The Star of Christmas 24 December, 2010

The BBC should be praised for showing ‘The Nativity’ in the week before Christmas (you may still be able to catch it on BBC iPlayer). A straightforward and beautiful retelling of the Christmas story, it was based on meticulous research, in order to give the greatest possible credibility to the traditional account. The writer opted for the idea that the Star of Bethlehem was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which is plausible enough (see the astronomical information here and my summary of the symbolism at Epiphany 2008). But the real star of Bethlehem is of course the Child. When the adult Jesus says to his followers, ‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter into it’ (Mk 10:15), and when he welcomes children and treats them with respect, he changes the way childhood is perceived. Normally children are told to grow up and become like adults, not the other way around. Childhood is an undeveloped stage, but in some ways it also represents a more perfect stage, when we can see more completely what it is simply to be human. Until Mary Immaculate, no one had lived that human existence perfectly, but in her and in her newborn Child we see what it is to receive one’s being straight from the hand of God and to show forth what it is to be loved and to love.

Picture by Rose-Marie Caldecott.

Open to life 1 December, 2010

Go to the Beauty-in-Education blog if you are interested in education, cosmology, faith and culture, or the Economy Project for ongoing reflections on Christianity and society.

This past year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the approval of the birth control pill by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Time celebrated with a cover story in May, pointing out that the Pill was simply “the most convenient and reliable form of birth control ever invented – but it quickly became much more. Arriving at a moment of social and political upheaval, the Pill became a handy proxy for wider trends: the rejection of tradition, the challenge to institutions, the redefinition of women’s roles.” As the controversy over Pope Benedict’s recently published interview begins to die down (in which he reaffirmed the truth and continuing relevance of Humanae Vitae), we might take a moment to reflect on that anniversary, and what has happened since 1960. (You’ll find some relevant articles in our Christianity section, and a discussion in the Forum pages. See my “Liturgy and Trinity” in the Articles section for an explanation of how the contraception debate is connected to Liturgical Reform. Look under “Theology of the Body” on the Links page for further institutions and programmes that teach this important subject.)

The Pill is taken every day by 100 million women around the world. The Time article by Nancy Gibbs spent a lot of time exploring the sociological effects of the Pill worldwide, but also the “backlash” from those concerned that the marriage bond is being weakened by the separation of sex from procreation. (Even Raquel Welch wrote an article on the Pill’s anniversary for CNN arguing that it was largely to blame for undermining marriage, which is the “cornerstone of civilisation, an essential institution that stabilises society, provides a sanctuary for children and saves us from anarchy”.) Testimonies from women who have stopped taking the Pill because of social, physical and psychological side effects are commonplace. Should we be surprised to think that there might be spiritual side-effects too?

With the failure of the old approaches to evangelization, Pope Benedict is very concerned with how the Church might reach out to those outside, and be heard in places where her voice has up to now been dismissed. He has rightly perceived that there are elements of goodness and truth outside the Church, and that the Church will only be listened to if she has something to say about these. But can we address these elements without implying “that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man” (as John Paul II warned in Veritatis Spendor)? Benedict states that “The perspectives of Humanae Vitae remain valid, but it is another thing to find humanly accessible paths.” The teaching is indeed an “ideal”, in the sense of something to strive for, but not in the sense that it is impossible to achieve or live. Man has the help of grace, and his concrete, natural possibilities are not those assumed by our post-Freudian culture.

We are supernatural organisms. If this is the case, we can confidently hold up the Church’s teaching on contraception not only as an ideal but as reflecting the full truth of human sexuality. There are many examples of couples who live that ideal and find happiness and peace in doing so. It is Christ, the concrete universal, who overcomes the false dualism between ideal and reality. It is no longer the case that the real will always fall short of the ideal, or that morality must always be based on compromise between extremes. And yet, if Christ holds up the ideal, and makes it possible for us in union with him to attain it, there is a sense in which the rest of us may yet fall short, and are in constant need of mercy. We are not all perfectly integrated with Christ, even if we have the grace of baptism and the sacraments. Those outside the Church do not even have those advantages, and yet they too may be trying to find their way to a better way of life from within a desperately complex situation, having grown up in a culture of vice.

Pope Benedict’s comments in Light of the World have been taken by some to represent a shift in Church teaching on condom use or even more generally on contraception, which they certainly are not. But they do represent a shift in something. They were not a gaffe, or an unfortunate misstep, undermining the work of the Church to stem the spread of AIDS. They were not the announcement of a new morality. What they show is an increased willingness to enter imaginatively within the world of the sinner (whether Catholic or not) and encourage him towards the light, nurturing the slightest tendency to seek truth, goodness and beauty. As the Pope says in that interview, “We are sinners. But we should not take this fact as evidence against the truth, when that high moral standard is not met. We should seek to do all the good possible, and sustain and support one another.”

Being as Gift 7 November, 2010

I sometimes get asked what Second Spring is all about. The print journal and the web-site, plus our various activities in Oxford, represent quite a variety of interests. The intention is to communicate to others something of the beauty and truth we have found in the Catholic faith and tradition. In that sense we are trying to be part of the “new evangelization”. But the search for truth does not end, so we are not just interested in telling things we know – we want to learn and listen and understand more, through friendship and conversation with others. And I think there is a certain common ground that we share with a great many people, or at least I hope so.

Philosophically, the root of what we are about is the rediscovery and appreciation of being. The recovery of metaphysics, the sacramental imagination, understanding of symbolism, love of the natural world, and the dignity and destiny of the human person, are all interconnected. Being is a gift, and a Christian heart is one that receives and responds to it as such. The basis of human society is the ability to be with and to be for another person, which adds up to the common good of mankind as a whole. But the appreciation of the mystery of the person (and the mystery of gender bound up with that) cannot be separated from the appreciation of nature in all its richness – not simply as a set of resources for human use, but as full of intrinsic value and adding glory to the creation itself. In the things that are – the creatures with which we share our being – the wisdom and beauty of God is made present in the world.

Magnificat 5 October, 2010

“My soul magnifies the Lord!”  This is the Blessed Virgin Mary’s response to the grace of the Incarnation.  From the moment she visited her cousin Elizabeth and shared the Good News with the mother of John the Baptist, Mary was the first and most authentic Christian.  She is still our Mother, showing us how to transform everyday life into the Kingdom of God. Images of the Annunciation show Mary praying with Scripture when she received the message of the angel. MAGNIFICAT is therefore highly appropriate as the title of the beautiful monthly missal and prayerbook that is now available in a new UK edition, distributed by the Catholic Herald.

Already extremely popular in the United States and France (where it started), MAGNIFICAT is designed to help you follow Mary’s Spirit-filled example, leading you deeply into the prayer of the Church and the treasures of Scripture. If you subscribe, you’ll have all the texts you need, not only to follow the Mass of each day during the month, but to expand your interior life through prayer and meditation with the help of our best spiritual writers through the ages, and an essay on a beautiful work of Christian art. For each day there is also a simplified office of Prayer for Morning and Evening, based on the Church’s Breviary. It even fits easily in a pocket or handbag!

Leonie and I are delighted and honoured to be involved as editors of the new English edition, and we pray that it may contribute to what Cardinal Newman called a “second spring” of faith in our time: the birth of a civilization of love.  — S.C.

And make a note in your diary to come and see us in person at the TOWARDS ADVENT Catholic culture festival at Westminster Cathedral Hall on Saturday 6 November. There should be some sample copies of MAGNIFICAT to give away!

Relaunching the Second Spring 6 September, 2010

On 19 September, Pope Benedict beatified the Venerable John Henry Newman at Cofton Park, Birmingham. Newman’s ‘Second Spring’ sermon of 1852 was the inspiration for the title of our journal and web site. It prophesied a resurgence of faith in England, a new springtime, albeit ‘an English spring’ full of cold winds and sudden showers mingled with the sunshine.

So it has proved to be. Great writers such as Chesterton and Dawson and Tolkien arose in England, but with the advance of secularism since the Second World War and in the late twentieth century, a ‘new evangelization’ has been called for, by both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict, indeed, has recently founded a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, and has invited the Bishops of the United Kingdom to make use of its services.

In the very chapel at Oscott where Newman preached in 1852, the Pope spoke of ‘the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel afresh in a highly secularized environment’. We at Second Spring Oxford offer our work for this intention also, bringing the Good News to people in our own way, by writing, editing, publishing, lecturing, drama and teaching, in charity and integrity as best we can.

In beatifying John Henry Newman, the Pope was raising to the altar a man whose life speaks to us of holiness achieved through friendship and patient prayer and the service of God. To live is to change, Newman himself tells us, and to be perfect is to have changed often. Walking with God changes us.

Newman offered himself to God and the gift was accepted. He knew that “Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him.” God does nothing in vain, he “knows what he is about”. He has appointed to each of us a mission and a purpose that we may not realise we have fulfilled until we leave this world behind.

Why did Pope Benedict come so far to beatify Newman? Perhaps because this message is precisely what we need to hear at this moment. And because we need a father to remind us of it. We are called to be saints, in our place and time, despite living in a world where the very notion of a “saint” has become strange and, to many, not merely remote but unintelligible. It is up to us to make the notion of blessedness and sanctity once again meaningful in our world.

And it begins with prayer. God wants our friendship in prayer, the Pope said; “and once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life.”

The latest issue of the Second Spring print journal is devoted in large part to the Theology of the Body – understanding the Church’s teaching on gender, marriage, childhood, sexuality and so forth. Another issue is currently in preparation. Details of how to subscribe or buy back issues can be found in the Journal section. A list of Second Spring books can be found in the Books section. Next month we’ll be talking about MAGNIFICAT.

Once in a Blue Moon 2 January, 2010

Continuing the lunar theme from last month, New Year’s eve saw a Blue Moon. Technically, this only means the second full moon in one month, which is fairly rare. But, much rarer yet, THIS full moon according to many observers was actually blue in colour, partly because of the atmospheric conditions under which many people observed it (looking up from the Oxford oratory at midnight it was surrounded by a double halo or aureole), and also because it was also a partial lunar eclipse, in which the moon grazes the earth’s shadow. This was the “rarest of all eclipses”, a lunar eclipse of a Blue moon on New year’s Eve – even rarer, it took place on the eve of a new decade. A fitting end to the International Year of Astronomy!

Portents in the skies, and on the earth

It does sometimes feel as though the end of the world we know is at hand. Recent crises and natural disasters seem to add up to a picture of a civilization teetering on the brink of chaos. Faith also tells us that, just as much as ecological imbalance, moral imbalance is unsustainable. The death of millions of innocents and the abject poverty of millions more cries to heaven for vengeance. The attraction of apocalyptic movies is that they enable us to express and indulge our fears – fears of the end of history, fears of full-force nature, fears of our own technology – from within the safety of a movie theatre. The recent disaster movie, 2012, is based on an ancient Mayan prophecy that many believe may be soon to come true. And when I say “many” I mean many, as a glance at the airport bookstall or the bestseller lists will reveal. Hundreds of books and millions of web pages can’t be wrong – or can they? For the full article, go here.