Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The call to conversion




Today's Matins readings (in the traditional forms of the Office) are from Isaiah 2: 1-9.  The verses set for the day open with an invitation for us to allow Christ to teach us his ways.  They end though, with another strong warning: if we prefer earthly riches and the works that we ourselves create to those of God, then we will ultimately be condemned for it:
The word that Isaias the son of Amos saw, concerning Juda and Jerusalem. And in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be prepared on the top of mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it.  And many people shall go, and say: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall come forth from Sion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge the Gentiles, and rebuke many people: and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they be exercised any more to war.  O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.  For thou hast cast off thy people, the house of Jacob: because they are filled as in times past, and have had soothsayers as the Philistines, and have adhered to strange children.
Their land is filled with silver and gold: and there is no end of their treasures.  And their land is filled with horses: and their chariots are innumerable. Their land also is full of idols: they have adored the work of their own hands, which their own fingers have made.  And man hath bowed himself down, and man hath been debased: therefore forgive them not.
The promises of the Incarnation

The Fathers interpret these verses as the announcement of the Incarnation: Christ and his Church and the mountain of strength; and through him a new age of peace will be ushered in.

How do we ascend to Christ?  St Benedict points us to the image of Jacob's ladder, particularly apposite here given the repeated references to Jacob's house, where by we ascend by humility, and descend by self-exaltation.

St Bede links the degrees of humility with the key messages of the fifteen Gradual Psalms (which correspond to the fifteen steps to the top of the inner court of the Temple, and ten of which are said Tuesday to Saturday in the Benedictine Office), noting that:
For the steps that come down from the city of David to the lower parts of the city of Jerusalem are the aids of divine inspiration or protection by which we should ascend to his kingdom. For David made the steps by which we should ascend to his city when divine mercy taught us the order of the virtues by which we may seek heavenly things and when it granted us the gift of seeking these same virtues….Benedict, a father very reverend both in his name and in his life, realized that these steps especially consist in humility when, interpreting our journey to celestial things to be designated by the ladder shown to the Patriarch Jacob, by which angels ascended and descended, he distinguished in a very careful and pious examination the steps of the ladder itself as the increments and stages of good works that are performed through humility. (On Ezra and Nehemiah, trans DeGregorio, pg 172)
We need then, to return to Chapter 7 of the Benedictine Rule, and the Gradual Psalms (Psalm 119-133) and work on our ascent through humility, for only by converting ourselves can we convert others.

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