should have been cut down also 5,00pm is not a good time to expect a good attendance!  On the positive side there was a great effort made to produce something worthwhile, and the Axis churches getting together is a good thing...contrary to my comments on the previous post.  For example I discovered friends from other churches who I didn't even know went to church!  I am sure the next time will be a great advance on this first service.  We were late comers to the occasion and will doubtless have more input next time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Food for the Homeless, Struggling through Advent & a Desultory Ecumenism

St Vincent de Paul
Last Saturday saw the annual Christmas Lunch for the Homeless at Holy Trinity.  It has been going on for many years and is a parish initiative.  We fed about 300 in two sittings and at least another 300 had a meal to take away.  The parish also feed about 100 or so at lunchtime 5 days a week and the St Vincent de Paul Society feed another 250 on Monday evenings and the Medical students from Wits have set up a medical centre in a custom-built  pharmacy and consulting rooms recently built by the church in the crypt.   The most encouraging thing about the SVP is that most people are under 30 and black so I rather stand out like a sore thumb if I turn up there!  This gives the lie to the urban white myth that black people are not interested in volunteering and expect to be paid!

The Christmas Lunch is hosted by a complete cross section of the parish which not only underlines that but shows that we whites are in the minority......  Holy Trinity reflects the Catholic Church in Africa, young, vibrant and committed.

I've been working my way through Fr Russell & Annemarie's Advent book. Remarkably I have only missed one day (is this a record?)! (Scroll down for more information)

 The only problem with it is the readings.  Isaiah, so far, a bit of Psalm and a bit of Gospel.  Sometimes they are too bitty....verses 1 to 4 and 9 to 12...that sort of thing.  It would have been much better to have included the readings in the book despite the size being doubled along with the price.

Ecumenical Advent Service
This is how it is billed:

Ecumenical Advent Celebration 

A combined song-service, for the Advent of Christmas, by all churches (Catholic, Anglican, 
Orthodox and Protestant) on the Jan Smuts Ave Axis, will be held at the Maranatha Church, 3 
Sherborne Rd, Parktown (right next to St George's Anglican Church) on Gaudete Sunday (11th
of December) at 17h00.
 All welcome: do come and share this most joyous celebration day on the Christmas calendar.

I get the impression that our priests have been pressured into this one and with a 6,00pm Mass someone will have to stay behind.  Maranatha is a Dutch speaking Dutch Reformed Church ( as opposed to Afrikaans).  I do wonder about the value of these things, and I am a former Chairman of the Jan Smuts Axis.  Our parish priest made an appeal for people to go as Catholics are never well represented and our congregation is bigger than all the other churches put together.This joint service was formerly on Ascension Day which gave us a good let out as it is a Day of Obligation so no-one could go!  Priests were told to wear copes!  How odd!  The Anglicans will certainly have better copes than us and they like wearing them more than we do.

I'm not sure what the service is for....the most joyous celebration day on the Christmas calendar?  I think not.  Is it to show that all we jolly Christians can get together and share our commonality?  It's a mystery to me.