The Sunday Gospel
Dark November will soon be past, and in the Church’s calendar, today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new liturgical year. Advent means coming and it has three dimensions: the past coming of Christ at the first Christmas; the future coming of Christ at the end of life; and the everyday coming of Christ in a prayerful relationship.
In preparation for Christmas, the colourful street-lights and decorated houses cheer us up. Yet it is a pity that the commercial side of Christmas has devoured Advent because this is the season which offers the spiritual message which is most needed today, namely, hope in time of darkness. The repeated prayer-word of Advent is ‘come’. As long as there is someone to whom we can say ‘come’, there is hope.
Advent is the most relevant liturgical season in these times when the Church is experiencing a winter of the spirit. Many of us can remember the fruitful days of autumn when churches were packed to capacity, seminaries and novitiates were building extensions, and family prayer was strong. Who could have foreseen this present winter of ageing congregations, very few in seminaries, closing religious houses, and clustering of parishes? Sadly, clerical abuse of minors is still coming to light. One prominent journalist is demanding the immediate suppression of all religious congregations, just as happened at the time of the French Revolution, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. You’d think that religious congregations never provided hospitals and schools, care of the sick, or provision for the poor. The Church is hardly to blame for the sick society where murders are almost a daily occurrence, the bonds of marriage unravel, addiction to drugs and alcohol is rampant, life in the womb is under threat and many are sleeping rough. No doubt, fruitful autumn is but a memory and our society is in the depths of winter. But, as the poet Shelley predicted, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind!” Advent is the season of hope.
It might seem odd that Advent’s liturgy begins, not with preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas, but with his coming for us at the end of life’s journey. The Church’s liturgy sees time as a circle in which the line ends exactly where it started. As the poet, TS Eliot wrote,
“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Life is a journey from God the Creator back to God our final destiny. When this circle of life is forgotten, life tends to become a directionless succession of unconnected moments. The digital watch represents the mind of many today as it displays no past or future but only the dancing digit of the present moment. Without roots in the past or vision of a future, one lives only for the present moment. And if this collapses, as in a broken relationship, or a failure or defeat, everything falls apart.
Optimism may be based on a false foundation such as a hunch or a superstition like believing that we always win in a year with a certain number”
Three times, today’s Gospel (Matthew 24:37-44) mentions the coming of the Son of Man. We are told to be on our guard and stay awake, because we never know when the time will come when our circle of life will reach completion. There are three great virtues that keep our eyes open to God: faith, hope and charity. These are known as the theological virtues because they are three ways by which we are rooted in God. Faith lets us know about God; hope draws courage from God; and love opens our hearts to God. Picture them as three sisters on a journey. We hear a lot about faith and charity, but rarely about hope. She is the little one in the middle, led along by the two bigger sisters. The journey is longer than expected. As darkness falls, faith is finding it hard to see and she begins to falter. The atmosphere gets colder and love finds it hard to keep going when relationships are cold. But hope emerges as the sturdy little one who keeps faith going through the darkness and enables love to overcome coldness. Hope is the virtue for Advent.
Optimism is not the same as hope. Optimism may be based on a false foundation such as a hunch or a superstition like believing that we always win in a year with a certain number. Hope is rooted in nothing less than God’s continual coming even in the worst of times. In the Nazi concentration camps, Jewish rabbis kept hope alive with the slogan that the voice of the prophets is louder than that of the ranting demagogue, Hitler. One prisoner scratched these lines on the cell wall: “I believe in the sun even when I see it not; I believe in love even when I feel it not; and I believe in God even when he is silent.”
The American poet, Emily Dickinson wrote an inspirational poem about hope.
“Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops at all”.
Just like the bird, hope can keep the music going even when we feel powerless or wordless, because hope anchors us in God to whom everything is possible”
Have you ever been at a party when somebody with a good voice makes the excuse that I haven’t the words. A bird sings without any words. When we have words, we have a certain control or power. Just like the bird, hope can keep the music going even when we feel powerless or wordless, because hope anchors us in God to whom everything is possible.
As long as there is someone to whom we can say ‘come’, there is hope. The prayers of Advent invite God to come into our winter experience.
We humbly ask for the light of faith to penetrate all forms of darkness in this season of spiritual winter. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Strengthen us with the virtue of hope to help us keep going when all is cold and dark. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Warm the fervour of our love, enabling us to cope with all feelings of hurt or rejection. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Fr Silvester O’Flynn’s book, Gospel Reflections and Prayers is available to purchase at Columba Books.